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Love is not just a feeling given or received, it is an action too. It could be a radical force in politics
Politics is inescapably emotional. Political ideas – such as freedom or equality – are often talked about as if they’re dry concepts, sandpapered down in a seminar room or a theoretical conversation. But political ideas involve feeling. The singer Nina Simone once said that freedom is ‘just a feeling’: a feeling of ‘no fear’. Justice is a state of affairs as well as a state of relief, elation, jubilation. And political advocacy, at its best, involves the passionate expression of strongly felt sentiments and experiences. But not all emotions should necessarily be welcome in politics. Hate and fear, for example, drive exclusionary behaviour. They often result in rash and unfair decision-making.
Perhaps love should be a part of politics. Might it not have a better role to play than hate and fear? In the 2016 presidential election in the United States, opponents of Donald Trump repeated ‘love trumps hate’ at protests and on placards. But Trump also used the language of love before and after his election: he said, for example, that the crowd at his inauguration was a ‘sea of love’. For some, this shows that love is an empty value in politics: an emotion so malleable as to be meaningless. I think they’re wrong, and believe that love has the potential to be a transformative force in politics.
In All About Love: New Visions (2000), the American feminist bell hooks says that men writing about love rarely draw on its practice, and even then tend to focus on the receipt of love, instead of the giving of love or the absence of love.
Bearing these points in mind as a male writer, I want to begin not with some abstract pronouncements about love, but with some reflections on my own personal feelings of love.
When I think of love, I call to mind the kind, caring glow of my mother. I remember the tone in her voice that seemed constant in my years growing up: a register of concern, somewhere between sympathy and pain. I think of her steady presence, in person and other ways, exemplified in a Skype call where she listened, unwavering, as my voice quivered with fear and stumbling self-doubt. ‘Love’ takes me to the feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a romantic partner whose commitment to me feels secure, unequivocal, total. It carries me to the moment when my twin brother held my hand, hour after hour, the day after serious surgery.
When I imagine moments where I’ve given love to others, I think of authentic expressions of closeness – to my parents, for example – that have dragged up a well of good feeling in me. I think of an attempt to be present for a close friend in times of struggle and need, through listening, acceptance, affirmation. I bring to mind spontaneous, unflinching outpourings of affection through words and touch. ‘Lovelessness’ makes me think of moments of absence. I have felt unloved when people from whom I have expected love have been distant, detached or disconnected. I’ve known what it is not to be loved when my romantic feelings of deep curiosity and admiration have been unrequited. I’ve felt a deprivation of love when I’ve faced abrupt, unexplained hostility from those with whom I should have had a loving relationship.
Out of these experiences of the practice of love, it is possible to outline what love might be. I don’t want to define the abstract noun ‘love’ here. Instead, what I am interested in, like hooks, is the verb: what it means to love. It is clear to me, from my experiences, that love involves a deep concern, that love is related to a steady state of support, that love is a force transmitted outwards from one person to another, that love is bounded by relationships in which there are expectations of presence and security.
Love, in sum, is a deep sense of warmth directed towards another. This approach, which I developed with the New Zealand writer Philip McKibbin, highlights love’s depth and directedness. It’s consistent with self-love, which involves a deep sense of warmth being directed towards our own selves. The word ‘warmth’ gets at the outpouring of goodwill that is associated with love. And warmth can take more specific forms, such as affection, attention, care, and concern. To love is a feeling, an emotion, but as Simone said of freedom, that’s ‘not all of it’. Love is between and beyond feeling and emotion. One way of expressing this is to say that love is a feature of the spirit: in other words, that loving is spiritual…