The rhetoric of love is as hurtful as the rhetoric of hate. Trump populism, for example, uses the rhetoric of fear and hate, targeting women and people of color. But the empty positive, loving rhetoric on the part of a pro-establishment “progressive” liberal left does at least as much harm.
Domestic violence abusers and stalkers regularly use the phrase, “I love you” to both justify and distract from actions and impact that embody considerable hatred of themselves and others. It is designed to break consent. If we agree to do something, and then I use that agreement to do something else entirely, it breaks consent. Usually, the break in consent exists strategically to extract something from or otherwise exploit another party against their will. Malicious lawyers use this “bait and switch” tactic all the time, by getting people to “agree” to things entirely different than what they believed they were agreeing to.
If you ask me to do the dishes before you get home, and I say, “Sure thing.” That’s a positive, affirmative response. Then I think about doing the dishes. Then I talk about doing the dishes. Maybe I even study the issue with diligent rigor. When I use an affirmational, positive and loving response as a strategy to shut you up so you stop asking me to do things, then I am exploiting and breaking consent using the “bait and switch” rhetoric of love. That amounts to a lie that I told you. Moreso than this, it amounts to an act of manipulation and abuse. In exploiting language and trust, I cause harm to our ability to communicate and relate to one another and our relationship. It is a form of social control — controlling violence, and results in alienation, trauma and suspicion.
Rhetoric of the Political Establishment Left
The establishment left — which includes many self-styled liberals and progressives — often uses the rhetoric of love to protect rather than improve the status quo. For example, as Ellen Mavrich points out, many self-styled leftists and progressives hide their passive conservatism or even active animosity toward contemporary social justice movements using the rhetoric of love. We use the rhetoric of social justice to support the status quo, deny contemporary issues, or even criticize and undermine liberatory struggles. Mavrich acknowledges that progressives “love to emphasize [their] radical past”, and challenges us if we “pretend to be a community leading the future while we actually slink around the sidelines hiding from the bully, [then] we need to stop aligning ourselves with the truly brave people who came before. That is also an injustice.”(1)
More locally, we have cities that adopt “progressive” stances that have no real-world impact, such as “sustainability commissions,” that have no authority nor scope of work beyond doing unnecessary “research” and creating non-binding “recommendations” for decision-makers to ignore even as they trumpet their “green credentials” in reference to such commissions. We have politicians who express empty “concern” for an issue or feigned “outrage” over systematic police brutality, but who do little or no crusading to back up their words.
The report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption,” says 24 states have preempted local minimum wage increases; 17 have stopped paid sick or family leave; three have voided anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals; three have stopped laws aimed at home sharing (like AirBnB that has tightened affordable housing options); 37 have blocked local regulation of ride sharing (that compete with the more heavily licensed taxis); 17 have blocked municipal broadband (challenging telecom monopolies); and 42 have limited local taxation and spending.
The result? Pre-emption crushes social innovation. “Progressive change” gets funneled into increasingly-narrow and tightly-choreographed, heavily-scripted and regulated pro-establishment lobby theater. Such change strategies take it as a given that they must “collaborate” with and accept institutions and interests of dominant culture at the table and take into account or even give them precedent and priority, rendering results meaningless and empty — change in name only (CHINO, if that).
Meanwhile, the participating activists have spent countless (often-unpaid) hours of labor to help make this happen, becoming, in effect, willing corporate slaves or stool-pigeons who drain precious resources from, marginalize and hide more effectual organizing strategies designed to circumvent, short-circuit or call-out this process. Such establishment leftism does immense harm toward actual liberatory struggle, and it will continue either until the establishment crumbles or someone disrupts it. For this reason, the pro-establishment left may constitute a higher strategic priority for direct action work than the corporate or other authoritarian institutions of dominant culture they claim to oppose, precisely because they so-effectively “run interference” as a vanguard of pro-establishment defense processes.
A Way Out and Forward
It often takes considerable courage — especially in this brave new world — to enact love beyond disposable and disingenuous rhetoric. In contrast, using the rhetoric of love as a strategy to avoid enacting love is an act of cowardice and manipulation. Many of us are so deeply programmed this way by our enculturation that we can’t even tell the difference in our own or others’ actions. Whenever and wherever we can, we must stand firm to enact and embody love in spite of considerable opposition from the fear and hatred of others. Unfortunately, it often means taking a path of more resistance. It means holding ourselves and others accountable whenever our rhetoric diverges from our embodied actions. This must occur not only on individual and relational levels, but institutional levels.
On deeply personal level, we can feel overwhelmed as soon as we engage in an accountability process that exposes empty rhetoric we or others around us use. It means slowing down, scaling back and getting a more solid personal and relational foundation beneath us. It means not promising things we can’t deliver, no matter how “well-intentioned.” It means having a clear and honest understanding of our capacities, and holding others to account for their promises. It can mean shifting allegiances away from behaviors, attitudes and institutions that remain unwilling or unable to remain accountable, or even actively oppose or undermine accountability itself. Only then do we know what we actually have to work with, and only then can we plan and execute effective, sustained social change strategies that move beyond personal and relational work to target society’s institutions.
A Community Bill of Rights is one important tool among many for us to use in such processes of accountability and integrity, by helping us recognize and hold both individuals and institutions to locally-enforceable, legally-binding account when their rhetoric and “intentions” diverge from their behavior and impact. Moreso than this, Community Bills of Rights are useful tools to help the intention and rhetoric of love re-engage with our behavior and impact, in three important ways:
1. They allow us (we, the people) to enforce already-recognized rights locally when non-local (e.g., state or federal) institutions that supposedly recognized those rights refuse to enforce them (passive violations), or even actively violate them.
2. They allow us to recognize and elevate previously-unrecognized rights fundamental to the health, safety and welfare of natural and human communities, such as the Rights of Nature, or the right of every person to a safe shelter, or a life free from relationship violence.(2) It allows us to bring our actions and impact closer to our intentions and rhetoric without asking distant and unaccountable authority figures for permission.
3. Community Bills of Rights allow us to address several outstanding issues of fundamental rights violations. In a single Bill of Rights we can address workers’ and immigrants’ rights, the Rights of Nature, women’s right to body sovereignty, and other important issues of fundamental integrity. By addressing many different issues on a single structural platform, we can create greater solidarity by building broad coalitions of support for the Community Bill of Rights. People of privilege can use their privilege to truly listen to and address the needs of the community and lead for progressive change, which in turn creates greater community.
(2)This was a right that existed briefly on the federal level, but was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the early 2000’s. It depends on the Federal government’s authority to enforce such rights through the Commerce Clause, which treats everyone and everything in the world as a dollar value and ironically also allows the government considerable control over human behavior. Regardless, if the powers that be can’t slap a dollar sign on it, they can’t enforce it. This is how they enforce the EPA and civil rights laws: by converting humans and nature into corporate profit and loss figures. Is that right? Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FsgPwZQtlIQDnOCDoMhZiBW1598ccSOYEELwlkHwp7M/pub#h.k8ugw2yjpmty