The Politics of Love is Not a Humanism

The Politics of Love is being heralded as the solution to many of humanity’s current problems, and suggestions are already being made that it should be viewed as a new form of humanism. But the Politics of Love is not a form of humanism — and thinking of it as such denies its potential.

Humanism is a system of thought that takes human beings and our experiences as its starting-point. It arose in opposition to religious systems which privileged the otherworldly — such as Christianity, which centres God. Where humanism puts people at the centre, the Politics of Love centres love. Like humanism, the Politics of Love affirms the importance of people, but it also acknowledges the importance of non-human animals and the natural environment. In affirming love, it rejects the idea that some of us are more valuable than others. It thereby transcends the hierarchical thinking that underpins religious and humanist perspectives, and it expresses our humility.

That the Politics of Love might be a new form of humanism is an easy assumption to make. When we think of love, especially as it relates to politics, very often we think of it as widening our circle of concern to include ‘other people’. It seems to make sense that a Politics of Love would celebrate humanity and proclaim its opposition to human oppression — just like humanism.

Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the strongest proponents of loving politics, thought of love in this way. He embraced the Ancient Greek term agape, which is often translated as universal, or unconditional love. In his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, he explains that,

agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.

And this carried over into his political analysis. For example, in critiquing capitalism he argued that Americans must ‘shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society’.

The British-Australian feminist thinker Sara Ahmed also identifies loving politics with humanism. However, she takes a critical stance, writing that a politics of love risks becoming a ‘humanist fantasy’. In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, for example, she argues that within the context of the nation state, ‘love’ is used to force people to conform to a community’s ideals before they are granted access to that community:

The idea of a world where we all love each other, a world of lovers, is a humanist fantasy that informs much of the multicultural discourses of love, which I have formulated as the hope: if only we got closer we would be as one. The multicultural fantasy works as a form of conditional love, in which the conditions of love work to associate ‘others’ with the failure to return the national ideal.

She helps us to understand that, sometimes, ideas which are designed to include actually operate to exclude — just as exclusion is used to bolster solidarity. African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a related point in his article, ‘The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness’:

Social exclusion works for solidarity, as often as it works against it. Sexism is not merely, or even primarily, a means of conferring benefits to the investor class. It is also a means of forging solidarity among “men,” much as xenophobia forges solidarity among “citizens,” and homophobia makes for solidarity among “heterosexuals.” What one is is often as important as what one is not, and so strong is the negative act of defining community that one wonders if all of these definitions — man, heterosexual, white — would evaporate in absence of negative definition.

The Politics of Love must be imagined as expansive. It must be radically inclusive.

A related ‘risk’ is that by insisting that we share a common humanity, and that this is what matters, we gloss over our differences and the ways in which these are used to give advantages to some at the expense of others. Criticisms of ‘identity politics’ operate in this way, as do immature, ‘New Age’ worldviews which hold that we are all one. In both cases, they encourage us to forgo critical engagement with oppression. While I am sympathetic to the idea that, on a spiritual level, we are all connected, I worry that when we defer to this insight, we ignore relationality, through which existence manifests itself, and with which experience is permeated — and in doing so, relinquish opportunities to dismantle systems of domination and create a true unity that nourishes all of us.

