Love and Friendship: New Models for Social Change

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Today’s writing must begin with a caveat: I’m being unreasonable and I’m asking for too much.

Recently, I’ve been struggling to think about how much we draw upon feeling, upon emotions, in order to make sense of social and political reality. When confronted with experiences that are complex and layered, I often turn to those whose words and thoughts are more careful and nuanced than my own; this usually means turning to social thinkers, historians, philosophers, and cultural critics. While I will often insist that this blog live in the realm of the concrete, from time to time I will ask for the indulgence to run and skip and fall through the playground of ideas, and I must trust that my readership knows that I will continually grapple to actualize these ideas, and to find better words so that I may translate such thoughts for ever-widening audiences.

Cultures of Love

Why am I thinking about love and friendship? To begin, I realize that feelings are not usually thought of as a part of culture, as culturally specific. And yet, how we learn to feel and to relate to feeling is not universal, despite many claims within the field of mainstream cognitive psychology. Two examples: feelings of grief and feelings of affirmation. In my first example, I contrast expectations around grief and mourning within white, middle-class U.S. culture – which has, in fact, made it pathological to express grief for longer than an ‘appropriate’ amount of time – and within Armenian culture.

Having attended a number of Armenian funerals, expressions of grief and mourning are effusive and fill entire orthodox cathedrals, as mourners are culturally given space to wail, throw themselves into one another’s arms to evade collapse, and huddle together in clutched embrace. These funerals have contrasted so starkly with what I have witnessed in white, middle-class funerals, where a sense of controlled grief saturates the air.

In my second example, I look not even at cross-cultural differences, but generational differences within a culture seen as ostensibly the ‘same’: Baby Boomers and Millennials. Baby Boomers often lament what they describe as the lack of emotional resilience displayed by Millennials, citing a cultural ‘softening’ and heightened social responsiveness to feeling that contrasts with their own post-WWII upbringing. While I have many thoughts around this, in this particular moment, I only wish to cite this difference in order to demonstrate that cultural difference is not only ethnic, but generational as well.

Eva Illouz, a Moroccan social thinker, in her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia, tells us that:

Culture operates as a frame within which emotional experience is organized, labeled, classified and interpreted. Cultural frames name and define the emotion, set the limits of its intensity, specify the norms and values attached to it, and provide symbols and cultural scenarios that make it socially communicative.

From this, I gather that when we use terms like “love”, we might be using it in different ways: to refer to romantic attachment, family commitments, aesthetic pleasures, group (self-)identification, and more. Often, in social change work, people refer to love for community, or love for one’s own group or people. While many consider love to be an emotion often associated with positive qualities or outcomes, I’m left thinking about the ways that feelings have been so frequently co-opted for political ends.

Many of us remember the Terror Alerts set up by the George W. Bush administration as a way to activate public support for the increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11. This literally capitalized on fearful emotions, and used this fear to render the American public complicit in atrocities abroad, as well as complicit in bloating an already large military budget. Looking to history, one can see the ways that “Christian love” has been animated in order to prioritize the “saving of souls” over the saving of lives (resulting in such violent campaigns as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the mission projects of California) –  we can see quite clearly that conceptions of feelings can never be divorced from historical or cultural contexts that put them to use for particular ends.

Love: Understanding Its Implications

Recently, I have written about the limits of empathy and compassion, and how resorting to appeals to individual’s emotions and attitudes is limited by the inherent disconnect between feeling, action, and appropriate action to change conditions of violence or harm. Given this, how can we make sense of contemporary uses of love and friendship in social change work, and what can we do to reconfigure our expectations of love through this?

Conceptions of love range from identification and affirmation, to commitment and responsibility, to negotiation and tension. While some of these frameworks of love feel immensely limiting, there are a few I would like to highlight in order to begin to reframe what political love and friendship can look like. Veering away from notions of love that rely on identification and affirmation feels important to me, not because there is anything inherently problematic about identifying-with and affirming the object of one’s love – in this sense, friends and communities – but I am doing so because of the effects I have witnessed.

