by: Grace Penzell
I’ve wanted to write this for quite some time and haven’t known how to begin, but here it goes. What I want to say is that we need more love. And I’m not saying this in some hippie dippy flower crowns and smoke pot in a meadow kind of way. No, I mean that I’ve been thinking a lot lately and have come to believe that we are all scared shitless of each other and it is dividing us. We are stuck and cannot move forward because we are afraid, and angry, and defensive, and hateful.
I’ve had the opportunity to engage with a lot of feminist theorists and ethics philosophers in my classes this year, and I’m not going to lie that at times I have been very uncomfortable. I’ve been forced to think about what it might mean to be “good”, what responsibilities I have towards others, and what it takes to effect social change in a world that often seems hopelessly fucked up.
I’ll start by saying that I believe that people are allowed and should be angry about injustices. I believe that people are allowed to educate people who are not aware of these injustices and encourage them to take responsibility. I think that it’s reasonable that people fear and resent those who abuse them and marginalize them. People should be allowed to question and challenge their oppressors and let their allies know when and how they can improve their efforts.
That said, I think we need to learn how to transform the anger, fear, and hatred we feel and channel it into something productive. We cannot advance our demands for justice without making the effort to understand and accept those people who we call close-minded. If we refuse to communicate hospitably with those who do harm, we cannot hope to break down the ignorance that leads to their destructive behavior. We shouldn’t let ourselves be entrenched in rage that burns the bridges we should be trying to build.
To a certain degree, our assumptions about others hold us back when we would otherwise be making progress combatting messed up systems and situations. Iris Murdoch was an awesome ethicist who argued that love is knowledge of an individual’s reality, and that this knowledge is achieved by paying close attention to that individual. This effort towards love/knowledge is a continuous moral process. It is not enough to prescribe to the vocabularies produced and reproduced by social systems (e.g. trans vs. cis, queer vs. straight, POC vs. white, rich vs. poor, prolife vs. prochoice) and the generalizations that come with them.
An individual’s reality, Murdoch believed, goes way deeper than surface actions and identities. Inner actions (thoughts, intentions, etc.) are also important, and the more we pay attention and try to see a person clearly, inside and out, our responsibility towards them will become obvious and pressing. As peoples’ intricate realities becomes clearer, black and white turns to grey, extremes dissolve, and loving curiosity emerges as an ideal path. Then, I believe, the potential for mutuality and forgiveness begins to seem less far-fetched.
Emmanuel Levinas argued that before we are theoretical beings, before we are rational, we are formed by our responsibility for the other. By “the other” I mean anyone who is not me—anyone. Levinas believed that when we come face-to-face with another person, before we try to compare ourselves with them, before we look into their eyes to see how they might be different than or similar to ours, we find transcendence in their otherness. Our response is to act towards them with loving care. We find infinity in the other’s face, and it makes the demand upon us to follow our primordial ethical duty: to put the person we are facing before ourselves, to uphold their wellbeing over our own. Whether I find myself face-to-face with a homeless immigrant, an Alpha Phi on her way to chapter, or a member of Westboro Baptist Church, I have the obligation to treat them well. For Levinas, moral philosophy is not the love of wisdom, but “wisdom of love.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s ethics of love, devoid of any religious connotation, tells us that no matter how much we dislike a person or what they do to us, no matter if they are the worst person in the world, we have the moral obligation to love them. We can hate the evil deed a person does while holding love for them because, “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe…the strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate.” King believed that when people hate, their views become skewed, their personalities poisoned, and their legacies embittered. The power of love, on the other hand, is so redemptive and transformative that it changes not only the lover, but the loved as well.
Adding another gentle layer to King’s insistence that we love our enemies is bell hooks’ idea of a visionary feminism that places an emphasis on interdependence and mutuality. In Feminism is for Everybody, she argues that in order to make the changes necessary to get rid of subordination, dehumanization, violence, and injustice, we need to bring everyone into the fold. An effective feminist movement must constantly be revised “so that it addresses us where we live, in our present.”
I believe that our present demands that everyone, regardless of race, class, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or criminal record should be invited as human beings to join the feminist movement. We need as many voices as possible to enact change, and no one should be excluded based on their identity because they may, as Murdoch encourages us to acknowledge, have good intentions. MLK Jr. professed that there cannot be justice without love, and hooks has argued that there cannot be love without justice, rooted in recognition and acceptance of all people.
Misogynists, bigots, homophobes, racists, ableists, heterosexists, abusers—they do and say bad, wrong things. Hell, maybe they think bad, wrong things, too. But they are also human beings, and most human beings have, at the very least, the capacity to change. Most students at the University of Puget Sound, while far from perfect, do not border on the evil of the aforementioned categories, but I have seen something at our school that I can only describe as an almost paralyzing anxiety about not being offensive, not being a bad feminist, not being a bad ally, and knowing how to talk about things correctly. People are very serious about serious issues, but sometimes I feel that our level of criticism of problematic structures and behaviors becomes so heightened that we begin transferring that criticism into our interpersonal relationships.
People who might otherwise be adding and advocating, fearing this vitriolic criticism, end up resorting to nervous silence, and the conversation stops. There are times when it feels like students are having a pissing contest to see who is fighting the best “good fight,” and those who don’t measure up, who may not know better, end up being silenced. Conversation and action surrounding social justice is too important, and we don’t know what brilliant and progressive idea could have come right after an unintentional misgendering that garnered such severe eye-daggers that ashamed silence was all that followed in its stead.
Perhaps a willingness to love, understand, and forgive each other—let each other fuck up a little while still holding each other accountable—can help individuals in the community to find positive change in themselves. Maybe this same willingness will allow us to work together to change larger structures. I realize this is an idealistic prescription, but I refuse to believe that we are incapable of making room for a little more love.
For source information on:
Emmanuel Levinas– https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1603038.Emmanuel_Levinas
Iris Murdoch– http://blog.gaiam.com/quotes/authors/iris-murdoch/62272
Martin Luther King Jr.– http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/