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what’s love got to do with it (sociology, that is)

“My conclusion became my calling: that justice is what love looks like in public, just as deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice. When you love people, you hate the fact that they’re being treated unjustly. Justice is not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well being of all.”

–From Cornel West’s autobiography, Brother West, (pg. 232)

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of love (or, at least, compassion, or care) in sociological work, and how that love or compassion can be in tension with a need for justice.  (By the way, there’s a lot of great sociology of emotions stuff about love, much of it about romantic love, but certainly not all of it.)

This tension between love and justice is probably most obvious in our work with students: think about the need for justice in coming down hard on a student you caught plagiarizing, even if you do believe the student’s story about it being the first time, he’ll never do it again, etc. (Though I’m suspicious of these first time offenders, just as I think it’s odd how many people get pulled over who’ve honestly never driven drunk not even once before that very evening).  These are hard calls, but what makes them questions of justice is, first, that wrongness ought to be addressed, and second that it would be unfair for certain students to get away with cheating, meaning they had to work much less than everyone else did.

(It’s interesting, by the way, the manner in which we sociologists can assume the importance of individual agency in these stories: because of course the cheater might well have taken an unfair edge in plagiarizing a paper or bringing in an answer key to the test, but what about the kid who went to the right schools or grew up in the right zip codes?  Of course, you might say—and I would say—that’s totally different.  The first kids are cheating. The second kids benefitted from an unjust social system but weren’t setting out to break any rules.  And that’s true enough. I come down really hard on cheating and plagiarism.  But I think it’s also awfully convenient to think the problem of unfairness and gaming the system is mostly a problem of academic honesty.  Of course, we all know that’s not the case: much of the work of our discipline is about challenging these individualist assumptions.  But I’m talking about the distinction between what we write about and then how we go about our normal daily academic lives. And that’s a harder distinction, at least for me.)

At any rate, justice vs. love is something I’m thinking about in light of Joel D. Anderson’s tweet: “I wish we had history classes that taught y’all about some civil rights activists other than MLK. Or at least about his non-love quotes.” It’s a very important point. One of the problems with the way a certain kind of person (especially a certain kind of white person) reads Martin Luther King is as saying we should all just love each other. King did think we should all love each other of course, but he understood accountability as a form of love so it’s not quite as nice and touchy feely as he gets read by often white conservatives. For King, justice comes out of love, but for some of these folks Anderson is talking about, love seems to come before—and even at the expensive of—justice.  Think of someone being a jerk to you and then you’re told just to forgive that person or at least to get along for the sake of the department, or family, or nation, or what have you. It’s the less powerful person who almost always has to do this getting along, and so a commitment to love can become a means and mechanism of repression. This, not coincidentally, is also a common and often quite justified criticisms of Christianity, something Martin Luther King, liberation theologians, and lots of other Christian thinkers have tried to work out.  If you’re part of a religion that says turn the other cheek, that’s well and good for your cheek: you do you.  But how do you justify letting someone weaker than you get their cheek slapped? How do you justify your failure to use power to right wrongs? Is Christian love actually the narcissistic fetish of masochists and the never really at risk?  I’ve hung out with a lot of Christian pacifists, and I know these questions are more complex than this framing: MLK’s own writing make this clear.  But it’s easy to get Christian love wrong, or any kind of love wrong.

Augustine thought justice was rooted in love: Cornel West is showing his Augustinian roots in the quote I opened this post with. Justice is a super complicated concept for Augustine, so it’s not worth getting into it too much here, but what I want to focus on is only that ideally justice and love (or charity) work together but in practice it’s often a hard slog. To be merciful or to bring down the hammer?  To show compassion or to condemn?  Augustine had to deal with all of this stuff as at once a theologian and a leader (the tension within his own work between these two roles forms a key problem in contemporary Augustine scholarship), and while he was convinced it could all work together in the city of God, here in this world it’s a much bigger problem.

Contemporary political theorists would use different terms, thinks like irreconcilable goods for instance, but the problems are much the same. People die. Human suffer.  Injustice prevails, and so does a lack of love.  But why does love even matter?  Is love worth thinking about as something sociologists (or citizens) should do?

As a thought experiment, one can imagine a world without love that still had some kind of procedural justice, though the source of that justice—why people care about maintaining it—would be a complicated problem. It’s much harder to imagine a world without justice that had any kind of love, at least on a societal level.  There might be individual loving people, but then anyone could just attack them in a Hobbesian nightmare, and that would be that.  And so, again, love can be a privilege (in all senses of that word) or else a private means of self-preservation.  And to ask someone else to love can mean to ask her to forego justice, or to demand of them an emotional response that it is not yours to ask.  (I was recently at a great panel on the sociology of emotions at ASA, and Jessica Fields talked about how white women will sometimes demand love from the people of color they set out to “save” in schools or other locations).

