Partial transcript: Love and Liberty

Below is a selection of talks from the Love and Liberty session.

Mike Edwards: All of my work is based on what I think is a fairly simple assumption, that the health of our interior lives affects the success of our work for justice in the world, and conversely and just as importantly, that the shape of social and political institutions and public policies deeply affects the health of our interior lives: this is a reflexive, a reciprocal relationship. When I say that it probably sounds obvious, but it is the one thing that I think is most missing from the ways that we often approach the problems of life, the kind of things that we are talking about today. 

If one follows that assumption then it seems again fairly obvious that the most effective path to the transformation of society, the transformation of our world, lies through the integration of those two aspects of change, so that we can ‘be the change we want to see in the world’ as Ghandi put it, or that we can ‘translate love into justice structures’ which was Martin Luther King’s phrase. In one of the speeches he made before he was assassinated he made the remark that our life’s mission as human beings is to find ways of constantly translating love into justice structures, and finding structures – structures of justice – which nurture love inside of ourselves. I think it is a very powerful to remember. 

If we apply that simple phrase to the analysis of problems in our current system that we are critiquing at today’s event, it is fairly clear I think how that feedback loop is operating in a very destructive, negative and damaging way. As I understand it the current system is based on a philosophy that if we have more information, we can predict and control the world. If we can predict and control the world, then bad things won’t happen. But bad things will always happen, and many more bad things will happen when that desire turns into a desire for domination and persecution, particularly against certain groups of people, and the widespread mistrust leads to the breakdown of social solidarity, and the whole cycle starts afresh.  

We are caught in a negative cycle where we have institutions and policies which deny our deepest feelings of love, sympathy and solidarity with each other. And we are not able to find expression for those deepest feelings in the real institutions and processes which drive society. 

So how do we turn that fundamentally negative cycle into a fundamentally positive one. Well, ultimately, as Satish Kumar was hinting, the only way to be free from insecurity and the toxic influence it has over our actions is to become fully and firmly and permanently established in a state that is free from fear – that is the only ultimate answer to the puzzle that we face. That state goes by many names and we probably all call it something different. I call it unconditional or unlimited love – the love that does justice – because that is what resonates most with me, but I realise that there are probably many other names. For me, unlimited love is the ultimate experience and expression of freedom from the kind of fear and rage and urge to dominate – whether it is to dominate others, or dominate the natural world, or dominate those who are less powerful.  Therefore it provides really the only potential basis for new and healthier forms of politics and public policy and international affairs.

What might society and security policy look like if you turned it on its head in the way that I am suggesting, and developed it from a radically different place – the place of unconditional love?  The honest and obvious answer is that we don’t know – because we haven’t tried. But I suspect that we are going to have a lot of fun finding out. That is the challenge. If we issued that challenge to ourselves and to our leaders, what kinds of  institutions and policies would we come up with, especially in contexts – since this is a real discussion – where there are limits to love or trust in a context where there clearly are people intent on causing serious physical harm to ourselves to each other and so on. 

I do think it is better to approach that concrete question from the direction of unlimited love and see how far we can get in minimising intrusions into personal freedom, trust, solidarity and so on, rather than to start from the opposite perspective, which is what we do now – which if you like maximises those intrusions, because there is no limit, no boundary, no logic, no mechanism to stop us going further and further in that direction. So what will pull us back, I am quite convinced, is a renewed commitment to discuss this most difficult of issues in the public sphere constantly, and continuously, and honestly and rigorously. It is very difficult because it challenges pretty much everything that we are used to doing, and the basis on which we are used to doing it. But I think it is absolutely essential if we are to find a sustainable route out of the kind of prison in which we have placed ourselves. Thanks very much.    

Marina Warner: Edward Carpenter is really a paradigm of some of the things I wanted to note today. I really believe that the role of artists in the broadest possible sense including writers and thinkers, is to try and rebuild the world in the image of our hopes, our dreams and our desires. Like Sheila Rowbotham, my background was in a female emancipatory movement in which there was a real, underlying principle that this was going to be sexual emancipation. It was a question of sexual liberty for women. That was my formation. So I wanted to take a few steps back, and look a little at some of the first principles involved in this cultural rethinking of love. 

We have to distinguish between the different forms of love. Socrates and Plato after all were profoundly concerned with creating the idea of a polity by examining the connectiveness between people in very many different relationships, in order to harness the different motives and energies that come from that. There are in some of the different languages, very different words for love. Sheila has just used the phrase, ‘beloved community’ and this is agape in Greek, where it really means communion and not only communion of the family, but it really means the communion of like-minded people who come together to do something. It has of course nothing to do with eros at that point. Then there is the Latin word we are familiar with, caritas, which has a very underlying tow of sympathy. This is where you have fellow feeling, where you empathise, project into another and feel like the other and become equal to them in your projected emotions. Then amor itself, which is often thought of as eros, is also the love of children and not only the love of children, or their love for their family but also the love between children. Children experience love and it isn’t at that stage erotic love, but we all know how children get very fond of someone and there is a very strong energy for them. So the word that I think is key to the kind of love that we are talking about is ‘kin’ – not meaning blood kin – but the word meaning something which leads to kind, and to kindness and to loving kindness.  

