The moment we are inhabiting is unprecedented in ways that I find difficult to articulate entirely. There is chaos and upheaval, death and uncertainty, sparks followed by fires of hope, and a slow rumbling of ‘this-ain’t-it’ building into a crescendo every single day. Following the Black Lives Matter movement in America*, there have been extensive reflections in South Asia about what anti-Blackness means in our context, how we are complicit in it and how we can mould our political visions to be more inclusive and incisive.
As political organisers today, the ravaging, slowly-disintegrating, globalised, fragmented world calls for us to re-invent our political tools. This, for me, has meant, reflecting deeply about the strongest weapon we have against the brutal patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist structures that contain us — i.e. human vulnerability. Neoliberalism, however, makes this difficult as it has morphed radical, political emotions into atomised versions of themselves. If we are to survive and build a braver, compassionate world, we must reimagine empathy, anger and unquestioningly, the most important human endeavour of all – love, and reinscribe into them the visceral liberatory powers they promise.
Empathy and anger are regarded in mainstream, liberal discourse as existing on polar sides of the spectrum of human emotion. They are both regarded as weak, though in very different ways. Empathy is seen as occupying a diametrically opposed position to patriarchal masculinity, which rejects all humane and vulnerable experiences. As it endangers patriarchal masculinity, it is deemed unworthy of being nurtured. On the other hand, anger is often seen as illegitimate and opposed to Western, modern, neo-colonial logic of rationality. It is regarded as unreasonable – as if reason encapsulates all sorts of human ambition – and is rooted in colonial ideas of civilised and uncivilised people(s).
In liberal thought, empathy is deemed the equivalent of being nice. It is about understanding the others and extending to them unconditional kindness. It lacks accountability and reflection, instead proposing altruism as the solution to all interpersonal problems. Lack of empathy is seen as a personal failure in this case, instead of a failure of the collective. This formulation of empathy is posed against anger and vitrole. For liberal imaginations, anger is as an all-obliterating force while empathy is a force that is all-embracive, harmonious and tender. However, if we deconstruct the liberal individualised self situated within these ideas of empathetic emotion, it is possible to extricate and salvage a radical form of empathy. This empathy serves not the purpose of appeasing individual conscience, but rather cultivating a communal consciousness. The politics of radical empathy are derived from its relation to the collective, to mutual care and compassion, a firm allegiance to (un/re)learning and doing the work of justice together.
In ‘In the Defence of Anger’, Amia Srivasan calls anger “a form of moral seeing” as it is a response to moral depravity and failures, and is “a way of seeing clearly, a form of emotional insight into the moral world”. Anger facilitates recognition of institutionalised hatred in all of its wide-ranging, vile forms, classism, misogyny, transphobia, state-sanctioned terrorism, casteism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, heterosexism, racialised, white imperialist violences, and wars. In this dark cave, anger is the light that you turn on to help you navigate. It is essential because it bears witness to truth, and helps in the work of coalition-building. This kind of anger is, as per Audre Lorde, useful for and compatible with radical empathy. In her essay, On the Uses of Anger, she emphasises the importance and urgency of anger, and how voicing it helps organising resistance groups from within. She speaks about how white and Black womxn, and heterosexual and queer womxn must recognise, express and detangle their angers, as this labour holds the potential for creative change and empowerment. To quote Lorde, “We can not allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty”. In radical reconstructions of human emotion and its reconciliation with the politics of liberation, both anger and empathy hold profound, transformative potential.
The discussion on empathy and anger provokes an examination of the force encompassing both these emotions: love. Similar to anger and empathy, the patriarchy and capitalism collude to render love meaningless and rid it of its incendiary power that can incite revolution.
The capitalist machine has been keen in relegating love to the status of perpetual secondariness. It makes us believe that love exists on a hierarchy of human needs, and ranks below ‘productive’ work, employment, career achievements, development and progress (both, of the individual and the nation). In fact, Maslow even puts love and belonging below employment and ownership of property, (in)conveniently labelling the latter ‘safety needs’. The lesson is clear and all around us. You can only be safe if you own things, we are told. Things others do not own. Things you snatch and then own. Own, own, own! becomes our mantra, our meditative prayer, our partner. After this is achieved, you can move higher up in the pyramid and afford whimsical ideas of romances abound, we are told. Yay! You have the next level unlocked. Time to own people now, we are told.
Not only that, love itself also exists on a hierarchical plain, with romantic monogamous love superseding all other forms of love – platonic friendships, holistic communions, sisterhoods and camaraderie. Even when capitalism embraces the idea of love, and does not forsake it in its entirety, it does so only to perpetuate capitalist notions and lifestyles. There is a neoliberalisation of love that takes place, which boils it down to the individual and their self-interest, and tightly molds love with material consumerism. Hence, love becomes a way to sell products and alienate and disband communities further.
