A Responsible Approach to Love and Hate
What is Love?
Any good philosopher begins by defining his terms. But I… wouldn’t really characterize myself as a philosopher. And certainly not good enough of one to satisfyingly define something as nebulous as the concept of Love.
You see, as much as I adore the struggle to convey truth using only words and symbols, it’s just not a very meaningful approach when talking about something like Love. Whether you’re the sort of person who dismisses love as just a chemical reaction in the brain, or the type who goes around touting the wishy-washy assurance that Love is God himself, it seems clear to me that a true understanding of Love must be rooted in one’s own experience.
As a perhaps irresponsible beginning to this treatise on “responsible” Love and hate, I assert that what Love is, is already fundamentally known to most people. Maybe a few exist for whom Love is completely foreign, but I posit that the occurence of Love is at least common enough that the vast majority of people have experienced it to some significant degree. This would seem to indicate that the “Love” I’m talking about is less the romantic sort and more like a cosmic driving-force of compassion. But I’m not really excluding the first, and neither do I wish to fully commit to the second. So yeah. Fundamentally, most people already know what Love is. So I shouldn’t need to write an article about it.
But at the same time, isn’t it obvious that people are complete idiots when it comes to Love? Full of good intentions, but really lazy when it comes to thinking about the consequences of their actions (or inaction)? Anyone can see that sometimes compassion means hurting someone, sometimes Love means being harsh. And yet, disturbingly, there are a great many people so caught up on the “feeling” of Love, that even a Love-skill as basic as letting someone know they have a piece of lettuce stuck in their teeth is beyond them.
Such irresponsible Love is the central topic of this piece. It’s not just the failing of a few; Love is advanced shit. It’s difficult to know which situations deserve more careful thought than others, and as a default, going for what feels good is sort of okay. It’s about as good as you could expect from someone who’s recently graduated from the Terrible Twos. But people need to understand that Love is about more than just your feelings or those other guys’ feelings. Often, Love entails consideration of the feelings of the great many people who don’t exist yet, or even the people who have already died. If you, like most, believe that Love is something fundamental to the universe, why would you be surprised that you might sometimes need to look outside yourself for it? Ultimately, ignoring the complexities of Love is careless. And what is Love without caring?
Yes, I am. And your first lesson is to understand that even if the truth of love resides within your core, that doesn’t make you immune to confusion and misinterpretation. One actually needs to be on top of this shit all the fucking time to know what they’re doing. And it’s not just your localized day-to-day experiences that are at stake here. A blind and lazy belief in any ideal, and certainly one as vague as Love… makes you vulnerable. And not just vulnerable in a pseudo-holy “bare your soul” kind of way. I mean it makes you very, very easy to control. The people who live according to irresponsible Love are, as a group, incredibly predictable, and both politicians and the media are well aware of that. Their words are designed specifically for the easily led, and unless you pay very close attention, you too will be nestled into a comfortable habit of making dubious shortcuts in your moral processing.
A Dubious Shortcut
Put simply, a person whose mental faculties have been hijacked by “Love makes right,” skips the question of whether such-and-such policy is “right” or “wrong”, and looks only to whether enacting the policy “feels” loving. Such a people could never vote to remove the lettuce from someone’s teeth. Possessing the moral faculties of a 3-year-old, this group would be more concerned about the meager suffering involved with causing embarassment in front of one person, rather than the ultimate consequence of their unfortunate friend later realizing he had lettuce stuck in his teeth the entire day. Such people undoubtedly make terrible parents, since they could never hold their child accountable for following rules. Show these people a picture of a hungry immigrant, and they’ll call for an end to the concept of the nation-state without any regard for the more abstract ways in which this construct benefits us all.
Even more problematic, and owing to the insidiousness of the political class, it’s highly unlikely that any moral dilemmas will actually be presented to the voter as lucidly as “which is more loving, X or Y”. One is far more likely to encounter moral problems as commands, such as “Do X or else you are hateful” or as expectations “anyone who isn’t hateful would do X”. And to possess any degree of hate, as we all know, is so vile and unforgivable a sin as to be indistinguishable in its essence from a real act of mass murder.
Posed as a command and a threat, the concept of Love is clearly being abused. It’s deeply concerning watching the masses fall so easily for such simple tricks. The danger lies in subscribing blindly to an idealized “Love”, but only striving to live up to it as far as it takes to feel good about your efforts. This is an irresponsible approach to Love, and it is wrong not only because your actions will be less likely to impart actual goodness to the world, but because it also leaves you incredibly susceptible to control.