So what does this have to do with sociology?  Well we sociologists often talk a lot about justice, but we talk a lot less about love, perhaps for some of the reasons I’ve listed above.  But as I think about our work, so much of it is about love: love of our students, of our colleagues, of our teachers.  We don’t love all of these people of course (we may even hate some of them) and this love is often, as always, cruelly stratified and unequally parceled out.  Yet the criticisms don’t discount that our hearts matter in our work, more than some of us might want to admit.

It’s also worth thinking about our research, especially for those of us who do qualitative work that requires actual interpersonal interactions.  How are we supposed to think about encountering injustice in a field site?  How are we supposed to think about our emotional responsibilities to those we’re studying? (Or our implicit or explicit expectations of their emotional responsibilities to us?) Many of us might want justice for our respondents, but what does it mean to say we ought to love them, or at least to care about them?  What does that mean?  We all agree we’re not suppose to treat our respondents unfairly, not to take advantage or to use, and then we all struggle with the fact that we are nonetheless using others’ stories for our own promotion and publications, our chance at relative (academic) fame.  This is true despite the fact that many of our respondents want us to tell their stories, even if maybe not in the way we wind up telling them. What’s love got to do with it?  Or, if not love, care?

And how is this story different when we’re studying elites rather than the oppressed or white nationalists rather than the working poor? Are there some about whom we should care more?  Or care less? It’s a tricky question because, as that last dualism suggests, these categories might not contradict: you can be very rich, full of white privilege, and still grow up terrorized by homophobic or sexists parents. You can be truly screwed by late capitalism and spew terrible bigotry at marches and on social media.  We all know this.  And we have ways to think about how this relates to questions of justice, of what society owes and what each of us owes to society.

Yet the big question remains. Who are we to love? And how are we to ask others to love?  We might ask people to love us (or simply expect it), and we could also ask them to love others.  There are various problems here, not least that as, Dostoevsky wrote (and Dorothy Day often repeated), “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”  These are questions anyone who’s loved an addict knows well.

How is it anything but unjust to ask those who are already suffering to, oh yeah, love those who make you suffer?  I’m struck by the tremendous hope in that article that came out around a year ago, the one about the white nationalist kid who a Jewish friend took in, gradually convincing him to shed his hateful ideology.  It’s an awe-inspiring story, and it made me cry (as do, to be fair, various detergent commercials).  But if the story as a story is lovely, the story as a fable is chilling: not only do the marginalized have to take shit.  They also have to save souls.  Amidst increasing calls to understand where white nationalists are coming from, I can’t help but think of this problem. Of course, verstehen doesn’t necessarily mean compassion: a prisoner can understand a captor’s worldview quite well without any sort of care or compassion for him.  But it’s often the case that in understanding people we come to like them: in figuring out why they work the way they do, we find points of commonality, ways we’re not so different. Love might well be too strong a word, but I’m struck by how many people I’ve come to care about.

Yet even this is in many ways a story about privilege: I’m a big guy, a white man married to a woman.  I have plenty of social and cultural capital and while I’m not chock full of economic capital, I’ve got a good job and I’m doing quite well relative to the rest of the country. It’s easier for me to care. And it’s therefore easier for me, quite obliviously, to ask others to care as well, unaware of their cultural position and of the very real possibility not only of insult, emotional abuse, and epistemic violence but plain old physical harm.  The world is often a scary place, and its scariness is not parceled out equally at birth.

This isn’t anything new for the oppressed of course, and like I mentioned above, it’s also not a new way for the powerful to keep on keeping on.  But I worry that dismissing the role of love in our lives is too stark a response to these dilemmas, not least because it’s empirically disingenuous.  We seem to keep loving.  And by we I mean the people we study (love is an important object of sociological analysis) but also I mean us, the sociologists, the teachers, the students, the researchers, the friends, the family members, the citizens.  How does that love work? How should it work?  And how can it be a means of making justice public rather than keeping justice at bay?

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Written by jeffguhin

August 23, 2017 at 8:21 pm

3 Responses

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  1. This is a great post, and I unfortunately don’t have the mental space to process all of it right now. But I did want to throw out one thought on the cheating aside: the students who cheat most successfully are typically those who also benefited from their position in the stratification system.

    Liked by 1 person

    Mikaila

    August 24, 2017 at 3:56 am

  2. Thank you and this is a great point.

    Like

    jeffguhin

    August 24, 2017 at 4:51 pm

  3. There are probably a dozen terms I’d use to describe my relationships with others (in my profession and among those I study) before I’d use the term “love”, e.g., respect, admire, esteem, regard, appreciate… in fact, I can see no situation where the semantic affordances of that list would be exhausted such that I’d need to define these relationships in terms of “love”. But perhaps I’m just a loveless crank.

    Liked by 1 person

    Sam Whistler

    September 5, 2017 at 3:46 am


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