Too often, relying on a sense of identification and affirmation when speaking about love of a group or community can produce a fixation on self-discovery or self-understanding. Though these can be important endeavors, when they become the crux of a social or political ethos, we are treading on dangerous ground, particularly when we take time to notice how unquestioned narcissism is, in part, a result of limited social and political cultures of resistance, which I have discussed before.

Trends of self-discovery and self-understanding are part of a larger cultural imperative to “know ourselves” as one of the highest personal achievements. Love, within this context, becomes part of a search for utopia and sacred ideals, which Illouz points out in her writing. Again, we turn inward and step away from an immersion in social realities, even as this turn inward often necessitates external affirmation that we can easily mistake for social engagement.

When we focus on love as identification, affirmation, discovery, and understanding, we often turn away from some of the more challenging conceptualizations of love and friendship: tension, debate, respectful disagreement, responsibility, unconditional commitment. When working for social change, these latter aspects are the notions of love that we must nurture so that we can expand our capacities to negotiate differences in opinion and experience.

Reframing Love

At this point, I am already beyond my own capacity to respond to a complex premise. Instead, I will rely on those who have thought about these issues and written about them with more conceptual and verbal deft. Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish Holocaust refugee and social thinker, and James Baldwin, a gay, Black American author, playwright, and social critic, both offer understandings of political love that surpass my own. They were in conversation with one another, both directly and within an intellectual milieu that was asking difficult questions of social change work of the 1950s and 60s in the United States and beyond. Responding to critiques that she did not love her own people because of her critiques of Zionism and the new nation-state of Israel, Arendt said:

…I am not moved by love of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective…I indeed love “only” my friends…Secondly, this “love of the Jews” would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person…What good could come out of [this people that believes only in itself]? – Well, in this sense I do not “love” the Jews, nor do I “believe” in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.

What Arendt might be saying here is that for her, love is reserved for that which is outside of the self, a love for what is other to oneself – an important part of a Jewish ethic of hospitality toward a sacred Other, toward incommensurate difference, toward the unknowable and ambiguous. This does not mean that one is self-loathing – an accusation often leveraged against self-critical Jews – but simply that concepts of love are inextricably connected to concepts of difference and diversity. What might we learn from this concept of love, and how might it impact our political organizing work? What does it mean to have been a person exposed to imminent death in Nazi Germany and to still refuse to place herself and ‘her people’ at the center of her love?

This concept of love urges us to consider the benefits of tension, respectful disagreement, responsibility, and commitment. In response to this, I additionally offer James Baldwin’s comments on love in his “Autobiographical Notes” in the volume titled Collected Essays:

I do not like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Again, we see a social critic who decries a love focused on affirmation and homogenizing identification; Baldwin, as a gay, Black American writing, in part, against the racism of his time, does not want to be loved – by anyone – simply because he is Black. He wants to be held in high regard because of how he thinks, resists, and writes in contestation to the injustices of his time, which traversed lines of nation, class, race, gender, language and sexuality. Baldwin reserves the right to be critical of that which is closest to him, maintaining the freedom to have a selective relation to legacy in order to highlight liberatory potentials within America, rather than maintain a wholly affirmative, nationalistic stance.

Approaching love from this perspective, we can see how it opens space for diversity-within-diversity and refuses the homogeneity in representation that often overtakes marginalized groups. Complex relations to group identification are affirmed through these approaches to loving, and allow us to see how when love for oneself and one’s group borders on romanticizing, or sees group intentions and actions as only good, we develop a disingenuous relationship to the present and to history (and to our own complexity). I will not be forced into revising history, neither my individual legacies nor my cultural legacies. Loving America and loving our own micro-nations of community need not necessitate revisionist history to write in moral purity where it never existed.

Who do we want to be, and how do we want to love? Wendy Brown, a political scientist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview, “We have to learn to love again. We also have to recognize that the ‘we’, the ‘I’, who will be doing that loving…will be a different ‘we’ than the one we are.”

What will we be? A ‘we’ invested in collective governance, hospitality toward difference (within and without), or isolated groups filled with self-love that is individual and rooted in fictive ideas of sameness? A ‘we’ that loves contingently, or committedly, and responsibly? Reconceptualizing political love and friendship must be an item on our organizing agendas as we seek to explore new possibilities and approaches to the much needed work of social justice.

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