by Diana Rahim
How does one even begin to talk about love? It’s almost unthinkable. It’s like asking one to talk about a topic as fraught and as nebulous as “consciousness.” I am not sure I am exaggerating. I struggled for a while about how to introduce this topic, how to write this letter. But I realised that perhaps this nebulous way of thinking about love is part of the problem in the first place. It is almost instinct to think and speak of love as something essential, as a value, or as something innate in us waiting to be expressed. That’s why discourses on love can often lead to lofty essays or a philosophical exposition. They are obsessed in trying to explain love as essence; as some intangible force within us.
However love is perhaps better understood not as something that is already there, but something that we have to create out of nothing. Love as created ex-nihilo. Love as a doing, a verb, not a noun (or at least not just a noun). The same goes, I suppose, with every other positive value such as being “good” or “understanding”. It is not enough to make a self-declaration, to say “but I’m a good person!” or “I’m understanding” and that perennial favourite even by KKK members, “I’m not racist.” These positive values are not proven by self-declarations but by concrete actions. Our being in the world necessitates relationships with others, so personal declarations are never enough. How we engage and affect other people bear strong judgement on our character.
When we think of love then, let’s try to think of it through concrete actions. When I think of love, I think of my mother bathing me as a child during my high fevers. I think of someone drying my hair. I think of a support group that is a safe space for people who have been through trauma. I think of acts of communal love and service. I think of the act of apologising, the ability to go beyond the defensiveness of the ego. I think of the ability to listen to each other in the experience of hurt. In all of these instances, we feel supported, heard, and cared for. We feel ourselves valued as human beings. So when we think of love, we should perhaps think about the concrete actions we can take, and exhibit consistently in our commitment to being loving.
It seems simple, but it never really is, because love isn’t cultivated in a vacuum.
So when I think of love, I also think of the very real world within which love has to be cultivated and sustained. A world that sometimes gets in the way, prohibits or controls the kind of relationships that are valued and devalued. A world that decides what gets to be legitimised and recognised as love. A world that pushes a politics of desirability to decide who appears to be more lovable, or deserving of love, than others. Most of the submissions for our upcoming series deal with these challenges — the ways in which the scripts of community, society and even the script we are told to follow as individuals, can inhibit the true, more genuine expressions of love in favour of something that the prevailing order finds more acceptable.
We receive different scripts sometimes about how love is supposed to look like, and they are almost always never innocent. Look hard enough and you can see the ideology that underpins the script, the ideology that seeks to be perpetuated through your very experience of love. Perhaps it is compulsory heteronormativity. Perhaps it is the belief that interracial coupling is not as “normal.” Perhaps it is even the insistence that a marriage is the goal of a coupling. It is important that we problematise received scripts not just because they inhibit our experience of love, but because it distorts the way we see and understand love.
And then there is also the question of who, exactly, are promoting these scripts. Is it our families? Our ethnic communities? Our religious communities? The society at large? What justification do they have for deciding the rules that govern the kind of relationships we are allowed to have? Of course our family, our communities, would always say that they come from a place of love, and the prohibitions are set for our own good. So what happens if we were to disobey or cross over the limits they have placed? Often times, the individual can find themselves alienated from the community, not belonging or fitting in quite as well, or in the worse case scenario, even casted out and rejected completely. Sara Ahmed, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion had discussed how this “acting in the name of love can work to enforce a particular ideal onto others by requiring that they live up to an ideal to enter the community.”
It is actually really sinister how love, this powerful force that is so deeply, personally felt, can be manipulated as a tool of control. After all, what can be more affecting, more powerful, than this fundamental thing that humans yearn for and cherish so deeply? What can be more psychologically threatening to a person than to tell them that love will be withheld unless they behaved properly?
It is scary how difficult it can be to detect when love becomes toxic. When we find it so difficult to let go of a relationship we are holding on to (and I do not mean just romantic relationships, but all manner of relationships), because we are convinced that it is good for us, that it is where love resides. It can be so hard to let go of love when we are told that this terrible thing is what love is supposed to look like. (I can’t help but think about how child abuse can often be dismissed as simply an ‘Asian’ way of discipline, or that it is in fact an act of love. This is believed despite there being no research to prove the usefulness of spanking as a disciplinary technique, but plenty to show how it breeds issues of self-esteem, bad behaviour, increases risk of mental illness, and promotes anger in both child and parent, amongst other negative effects.)
Love is not always innocent, it can also be a tool of manipulation used to conceal pain and power under the guise of care. It is why abuse and manipulation can often be accompanied by the language of love with phrases like “I was doing this because I love you” or “I was only trying to help and support you.” In each of these cases you are posited as the person that stands in your own way to being loved.
Of course hidden behind this veiled, complicated play of power is the fact that the terms of the relationship, or what is constituted as love, is being disproportionately decided by one party. Power feels entitled to demand that you act in a certain way. It can reject any other form of love other than its own. You would think: if I behaved right, in the way they wanted, then I would receive love, then this relationship could be fulfilling.
The way love can be used as a weapon, or the way the language of love is utilised, often ends up re-directing blame to the very people that are suffering. Not only that, it can even posit the ones who are abusive or hateful as the ones who are ‘loving.’
Sara Ahmed had noted that hate groups often branded themselves as groups premised on love. White supremacy groups did not see themselves as hate groups, but groups that were guided by their love for the White race and the Aryan nation. They would even quote a biblical verse “Love thy neighbour of thy people,” following it up by saying “My people are white.” Think also of the rhetoric that vilify vulnerable communities such as migrant workers or refugees. Someone might justify their hateful views against them by saying that migrant workers or refugees can threaten the safety of our women, our children, and of course, that great big love of all loves in this age of nationalism, the nation.
Through a discourse of love, even hate can be twisted into love. This is why love, its language and the dynamic of relationships, always have to be understood critically.
So in your relationships, in the practice of your love, perhaps it would be a great help to be self-reflective and critical. Are you free? Are you given the option to be free? Do you give that option to the other party? Is anyone less able to set the terms of the relationship? Is the relationship genuinely giving you feelings of love, of being cared for? Or is it instead insisting that you are loved, while your actual feelings border more on anxiety, a lack of self-esteem, and a sense of rejection of your self?
In a healthy relationship, power cannot be exercised at the disadvantage of anyone. You have to be an equal participant. This means that true love is not present without justice. There has to be freedom in the exercise of love. It is not something that should be coerced, demanded, or guilted out of you. This is true not just in our romantic or personal relationships, but also the relationships to the things that are important to us such as our families, our communities and our faith. That famous line in surah Al-baqara “there is no compulsion in religion,” is popular precisely because deep inside we know that love and relationships cannot be forced or imposed, at least not if it’s going to be genuine. Love can keep you in line, but it should not hold you back. It can give you constructive critique, but it should not tear you down or invalidate your very existence.
Knowing this, the question we can ask moving forward is how do we ensure that there is a healthy expression of love in our personal and social lives? How do we make sure that the relationships fostered in our communities are not ones that are coercive, unreasonably demanding or even abusive? How can we learn to recognise when what presents itself as love is actually harmful and toxic? How do we develop the ability to leave toxic relationships? How do we create alternative systems of support and care for those who have been casted out? Essentially, at the heart of all these questions, is the question — how can we learn to love each other better?
illustration by Wan Xiang Lee