An Effective Defense, Until Now
I’ll give credit where credit is due; Christians as a whole are actually pretty well inoculated against manipulation in the form “do X or you are bad.” It is largely because Christianity dominated the West for so long that semi-stable democracies were even possible. It’s easy to understand how Christians formed this resistance to manipulation if you know the weight of the moral demands their religion places on them.
- “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.”
- “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
- “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
Who can call themself a Christian who hasn’t puzzled over these and other similarly extreme commands from the Lord? Some, I’m sure, but these are well-known quotes. And yet it’s somewhat rare to see nub-armed Christians begging door to door, so I can only assume most of them have come to more nuanced conclusions about what their ideals actually demand of them. It’s not just that they ignore their ideals. Christians really do give more to charity than other groups, but they are also more choosy about how money is used to help the poor, bearing more skepticism for the welfare system.
If you went up to a Christian and said, “Look, your fancy book says you have to give everything away. Why aren’t you doing that?”, they… probably wouldn’t provide you with a satisfying answer. But they’ve rationalized it somehow, and even though they’ve been told what “perfect” is, they’ve made a kind of peace with not always living up to that ideal. Though certainly not the only answer, many come to the conclusion that they need to maintain stable lives in order to keep doing good things, allowing for objectively better results than if they just up and gave all their stuff away in a moment. It might feel really good and saintly to give everything away all at once, and some christians have been known to do that. But most Christians don’t, and that’s because their lofty ideals have, at least subconsciously, forced them to differentiate between acting on Love for subjective results, and acting on Love for objective results.
Ideals vs. Values
Not everyone has the gift of faith though. I certainly don’t. So in our modern, highly secularized society, a huge number of people are ill-practiced in interacting with ideals. That’s not to say that non-religious or weakly religious people are inherently less moral; just that “ideals” are unlikely to play a huge role in their decision-making. I haven’t met many non-religious people who drafted for themselves a firm code of conduct, but any who did would find the practice unexpectedly enlightening. The non-religious who lack ideals generally navigate life by feeling, only denying themself a course of action when it contradicts one of their handful of “values”.
Values are different from ideals in that one “supports” a value with their actions, much like voting in support of a political candidate. Ideals, on the other hand, are something you try to minimize your deviation from. Values are things like self-reliance, sustainability, freedom-of-information, etc. You might drive a hybrid because you value “the environment”, or spend time with your kids because you value “family”. Examples of ideals could be things like peace, honesty, or health. It’s possible to treat these as values too, but it’s easy to imagine what it would look like to never fight, to never lie, or to always make healthy choices. People who subscribe to ideals have a visualization of perfection as their starting point, and try to avoid failing to live up to that perfection. Role-models can also act as ideals, as epitomized by the question “What would Jesus do?”
Certainly the non-religious can possess ideals in addition to values, but it’s usually not the case that the demands of “peace” or “honesty” are as great as the demand to cut your hand off when you feel tempted. There’s also the added pressure that to the religious, God himself gives these extreme commands, whereas the non-religious have notably lower stakes in the morality game. The overall effect is that the non-religious and weakly religious rarely find themselves cornered by their ideals to the extent where they have to deeply reevaluate their relationship with perfection, and because of this, the non-religious are comparatively vulnerable and inexperienced.
Love Responsibly: Love as a Value
So which one is Love, a value or an ideal? Well, since it is really only vaguely understood by most, it would make more sense to treat Love as a value. And left to their own devices, that’s what most people do, especially if they are non-religious. Love as an ideal makes no sense. If you can’t picture with certainty what “perfect Love” is, then how can you know when you’re not living up to it? More importantly, how can you hold others accountable for failing to live up to a vague ideal? And yet, when someone tells you “do X, or else you are hateful”, that’s exactly what they are doing: blaming you for not adhering to some vague image of perfection that neither of you could have agreed upon in the first place. To them, it’s not that doing loving things is a positive, it’s that failing to do “the most Loving thing they can imagine” is a negative. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.
We have three groups:
- A small number of people who intentionally or unintentionally mistake Love for an ideal
- A large number of people who normally treat Love as a value, but are inexperienced in interacting with ideals
- Politicians/media who benefit from dumbing-down and directing public discourse.
It almost doesn’t even require explanation. If you have these three groups at play in the same system, it’s easy to see what will happen. The politicians will cater to the “Love is an ideal” people because they are the most predictable and easily led. The “Love is an ideal” people are vocal and willing to do extreme things for their ideology, because they’ve convinced themselves that the picture of perfection in their head, and the duty to adhere to it, necessarily applies to everyone. They in turn go and try to guilt the “Love is a value” people into joining the cause.
