WEBLOG | What is love, & how can it benefit politics?

In our latest weblog Sarah and Philip McKibbin join forces to dig deeper into Philip’s Politics of Love framework, and ask: is it really important that politics and love coexist, and what would a political settlement actively underpinned by love actually look like?

Sarah: You recently wrote a piece for us about the Politics of Love philosophy you’ve developed with Max Harris. I’m interested in this as I grew up in the Christian church, and learning to understand what love is, and how to practice it has always been very important to me – if elusive at times! It seems almost too straightforward though, to say ‘if people were more loving, politics would work better’, partly because how people understand and express love varies widely. For example, I understand the willingness and ability to engage in healthy conflict to be a crucial element of love, but others see any kind of conflict as symptomatic of love’s absence.

Read Sarah Illingworth: Preserving the dignity of anger

Which isn’t to say I think humans should live in a state of conflict, or seek conflict for conflict’s sake, but that in a strong relationship – whether platonic, professional or romantic – you should feel safe to be honest and confront problems, and if the relationship can withstand that and last, it deepens. To me that’s more loving than ignoring problems and allowing them to get worse. It’s also more likely to lead to positive change and growth. How do you understand love, and what aspects of love do you think politics would benefit from engaging?

Philip: It’s interesting that you say you came to an understanding of love through your involvement in the church. Although I’m not a Christian, my understanding of love is informed by the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular. I agree that how we define love is very important, and I’ve experimented with a few different ‘definitions’. When Max and I first sketched the Politics of Love, we conceived of love as a ‘a sentiment of enduring warmth’.

While Max has continued to write about love as a ‘deep warmth directed towards another‘, I’ve come to think of love in different terms. I’ve explored formulations like ‘love is the will to love’, and ‘love is for love, and, being love, is for people’; although these are somewhat circular, I think they capture something of what love is.

Read Philip McKibbin: Realising the Politics of Love

I’ve settled – temporarily, I suspect! – on thinking of love as a combination of care, concern, and commitment. I’m also enchanted by the idea that ‘love’ is irreducible, that we cannot get away from the word itself. I agree with your suggestion that honesty is very important. One of my favourite thinkers, bell hooks, emphasises the importance of honest communication in her writing about love.

“Love should underpin our decision-making, informing our entire politics.”

I think love can be fierce – but it’s also inclusive. If ‘conflict’ is to be constructive, it needs to be underpinned by love. This is, I think, the role that love should play in politics: it should underpin our decision-making, informing our entire politics. The challenge is to develop an understanding of love that can do this successfully.

Sarah: Agreed! It’s love’s complexity that gives it its deep power. I like your description of love as a combination of care, concern, and commitment, in part because it hints at my belief that we need to get away from the idea that love is a passive thing. The right kind of friction can lead to resolution, and change – although there’s always a risk there will be hard losses along the way.

You’re right, the friction needs to be constructive or you end up back with politics-as-circus. Approaching politics from this perspective could go a long way to resolving seemingly irreconcilable issues. Diplomatic organisations like the UN have a reputation for tiptoeing around tricky issues rather than actively addressing and resolving them.

“The right kind of friction can lead to resolution, and change – it needs to be constructive or you end up back with politics-as-circus.”

To me, that’s un-loving. If love confronts, it does so with the intention of resolution and growth – progressive change – although, as noted, this isn’t always a comfortable process. Love doesn’t ignore a wound and leave it to fester, it seeks to remove the source of infection and treats the wound so it can properly heal.

And sure, maybe you’re left with a scar, but scars are what history’s made of. Of course, in terms of world politics the fallout, and scars, from addressing some ‘wounds’ can be immense. Can you describe how a Politics of Love would work in application? How do you enact a loving politics without either being too passive, or so confrontational that you start WW3?

Philip: Absolutely – I think love can definitely help us to heal wounds. And it’s that understanding, that love is underpinning the process, that gives loving politics its power to resolve disputes. How does the Politics of Love work in application? The Politics of Love asks us to care. We also have to want to find solutions to our problems, though. (A lot of disputes remain unresolved because people care about particular issues, but aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to move forward). I’m wary of giving blanket statements about how the Politics of Love works in practice for two reasons.

