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Why Despair Is Beating Hope

Implicit in the public reaction to atrocities committed by extremists is an acknowledgement that ideals, whatever their moral valence, are powerful motivators of individual and collective action. The problem is that we tend to grant such efficacy to toxic ideals while denying it to "utopian" ideals that could improve the world.

WELLINGTON – Wherever one looks – the media, political leaders’ rhetoric, or online discussions – one finds a bias toward bad ideals. This is not to suggest that we (or most of us) endorse, say, racism, misogyny, or homophobia, but rather that we grant them efficacy. We believe that extremist ideals must be combated, because we implicitly consider them potent enough to attract new adherents, and contagious enough to spread.

At the same time, we tend to take positive ideals less seriously, instinctively disbelieving that it is possible to make meaningful progress toward closing the wealth gap or ushering in a zero-carbon economy. Policies proposed to achieve such ethical ends are regarded as unrealistic non-starters, and the politicians who endorse them are regarded suspiciously or dismissed out of hand. Taken together, our biases lead us to cede the motivating power of idealism to the bad guys, when we could be harnessing it for the common good.

During the 2017 New Zealand general election, many commentators mocked the optimistic vision advanced by Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern as “fairy dust.” Likewise, when Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic US senator from California, was approached by schoolchildren calling on her to endorse Green New Deal legislation, she dismissed their demands as unrealistic. “That resolution will not pass the Senate,” she said, “and you can take that back to whoever sent you here and tell them.”

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