By Kyle Sebastian Vitale.
With the November elections, as with so many recent social conflicts, the word love has re-entered our national lexicon. Hashtags, t-shirts, and protests announce that “Love Trumps Hate.” Hurting voters express love for the refugee, the Muslim, the LGBTQIA+ through moving Facebook posts. Meanwhile, President-Elect Trump claims electoral victory to the tune of a new nationalism that expresses love of country in a spectrum of colors.
Yet these same pathways also celebrate vindictiveness. Unfriending plagues Facebook, “un-invitations” sour Thanksgiving. Alongside “Love Trumps Hate,” many adopt The Handmaid’s Tale’s “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”). Groups vow vicious accountability for Mr. Trump, or remind public figures of their promises to leave the country. Anti-Trump rioting bleeds the night, while Mr. Trump’s recusal of hate group endorsements remains weak, if present at all.
This word has loosed its moorings, floating without direction until something anchors it again.
If only such anchoring were easier. America has an uneven history with the word love. It appears nowhere in our founding documents except for felicitous phrasing like “love of country” in the Federalist papers. In fact, American thinkers seem to have thought little about it; Raoul de Roussy de Sales wrote for The Atlantic in 1938 that “American literature contains no work of any note, not even essays, on love as a psychological phenomenon . . . [n]o classification of the various brands of love such as La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Stendhal, Proust, and many others have elaborated has been attempted from the American angle.” Little has been attempted since 1938.
Yet our national rhetoric is not devoid of love. Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams frequently addresses the sins of the nation and the hope that all will forgive injury and love one another in godly virtue. Abraham Lincoln famously concludes his second inaugural address with “malice toward none, with charity for all.” The writings of the Transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, glow with the power of love to tame violent emotion and knit friend to friend.
These incidents of the word participate in a larger western rhetorical tradition whose core idea should indict our recent utterances: love, in its labor to bind people together, signals the taming and quietude of self before others. Aristotle, in his philosophy of friendship in Nichomachean Ethics, understands love as the recognition of self in others. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that love is “kind” and “does not boast,” “keeps no record of wrongs” and “always hopes.” Shakespeare’s great statement on love in Sonnet 116 stresses that it “is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” but “bears” in the marriage of minds.
Regardless of the criticism that tradition receives for its patriarchal hegemonies, the point is this: at no point in the history of our polity has love, carefully defined, suggested shutting others down, trumping hundreds of thousands of neighbors into defeat, or denying personhood and dignity to those with inexplicable views.
And yet, at no other point in the history of our polity has the word faced such careless weaponization through the proliferating power of social media.
As we careen towards the holidays, I humbly suggest that if our statements of love only build walls for our pre-existing beliefs and associations, without building outwards to those who share our spaces, than they are not love. “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
But such change must happen first in the self, from where millions of tweets, and walls, and office interactions define our national discourse. Tolstoy writes in Family Happiness that the experience of love “ma[kes] everything begin to speak and press for admittance in [the] heart, filling it with happiness.” Reducing fellow human beings to “racist” or “cuckservative,” even when their outlook makes worse reductions, admits nothing.
Clever eponymous appropriations aside, then, love does not “trump” hate. Love infiltrates hate. Love meets hate where it is, hears its vocabularies, and perceives the desire and pain behind it. Love feels the calluses on worn and roughened attitudes. Love responds wholly, and in its patience, transforms hate.
Where our political rhetoric disbars this outlook, it must change. Left-leaning social theory too often perceives people groups over individuals, bristling to imagine an actual straight white Republican dealing fairly with a refugee. Right-leaning imagination too often avoids the language of love entirely, restricting such sentiment to privacy and the home for fear of sounding too much like the Beatles.
Here is the hardest thing, then: to meet the racist, the bigot, the hypocrite, the “lib” or “alt-right,” the incumbent, the hateful, and the blind with a willingness to see what they see as a way to knowing them as human beings.
Harder still, we must recognize the myth that our consciences are clear, and find the indifference, hate, and selfishness that plague us all. Fyodor Dostoevsky writes in Brothers Karamazov that each of us is “guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all.” Our mutually-exposed guilt will not dissipate in the vague light of progressive reform, nor be sweated off in the freedom of a disburdened economy. Loving the enemy does not just rebuild external relations—it succors the soul and reminds us of our own inadequacies.
Repeating and retweeting the word love does not an ethics make. We do well to speak of love with care, letting each utterance of the word expose our weaknesses, drawing us closer to the other across the aisle, behind us at the bank, and protesting in the streets. If love trumps anything, it trumps the self.
Kyle Vitale is currently a Research Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library, having taken his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Delaware in May 2016. His work considers the history of the book in light of Shakespearean literature and sacramental theology. He has published in several academic journals including Religion & Literature and Christianity & Literature, popular journals like the Chronicle of Higher Education, and stand-alone collections. Kyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.