The first is that I don’t have all of the answers: the Politics of Love is open and inclusive, and it urges all of us to engage in it collectively. The second is that every problem is unique, and, as such, has its own solution. The Politics of Love does give us guidance, though. It’s a values-based politics: it encourages us to use values such as compassion, understanding, and trust in our decision-making.

“The Politics of Love urges us to stand up for values such as fairness and responsibility, and to do what we can, where we can, to promote constructive dialogue and positive action.”

I’ve written elsewhere about how love might help us to address terrorism – it’s all about healing those wounds. More recently, I’ve been thinking about leadership. With the departure of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the lack of leadership globally on issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and women’s rights has become painfully clear.

The Politics of Love urges us to stand up for values such as fairness and responsibility, and to do what we can, where we can, to promote constructive dialogue and positive action. The key to avoiding WW3 (so to speak) is dialogue. We need to eschew the pettiness – the bickering, the name-calling – that has come to characterise politics. Instead, we should be honest, understanding, and respectful. (It all comes back to values!) We must constantly ask ourselves, What is the point of politics? I believe it is to create a better world for all of us.

Sarah: And that should happen in very practical ways. I’ve written previously about my frustration with the petty name-calling and rhetoric of politics, and might just go ahead and quote myself here:

“The way I see it, the public sector exists to manage the resources of a place in such a way that all who live in that place have an equal chance at having a good life, and are fairly treated while they go about it. Government is about the management of people and practicalities so we can all do our thing, and enjoy our time on the planet we’ve found ourselves on. It shouldn’t be about overinflated personality and rhetoric, and parliamentary spats that make bratty children look polite.

The good news is, there are many people who do work in the public sector in a helpful way. Who are politically and socially engaged not for change-the-world brownie points or rule-the-world motives, but because they know it’s something some of us have to do. These people may be visible, and they may be invisible to you. They might work in high profile roles, or quietly behind the scenes at schools, community centres, NGOs, or in local government. They might be practitioners, academics, teachers, nurses, journalists – and they are probably underappreciated and underfunded.”

Basically, I believe the role of government is to manage the public sector in a way that is as fair and efficient as is practicable. For example, through ensuring that roles such as those listed above – charged with such a huge responsibility for social wellbeing – are well-resourced and supported, and that all members of the public are able to access the routes via which they can meet their basic needs.

When ex-Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei acknowledged she’d lied to increase the benefit she received earlier in her life, as a single mother, I thought – here’s a woman who has experienced firsthand the limits and consequences of a system designed to protect the interests of a different kind of person to her. She chose to be honest, and to wear the fallout, in the hope it might highlight the pressures that people in similar circumstances are dealing with.

To me that act is far more loving, far more authentic than many of the other political antics we see play out.

Metiria risked her career and her status in the hope it might dismantle some of the systemic barriers that people with low incomes face in New Zealand, and lost her job because of that. If acting out of love in the political arena puts people in a position of vulnerability, how do we protect them?

Philip: Turei is someone who has led, and who continues to lead, in a loving way. What she did took courage – which is, in my view, an essential aspect of loving action. How do we protect those who enact loving politics? We stand behind them, and make our support for them felt, not only by those leaders, but also by ‘the vicious pundits’ (to use Ghahraman’s phrase) and those who would follow them. More broadly, our challenge is to ensure that the risks these loving leaders take, and the consequences they suffer, benefit those they are standing up for – whether those are individual people, communities, non-human animals, or the natural environment.

“Our challenge is to ensure that the risks these loving leaders take, and the consequences they suffer, benefit those they are standing up for.”

The risk Turei took was losing her ongoing, positive influence as co-leader of the Green Party. It’s up to us, now, to ensure that that risk, and the consequences she suffered, were worth it. We owe her that, and we owe it to the people whose situations she highlighted. This is something we must do together – and with a Labour-led government we now have a real chance of success.

Collectivity is another dimension of loving leadership, and can help to ensure that politics is, as you say, fair and efficient. It isn’t only as individuals that we lead. We can also lead as communities, small and large – as vegetarians and vegans do for animals and the environment, for example, and as Aotearoa New Zealand has on a range of issues, such as women’s suffrage, indigenous rights, and homosexual law reform. This is one of the insights that the Politics of Love brings with it, and I think it helps to show why love is indispensable when it comes to politics.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. He holds a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Auckland, and is learning te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. Find him at www.philip-mckibbin.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

Header image © Michael Dorausch/Flickr, Creative Commons license.