More likely than not, the “Love is a value” people will fall for it, because, well… they don’t want to be called hateful. And the political class and media will absolutely call you hateful and sic their idealistic dogs on you if you dare to deviate from whatever the official “perfect Love narrative” is at the time. And the politicians aren’t the masterminds crafting this narrative either, they’re just guessing at and amalgamating the issues that they think will rile up the easily led. The existence of these three groups and the dynamic between them are an excellent recipe for society’s self-destruction. Truly the blind leading the blind leading the blind.
A Better Atmosphere for Debate
So now you know the dire state things are in. Or at least, you know a big part of it. And now that the mechanism is set in motion, it’s unlikely to stop. If that’s depressing, welcome to the real world. If it feels like you’re tied to a chair and being forced to watch the special-ed students fight over your childrens’ lunch money, well, that’s democracy for ya.
And maybe there’s something we can do about it. Though it may seem like I’ve been condescending to Love, demoting it from ideal to value, this shift in perspective doesn’t make Love any less powerful. In fact, if it’s more true to regard Love as a value, then doing so should help us understand the truth of Love within ourselves, and help others to see it as well.
People who (consciously) live according to values rather than ideals can understand that sometimes people have to prioritize one value over another. They can also understand that sometimes the best way to go about supporting a value is up for debate. Valuing family, one person can think that the right way to promote that value is to have schools teach sex ed earlier, ensuring that every kid to encounter sex can do so in a wise and informed manner. Another person, also valuing family, might rebut that this approach will just give kids the idea to have sex at an earlier age. Uh oh. Sounds like the kind of debate that would wage itself endlessly and fruitlessly in the U.S. with no conclusive result.
Except it’s not hard to resolve at all. “Value” people can easily have this argument, and since plenty of precedent for this issue exists, today they can likely come to an agreement. They can bring statistics to the table and talk about how such-and-such policy performed in such-and-such country, and since the statistics seem to be pretty much unanimous, they can then determine the best course of action. However, if either side makes the mistake of treating family as an ideal instead of a value, then rather than arguing over a course of action, the two sides are debating something for which no statistics exist: the vague, personal, imagined “ideal” of family in someone’s head. At that point, the argument likely devolves into “you hate (the ideal of) family if you don’t support X”.
To be fair, it’s not exactly impossible to argue productively over ideals. But only practitioners of idealistic or legalistic religions, tempered in the flame of modern society, are experienced in it. Maybe philosophy majors too, but those burger-flippers have never held a significant public presence. And even if they did, there’s not much any of these groups can do when public discourse is shaped by a crude dynamic between the easily manipulated “Love is an ideal” people, and the dishonest politicians/media seeking to curry their favor.
The only method I can honestly see for wresting power back from the three groups, is to remove one of them.
Not by violence, mind you, although left to itself, the chaos brought about by this self-destructive trio will indeed deliver on that. Rather, if the “Love is a value” group could be influenced and cured of their susceptibility to the “do X or you’re hateful” manipulation technique, they would cease to be a problematic group. And this can be done. It’s already a pretty tired narrative, after all. Only hateful people continue to buy into it. The only thing that keeps the narrative going is the fear of being singled out as a “proponent of hate”.
If secular and low-effort religious people could just be made aware of this chink in their armor, taught to be suspicious of the “do X or you are hateful” narrative, then the whole dynamic ought to fall apart. Politicians would no longer benefit from catering to the small group of “Love is an ideal” people, because the “Love is a value” people could no longer be so easily guilted into submission. You have to understand, the “Love is a value” people aren’t necessarily idiots. They’re just being blindsided.
So… if you don’t want the U.S. to fall apart, and for China and Russia and fight over the pieces, then why not try asking your friends and family whether they think of Love as an ideal, or a value, and then go on from there?
Taking Responsibility for Irresponsible Love
I return now to the concept of “irresponsible Love,” which I’ve intended as a kind of umbrella term to apply to all misguided forms of Love. Two particular forms I’ve addressed pretty heavily in this piece, and in true non-philosopher style, I will now define them for you well after their introduction.
- Devotion to a vague internal image of idealized Love as an immutable example that all people are morally obligated to imitate
- Acting based on what “feels” the most Loving, disregarding the possibility of more complicated objective consequences of the action, and failing to accept responsibility for them
Both are bad, and both are contributing to the decay of the U.S. The role of he first I’ve covered extensively. As for the second one, well, it’s not nearly as complicated. There’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with someone who wants you to make them an omelete, but won’t let you break a few eggs. Wishy-washy touchy-feely Love-expert that I am though, I’d like to make a defense for certain actions that could /potentially/ be seen as falling under the second definition.
