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Can Love Elevate Our Politics?

Known for their intense marathon-length conversations about politics, economic justice, and race, Millennial Fellows Christian Hosam and Aaron Noffke recently sat down at their respective laptops and got to work on their collaborative February Caffeinated Commentary blog post – a digital conversation where they would attempt to respond to the month’s prompt, a quote by Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Though love is often thought of as something that can’t be described or fully understood, there is a long history of it being used by political leaders in one way or another to achieve major policy goals, particularly during the late civil rights movement. For their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Aaron and Christian discuss the ways in which love has been and can be employed for rights, justice, and a deeper, richer form of citizenship. 

Christian: Do you think of “love” as a political term?

Aaron: Well, I think that Love as a political rhetorical device is theory laden.

Christian: Can you explain that a bit more?

Aaron: Sure. The problem with love is that it rejects limitations on loving action, insofar that political formalities or procedures are restrictive to love. However, these same procedures are the ones that limit instability or danger within political relationships; it's no coincidence that the rhetoric of utopian-love often buttresses authoritarian government.

I think it might also be useful to consider the work by David Luban, where he analyzes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as a scholarly argument for the basis of legal authority. According to Luban’s analysis, there are two different ways to pursue justice and establish social trust: one that abolishes the distance between people through love, the other by maintaining distance through respect. Luban thinks that the language of respect provides a better basis for thinking about our relations towards one another in society, and I tend to agree.

The maintenance of boundaries affords us the ability to establish community and build political power without the loss of self, and the language of respect is rooted in the dignity for all. Love says a lot about how we think and feel towards one another, but less about what we all deserve, and I’m more interested in shoring up the latter. The motivations for doing politics out of love are not always clear to me. In this instance, I’m thinking of how the “Love Trumps Hate” slogan has been deployed, where reducing politics to the categories of love and hate almost sterilizes or depoliticizes the issues at hand.

Christian: So, in some instances, love can sanitize deeper goals for political action under the guise of “coming together”?

Aaron: If our work aims to abolish distance between one another through the language of love, it becomes easier to lose sight of the established differences of power within our society. It may also confuse the actual guarantee of rights with the creation of a shared or common affection for one another. But, I’m also interested in arguments that find love to be a necessary condition for political change. In her piece You Mixed? Racial Identity without Racial Biology, Sally Haslanger recounts the transformation in herself as a white mother when she adopted a black child. “Racism is no longer just something I find offensive and morally objectionable,” she states. “I experience it as a personal harm. There is an important sense in which a harm to my kids is a harm to me; by being open to that harm. I am more fully aware of the cost of racial injustice for all of us.” For Haslanger, mere respect is insufficient in fully grappling with the harms of racial justice; love moves her beyond a sort of racial empathy into a more political stance towards racism. And to me, that is a powerful argument.

And I know that you thought a good deal about this, about love being an essential part of a political project for racial justice. Can you talk some more about your thoughts?

Christian: I’ll be honest, I’m skeptical that just being in an intimate space with someone is enough to overcome ingrained, and, oftentimes, implicit racial biases. There are many stories, like this one, where children of color experience additional racialized trauma from their white parents being unequipped and uninterested in allowing their legitimate love for their children to transcend their white privilege and power. That said, I do appreciate Haslanger’s point that in order to achieve more than mere tolerance, you have to get see the racial violence and trauma enacted on people of color as a harm to you. It must be more personal and deeply rooted than something that you’re just an audience to. You have to feel implicated in it.

So in that way, if you’re thinking about love as something that forces you to reckon with yourself, in order to be able to hold space for the beloveds in your life, then yes, love is definitely a prerequisite for racial justice.

Love’s power seems to come from intimacy and from trust. That can be tremendously powerful.

Aaron: But in this case for whites, what does it mean to feel implicated in racial injustice? Is it seeing oneself in the image of another, or is it seeing one’s self-interest as intertwined with another’s own outcome?

Christian: I don’t see those things as mutually exclusive. Living in a country with such a weak social safety net makes us think that there’s no way to truly be charitable or fully aware of anything outside of your own perspective. However, if you flip that logic and begin to think of how every purchase, relationship, and achievement is both a result and cause of a number of external factors, you’re forced to see the world in a much more comprehensive way. To stick with an example related to familial love, the idea that my mother would come to the United States from Trinidad with the express purpose of providing me a better life is both a form of compassion for me, and also a result of a number of external forces that preceded that decision. Love as an organizing logic really only works if you think about the causes and effects of why you’re even in a position to love someone. Anything else is selfish.

Aaron: That seems to build on arguments that suggest to love in a country like the United States is nothing less than a radical, political act. While I’m with you on the importance of recognizing the interconnectedness of human relationships, but I’m not sure love is the correct disposition for that. To be magnanimous or merciful requires us to see ourselves in all people, but to love someone is to bring them closer in ways that perhaps cannot operate on a societal level. Love’s power seems to come from intimacy and from trust. That can be tremendously powerful. But how can that be a basis for establishing relationships with those you’ve never met?

Christian: I don’t buy that. I agree that intimacy and closeness are what we’re told love is, and it’s what Dr. King argues in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but I think love can also be a deep and abiding commitment to other people’s well-being. It is much easier to develop intimacy when you realize that many of the reasons we find developing and growing love (whether romantic or otherwise) so difficult is structural rather than personal.

Our society and attendant social policy frames love as companionship rather than as care and as long as that happens, we will of course see love as a finite good. But it need not be so.

For a new podcast project I’m developing with our colleague Myacah Sampson, we recently recorded an episode with Dr. Marcia Chatelain. She talked about the experiences of formerly justice-involved (formerly incarcerated) women being guided by reentry organizations into social “mixers” with men in similar situations. The purpose of such mixers being to couple folks up in heterosexual relationships that will then lead to marriage and, ultimately, a cure to all social ills. Think about how we use the idea of love and partnership in lieu of providing the necessary and often monetary support that would help these women not recidivate. Further, that these women were being pushed into these situations so soon after they were in jail shows that there wasn’t an accounting of what they needed in order to feel comfortable or safe, especially after being in prison which subjected them to exceedingly high probabilities of being sexually assaulted.

If you’re in a situation like that, how would you build trust and closeness out of it? I don’t know enough to say that it’s impossible but I will say that much of our society and attendant social policy frames love as companionship rather than as care and as long as that happens, we will of course see love as a finite good. But it need not be so.

Aaron: So you’re saying we need some form of intimacy and closeness to bring about racial justice?

Christian: I am. We have to get to a point where white people hold the weight of what people of color experience. The ironic thing is that policy can help here, too. This could mean reducing levels of segregation that makes it more difficult to develop closer bonds across racial lines, creating more equitable funding for public schools so that children have more equal chances of ending up in similar jobs regardless of racial backgrounds, or enshrining labor protections so that people don’t feel as if their labor is contingent. As long as we have such deep inequality in every facet of our lives, we don’t come into new relationships on equal footing. As long as that remains the case, love might win, but it won’t be enough.

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For February, the fellows have decided to respond to this quote from Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”