Increasingly, human self-interest is being tempered with a concern for the natural environment. In an effort to reduce our pollution, many of us are cutting back on our use of plastic. This year, in my native Aotearoa New Zealand, we are phasing out single-use plastic bags — following a number of other countries, including Bangladesh, Israel, the Netherlands, Rwanda, and Vanuatu. And every day, more of us are transitioning to vegetarian diets and vegan lifestyles for environmental reasons, foremost among these being climate change (where, historically, the main arguments for plant-based diets have centred on non-human animals). But this is not as straightforward as it initially seems. Although our societies are growing in environmental consciousness, for the most part this is — problematically — an extension of our concern for ourselves. The reason that we should care is — the argument goes — because if we don’t, we will die. (And it’s true — we’re on the edge of catastrophe: climate change constitutes an existential threat to our species.) While this is a compelling, and valid, reason for caring about the environment, it need not — and should not — be the whole story. The Politics of Love encourages us to care about the natural environment for its own sake — to see it as valuable in itself. And it is love which allows us to extend our concern in this way: just as we are able to love each other, we are capable of loving the planet, its ecosystems, and all of their diverse constituent parts. Our concern for the natural environment will likely be richer and more successful if our love for it — for insects, for water, for soil, for air — is as our love for each other, rather than ‘because of’ each other. Significantly, love for the natural environment is also more compatible with a concern for non-human animals than an environmentalism grounded in human self-interest — partly because it recognises that animals comprise, or help to ‘make up’, the natural environment, just as we do.

Unfortunately, even the most progressive social movements of our time have failed to recognise this. An example of such a movement is the Leap initiative, which Canadian writer, activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein presents in her book No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics. ‘The Leap Manifesto’, which arose out of a conference of 60 Canadian writers, artists, leaders, and activists from a wide variety of backgrounds, describes itself as ‘A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another’ — but (perhaps because it arose in response to crisis) it frames ‘caring for the Earth’ almost entirely in terms of human interests. For example, it describes Canada’s record on climate change as ‘a crime against humanity’s future’; and in discussing sustainable energy sources, it gives priority to indigenous peoples as well as ‘communities currently dealing with heavy health impacts of polluting industrial activity’, before stating:

Power generated in this way will not merely light our homes but redistribute wealth, deepen our democracy, strengthen our economy, and start to heal the wounds that date back to the country’s founding.

It fails to provide justifications grounded in a concern for the environment itself — and besides a reference to austerity thinking as ‘a threat to life on earth’, it does not mention non-human animals. This is especially disappointing given that Klein repeatedly states that love should guide us, and even justifies the Manifesto authors’ approach by referring to the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II’s assertion that we should be ‘the moral defibrillators of our time and shock the heart of this nation and build a movement of resistance and hope and justice and love.’ In light of such serious omissions, Klein’s argument that, because we are in a time of crisis, we must act quickly, fails to persuade. A more thoughtful and deliberate approach is needed — one that really is grounded in love.

Another example of an initiative that frames environmental protection in terms of human interests is the recently-announced ‘Planetary Health Diet’ — which urges a 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat, and a 100% increase in the consumption of healthier foods, including nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. (The authors, it should be noted, state that the required changes differ significantly from region to region.) The diet received extensive media coverage. It is worth reflecting on how it was framed. The Guardian reported:

The diet is a “win-win”, according to the scientists, as it would save at least 11 million people a year from deaths caused by unhealthy food, while preventing the collapse of the natural world that humanity depends upon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, strong emphasis was given to its benefits for us, as people.

A loving ‘diet’ — or, better yet, a loving lifestyle — would recognise the impact of our dietary choices not only (or even primarily) on ourselves, or even only on the environment, but on non-human animals, as well. In my forthcoming book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, in an essay entitled ‘Love, Politics, and Veganism’, Mexican activist and philosopher Carla Alicia Suárez Félix and I argue that the Politics of Love, with its intersectional commitment to anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-speciesism, and its steadfast opposition to all forms of domination, urges all of us toward veganism. Just as the Politics of Love is not a humanism, it is not (only) an environmentalism — and it is certainly not a human-centred environmentalism! Non-human animals risk being neglected if we assume an environmentalism that is not informed by, and consistent with, animal liberation.

As I have written elsewhere, the Politics of Love is a values-based politics: it celebrates loving values, such as kindness, understanding, and trust. ‘Humanity’ is a value that many of us associate with love, as Dr. King’s thinking demonstrates — but I want to suggest that humanity should not be understood as a loving value. In the book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph and Syl Ko, Syl problematises the concept of ‘humanity’, arguing that it is racially loaded. ‘If animalizing people is problematic, humanizing them is even worse, or so I suggest,’ she writes. The human-animal boundary is not objective, she argues, and the hierarchical thinking that produced it is the same thinking that gave us racism.