Basically, there are times when acting according to what “feels” like Love, and disregarding the possible consequences of your actions, is an exceptionally good and admirable thing to do. We live in a world of incomplete knowledge; all decisions are probabilistic, and performing heroic acts often requires risking consequences so horrible it hurts to even imagine them.
For example, we’ve all seen that scene where some guy runs to push a kid out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, sacrificing himself in the process. But imagine you yourself were about to try and do that, and realize this: what if when you push the kid out of the way, the driver suddenly catches themself and swerves at the last moment. Then, because you moved the child, the vehicle ends up hitting the person anyway in the new location. Could you live with yourself if that happened? It’s not like you intended any harm, but if you hadn’t done what you did, wouldn’t the child have lived?
To do heroic things and act in times of considerable uncertainty, a person has only their own perspective to go on. And one way or another, they have to take responsibility for whatever happens. The level of resolve necessary to do this can only come from a deep and personal understanding of the meaning of Love within oneself.
Remember that scene in that one movie? You know the one. Where the protagonist gets all worked up, and against the advice of everyone around him, he chooses to risk everything and go do the thing, simply because he can’t help it; it’s for Love. Is such behavior irresponsible?
Not necessarily. It’s not really something you can tell from external things, but you can easily see the difference between steeling yourself before some heroic feat, versus just doing what “feels right” because the alternative has been labeled “hate.” A hero finds the truth inside himself, and realizing that what the has found is truer than anything anyone else could ever tell him, he goes and takes action with a mind so resolute and fearless that neither death nor pain can sway him. It is in that moment that the hero necessarily accepts complete responsibility for his actions, even for consequences he couldn’t possibly have foreseen. In this way his actions cease to be an instance of type-2 irresponsible Love.
Love Isn’t What You Expect
There’s a slight variation of the previously mentioned hero trope that I actually find way more compelling, and its one you see more often in anime than in Western media. Western movies, for some mysterious and echoey reason, tend to presuppose that the viewer agrees with the author’s definition of Love (therefore treating it as an ideal). Cultures that respect Love as something a person has to find for themself know that the definition each person arrives at can be quite different from what you’d expect. Serving as what is perhaps my favorite example of this wisdom, Nekomonogatari: Black begins and ends with an exploration of the question whether protagonist Araragi is actually in love or not.
In what is sort of a spoiler but is also really not, the conclusion that Araragi arrives at is that he’s NOT in Love with the girl he’s been interested in. Throughout the series, Araragi and the girl clearly display feelings for one another, but while he’s gearing up for the final battle to go save the girl from her dark fate, Araragi’s mentor asks why the boy would go through so much for Love. “But it’s not for Love”, responds Araragi, who with the cold certainty of someone prepared to die, proceeds to deliver the following lines:
And then he goes and faces death to save her. And I guess that relieves his “sexual frustration”, because he didn’t ask anything else of her. So while it is, by his own admission, not an instance of romantic Love, it is still clearly an instance of Love in the more inclusive sense. And this self-deprecative interpretation of his feelings for the girl is an understanding he came to himself, completely counter to what virtually everyone expected of him.
And that’s why I say Love is amazing. That’s why I don’t bother defining it. Because I know that when a person finds and aligns themself with the Love in their core, even for a moment, they become completely at peace, completely resolute, and completely ready to act. THAT is awesome. I value THAT. But it’s such a rare and personal occurance that it would be foolish to hold Araragi’s situation as an ideal, to berate people for not living up to it every moment of every day. And the reality is that the thing to live up to isn’t Araragi’s actions, but his attainment of a true understanding of the Love within himself.
Hate Isn’t Special
This discussion of Love simply wouldn’t be complete without addressing the supposed opposite of Love, “hate”. The word has gained considerable power in our language, invoking a sense that some crazed, violent antipathy resides in the descriptee, even if that feature is hidden from others, and unknown, perhaps, even to himself. Calling a person hateful is to accuse him of ignorance, paranoia, and genocidal intent. Calling a group hateful is to associate them with the image of mass-murdering dictators and torch-wielding lynch mobs.