So is it possible to join up this idea with structures of law and economics and so forth? And I think if you look at the field that I work in a lot – fairy tales – you can actually see how social or legal structures do undermine this loving kindness. Sibling rivalry in fairy tales is often driven by poverty – it is very, very clear. Wicked stepmothers are often to do with the paucity of resources in the two rival families, the orphans who survive from the dead mother fight with the children of the new families. Fairy tales record these lesions in the body politic that is the family. It is important in the crisis of our times that we look at precisely that – how the inequality of means is going to affect our status in being able to reciprocate and to be mutual together.  

It is important that we critique, but we should also remind ourselves of a few gains we have made. One gain we have made in the area of loving emancipation is registered by this family card game we always played when I was a child in the fifties. We used to play Old Maid, and if I show you these slides you can see how sexualised the nurse is and the sailor, but how very obvious it is that the one thing not to become in life, and the bad card to get, is ‘the old maid’. We have moved on. And the other great legal achievement of recent years of course is civil partnership. I would like to mention here something that I as a Catholic and many other Catholics I know who have petitioned against it, regard as very very wrong – and that is the idea that disabled people shouldn’t have children. This has been a great gain in the current world – freedom of that sort. But there are many, many losses. 

The Wellcome Institute, a medical foundation, is conducting a census in 2010 of sexuality in the country and the list shows that all affective and emotional experiences are left out of this enquiry. It is only an inquiry into acts i.e. you will only say if you buy sex on the internet etc. There will be nothing about all the other ways that sexuality manifests itself. I don’t know how you would set about recording this in a census, but it seems to me quite wrong that a lot of people who are celibate are omitted from any record of sexual life. It seems to show the narrowing of concepts, of psychology, of love and sympathy.  Secondly, there is an area where there have been no gains it seems to me and that is the incredible increase in separate gender demarcation in marketing for children. It is really deplorable. Certainly, we feminists monitored this closely and fought against this. But if you go into any toyshop or look at the magazine rack for young people in any Tesco – you will see absolutely stereotypical gender marking in which they are being trained – boys are being trained to be hard and girls are being trained to be girly. It is a disaster at this consumer end of the market. Again it has the effect of leaving out a whole range of possibilities in which people can express their emotions. A friend of mine, Carol Maiver has just written this extremely interesting book on the concept of being sissy. She and I stand up for the sissies.  

Susan Sontag’s diaries also show an extremely interesting trajectory in what we may have lost. Early on in her life, she wrote, ‘Sexuality is the paradigm, the orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not just the salvation but more the brith of my ego. I cannot write until I find my ego.”  Later in her career she was much criticised for not coming out, people said that she didn’t speak up for the rights of the lesbian community to which she belonged. But actually I think she perceived something that was happening, which was that people were being increasingly imprisoned in their sexual and gender definitions, and she wanted to retain that liberty, her privacy from that.  

The other areas where I think we have lost our liberty, in terms of flexibility and a sense of range – is in wider notions of sexualisation outside the sexual relationship. There is increasing fear for example of siblings who have strong feelings for each other. There are numerous stories in fiction and from the past, where intense relationships between siblings resulted in an extremely productive relationship – whether sexually enacted or not, we don’t know and it is their right that we don’t know– William and Dorothy Wordsworth is one example. Mary and Charles Lamb, who Lisa Appagnesi has written about, looked after each other all their lives, both of them with mental problems, in an incredibly intense personal relationship. And so forth.  

So I think that here we get to the point of how the competitive model drives against these alliances and this sense of community. We are really atomised rather than united, and a lot of the market axioms are playing to that. Just in my little neck of the woods in academe, collaboration is frowned upon. You don’t get rewarded. The most unselfish members of university departments who actually work with other people – or people who collaborate together on books do not get the big RAE points and then do not get advancement. The idea is that you must fight with one another. And not only must academics become competitive in that respect with one another, even when they don’t want to, but the competition for resources, rather like in a fairy tale, drives one university against another – again in a completely false model that is nothing to do with community or making common cause. I will end with something that Barenboim has said in one of his Reith Lectures. He thinks that political community should be like an orchestra. You can have single individuals who might play a solo and might excel, but they are drawn back into the orchestra and the orchestra draws together. It moves together and it makes something together. Thank you.

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