It is clear that if we truly want to take white supremacy, racism, coloniality (however one wants to talk about it) to task, then we need to do the same to the continuing, uncontroversial view that “the animal” is the opposite status-marker to “the human.”
As long as these notions of “the animal” and “the human” are intact, white supremacy remains intact.
For this reason, I have advised against the strategy of “humanizing” groups of color, or gaining protection for vulnerable groups on the basis of their humanity.

By centring love, the Politics of Love transcends such hierarchical thinking, establishing a space which is incompatible with, and actively engaged in dismantling, domination in all its forms.

A politics that did not take the suffering of animals seriously could not be considered ‘loving’. When we appreciate the quality and scale of animal suffering, this becomes evident. (As has happened with so many other people, this helped open my heart to non-human animals.) But the Politics of Love’s commitment to non-human animals does not start with their suffering; it starts with them. Much of animal liberation theory is exclusively concerned with animals’ suffering. (The word ‘liberation’ itself highlights our use and abuse of them.) But just as the Politics of Love’s concern for the environment starts with its intrinsic value, rather than our exploitation of it, so it takes the importance of animals, in themselves, as its starting-point — before looking at their suffering, our use and abuse of them, or the different ways in which we have classified them (as wild, companion, farm, pest, etc.), even as these need to be critically interrogated and lovingly transcended. Although animals’ suffering alerted many of us to their importance, we should be concerned with much more than that. They are as worthy of love as we are. Significantly, this leads us to another insight: that love sometimes leads us to do too much — like when we deliberately kill some animals to protect others, as my country’s government does with ‘pests’; or when we alienate them from their natural habitats and frustrate the expression of their natural behaviours, as some people do by keeping birds in cages.

The Politics of Love differs from humanism in another way. Just as it challenges the ‘human-animal’ binary, and the hierarchical thinking that sustains it, so it urges us to look beyond the distinction that is commonly made between reason and emotion. In divorcing us from religion, humanism asserted the primacy of reason and logic over the divine and supernatural — and, albeit inadvertently, over emotion as well. However, as Julie Timmins and I argue in our essay, ‘With Emotion’, which is also collected in my forthcoming book, the Politics of Love not only celebrates emotion, it critically interrogates the supposed distinction between emotion and reason:

Like so many of the binary impositions that we are now working to unlearn, this one no longer seems to hold. Whether or not we acknowledge it, emotions inform our thinking. Political thinking is no exception, although many people still seem to think it is. A lot of us believe we are being ‘rational’ in political debates, for example, when, in fact, our ‘rationality’ is coloured with emotion. Arguments around immigration — that immigrants will take (our taxes, our jobs, ‘our’ people) without contributing anything of value — are often fuelled by fear: of difference, deprivation, change…

As well as valuing the insight that emotion brings, this politics is sensitive to our emotional lives.

If, as human beings, our role in this new vision of politics differs from that of non-human animals and the natural environment, it is because we are the ones who affirm it. While this means that a lot of what we do will be for us, as people, the first implication of this imbalance must be responsibility: we should humbly adopt responsibility for those who are, and that which is, incapable of representing themselves within this politics. We might think of our role in terms of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship. This need not be paternalistic; it might best be understood in terms of mutuality. As a relational ethic, it should recognise our interdependence, and embrace the increased responsibility that comes with the potential that power consists in. Importantly, this responsibility should be grounded in equality: it must be of the same kind that informs and maintains relations between those whose power is equal, and it must be accompanied by sustained and sustaining critique.

The Politics of Love is not a humanism; it is much, much greater. If we affirm love’s expansiveness, we will realise its true strength — and together, we can help to nourish our world.