In reality, the actual “experience” of hate is nothing special. No different really from anger or dislike. You can hate vegetables and you can hate people and it’s really not such a different thing. I don’t see how a little thing like hate could possibly weigh up to something as great and mysterious as Love, so I don’t really see the two as opposites. Rather, it’s quite natural for hate be part and parcel to Love. If you Love your family, you’ll probably hate anyone who seeks their destruction. If you care about children, you’ll probably hate child molesters. Anger has a tendency to burn the wielder, so perhaps it would be better if, instead of hating, you took the time to contemplate your enemy’s motivations so that you could see that person as really being no different from yourself. That sounds pretty virtuous, right? But if you succeed at quelling your hate, and evil prevails because you (a good man) did nothing, then I can’t help but feel you made a much larger mistake.
Can hate become a problem? Sure. Especially in this age of the internet, people can get trapped in shameful cycles of self-harm: seeking out things that make them angry in order to feel engaged and important. Anger can be addictive, but so can fear, so can food, and drink, and sex. That alone couldn’t justify hate’s special place in the hall of vitriol. What’s so special about it? Why must people who hate be silenced?
The answer is fear. Ever since the second World War, the overriding fear in the hearts of intellectuals and the ruling class has been that certain virus-like ideologies had been born into existence: ideologies that could slip past all sanity-checks and infiltrate democracies by subsisting on and stoking the senseless fires of hate within the masses. Could such viral ideologies exist? Potentially. I did describe earlier, in less biological terms, that a sort of virus has taken hold in the U.S. which takes advantage of people’s inexperience living according to ideals.
The difference is the virus I described really could infiltrate a healthy host (and probably did), whereas the supposedly viral “hateful ideologies” have never actually been shown to take hold in a functional democratic nation. Necessarily, before a country will consider shifting to an extreme ideology, its economic and political systems have to have already been reduced to shambles. That’s an /incredibly/ pertinent little fact, since it means happily functioning countries have nothing to gain by silencing “hateful” voices. And if it’s only dysfunctional countries that are vulnerable to these “hateful ideologies,” why exactly are we blaming the ideology, rather than the architects of the failed state that preceded it?
Hate and Change
It is truly the height of elitist out-of-touchery to think that “hate” rather than “a failure of the politicians and governmental system to allow the people a decent life” is what’s at fault. Hate is a symptom. As life gets worse in a country, people get more angry. It’s a natural consequence, as predictable as steam building up in a pressure cooker.
People are generally a patient, tolerant lot. They have a natural bias for maintaining the status quo, because as long as they still have something, they have something to lose. They will sit and watch their nation’s systems fall apart, and as life gets harder for them, they will simply work harder.
But they’re /going/ to be angry about it. They’re /going/ to start questioning things. They’re /going/ to put more faith into conspiracy theories. And eventually, if things get bad enough, they’re going to throw their weight behind any strong leader with a plan to overthrow the system. So /of course/ existing politicians and corporations will be anti-hate. Hate is part of the natural cycle that holds them accountable and flushes them out.
A drastic change from the status quo in 1920-1930’s Germany was inevitable. In 1923, the price of bread was literally increasing by an order of magnitude every month. Something had to give. An incredibly patient 10 years later, the pressure cooker exploded and, yes, a lot of Jews died. Notably, the Jewish community really did hold a disproportionate sum of the power and wealth in Germany at the time, so it’s not as if the target of the people’s hate was completely random. Nonetheless, when things get as heated as they did in Germany, it’s kind of a roll of the dice. And when that happens, you really don’t want to be someone they can pin the blame on.
Failed by their governing system, a people has every right to break off from their contract with it. By government’s very nature, though, this is never a clean process. It is unavoidable that innocent people will be hurt during periods of change. But that doesn’t mean that we are obligated to avoid change at all cost. It’s true that hate can cause people to do senseless things, but if the only alternative is that politicians and political systems can never be held accountable for their failures, then there IS no alternative. Hate is neither good nor bad, it’s just doing its job. It’s no insult to the founders of this nation, nor its lofty founding ideals, to appreciate the occasional need for revolution. The founders were well aware of it themselves.
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure” -Thomas Jefferson
Love and Hate: Let Them Be
Can hate drive people to violence? Yes. But if you’re fighting for a better future for your children, you’re doing so with Love. And it’s not irresponsible Love if the status quo was so bad that just about anything would be better. Compassion sometimes means hurting people. Love sometimes means being harsh. And hate? Hate’s not a problem. Hate’s just a feeling that keeps people from being taken advantage of for too long. If you can’t understand that, don’t think you’re some kind of angel. You’re an imp, hyper-privileged and sheltered, both from the realities of the world and from the truth in your heart. You know nothing of Love, save what you’ve been told. And because Love is powerful, because Love is mysterious, because Love is dangerous, you will never be told the whole truth about it.