At the same time as the capitalist wheels churn, the heterosexist patriarchal system reduces love to the ‘feminine’ sphere, the realm of the indoors, the world of the private. Positing love as such helps in eviscerating its politics and diminishing it to a single gender and sexuality, to an apparent weakness, to something that should be either shunned, ridiculed and/or consumed.
Love is thus packaged and commodified into flowery perfume-y scents, cards with vignettes declaring commitments to static forevers, red days and extravagant gifts. It is hidden as a personal affair between two people, whispered into confessions of toxic codependency and unconditional, unchecked support. Especially in desi households, it is coated in a language of silence and inflexible obedience which conceal the unpaid, exploitative labour of non-men members of the house and muffle and distort their desires, subjectivities and bodies. This love is envisaged as only coming into fruition through heterosexual romance, as a union of the male and female body. It is a love that excludes, that chalks boundaries, that ultimately kills linkages with emancipatory praxis.
Having taught us how to (or how not to) love, the patriarchal capitalist system takes rest, breathing easy. Everything is under control. Love is now merely an emotion, a shared secret, a union of individuals at best. It is not the revolution that vows to bring down a hegemonic culture of toxicity, abuse and injustice, a culture which rots away human dignity and flourishing, a culture of abject lovelessness.
My lord and savior, more commonly known as bell hooks, has written extensively about the need for a radical Love that replaces this flaccid, meaningless, anti-womxn, anti-men, anti-non-gender-conforming, anti-human love. She disavows this skeleton of a feeling, refusing to even call it love. For her, love is intrinsically against all hierarchies and matrices of domination and is, in its true form, a practice of freedom. She says, “Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.” Reimagined in the light of freedom, love can be conceived of and fostered as an antidote to the capitalist patriarchal nexus. And this antidote requires constant and direct action. Love is what love does. It does not exist in the abstract, but rather in the work one puts into the collective to imbue it with solidarity and political efficacy. It requires actively organising on all fronts to make cracks in systems – not through words and ideas merely, but through joint effort, acknowledgement of failures and corrections thereof, and compassionate engagement. It calls upon us to believe in the potential for change that resides in people and collectives, not in structures. It is only through the employment of such a praxis of love that the margins that we inhabit can become sites of resistance against systems of oppression, and ‘spaces of radical openness’, as bell hooks calls them.
The moment we are inhabiting is unprecedented in many ways, yes, but it returns us to lessons we have been taught and have discarded too often. Sitting in my room in Hyderabad, many many miles and time zones away from Minneapolis, I feel like I am witnessing Inqilaab unfold before me, from the bleachers — at a distance but still existing under the same little world. What I see right now is a repudiation of the present, of the world as given. It is a clear refusal of brokenness being the only human possibility. It holds on to the hope for a different world; a world where the human imagination is not limited to merely one kind of utopia, but a coexistence of multiple utopias; a world that is worthy of our dreams and aspirations. It moves towards emancipated futures made up of differences, but not bound by them. It is calling for – nay, demanding – an end to imperial, racial, gendered violence. It is the arch-nemesis of all kinds of domination. It is not silent peace. It is justice. It is radical. It is revolutionary. It is Love. And it is calling the entire world to (un/re)become.
“Love requires us to show up to not only the conversation but to also act. Without this we dishonour, disrespect and ultimately eviscerate people and the politics and with that, the revolution.” – My lovely mentor and comrade, Aimen, an exchange with whom prompted this piece.
A lot of credit for this piece also goes to bell hooks and Audre Lorde, the two people who have shaped me into the person I am, created the person I hope to be, and whose love breathes revolution into my days. My thoughts are inspired, moved and given direction to, by work and conversations I have shared with a lot of feminists, both in person as well as through engagement with theory. The joint labour of womxn around me has been transformative for me and my politics, and I am indebted to them greatly. Audre Lorde says, ‘There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our own living.’ My ideas about radical love are not novel, but I still hope they govern my living.
* I do not qualify to speak with authority on anything unfolding with regards to BLM in America and strongly encourage you to refer to these resources to hear Black voices tell their own stories, experiences and realities.
Instagram accounts posting BLM updates, compiled by @sweetchefskincare
@blklivesmatter, @privtoprog, @blackvisionscollective, @munroebergdorf, @ashleemariepreston, @raquel_willis, @tamikadmallory, @indyamoore, @colorofchange, @rachel.cargle, @mspackyetti, @fridacashflow, @arthoecollective
A masterlist of Black revolutionary texts compiled by @haaniyah_ on twitter. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aYPe21Rve3YPpozxZJE4C3WfWCvkvo_pyXkdzOARxho/edit
On decolonisation, racial capitalism, anti-fascism, Space/Race: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1p2GvScemyghCaQVkA3fDTsjqtprk7CPOryZv5-YUTkk/edit
A free Yale course on African-American history: