What’s Love Got To Do With It?

by Eric J. Weiner

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.—James Baldwin

Real social transformation, real change has to come out of a love of life and a love of the world…—Adrienne Rich

Finally, outrage. Intense, violent, peaceful, burning, painful, heart-wrenching, passionate, empowering, joyful, loving outrage. Finally. We have, for decades, lived with the violence of erasure, silencing, the carceral state, economic pain, hunger, poverty, marginalization, humiliation, colonization, juridical racism, and sexual objectification. Our outrage is collective, multi-ethnic, cross-gendered and includes people from across the economic spectrum. One match does not start a firestorm unless what it touches is primed to burn. But unlike other moments of outrage that have briefly erupted over the years in the face of death and injustice, there seems to be something different this time; our outrage burns with a kind of love not seen or felt since Selma and Stonewall. Every scream against white supremacy, each interlocked arm that refuses to yield, every step we take along roads paved in blood and sweat, each drop of milk poured over eyes burning from pepper spray, every fist raised in solidarity, each time we are afraid but keep fighting is a sign that radical love has returned with a vengeance.

In this time of civil unrest and democratic insurgency, the kind of k-12 and university education we are providing to the nation’s children and young adults is of paramount importance. A democratic education, following Dewey, is the keystone to a functioning democratic society. Public schools are responsible for providing our children and young adults this kind of education. Within schools, teachers-in-relation to their students are the engines of learning and intellectual/emotional development. A teacher who teaches in the service of democracy in the United States, regardless of grade-level and content area knowledge, has three primary objectives: 1) To teach their students how to think critically; 2) To help their students develop habits of mind/body that are consistent with the demands of democratic life; and 3) To protect and nurture their students’ natural curiosity and creativity. In order for them to be able to meet these objectives within our current historical context, we must reassert the importance of what bell hooks calls an “ethic of love” and Paulo Freire called a “pedagogy of love” into the praxis of teaching/learning.

“Without love,” writes bell hooks, “our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.”[1] Her turn to love builds upon Paulo Freire’s idea that “love is an act of courage, not of fear; [it] is a commitment to others.”[2] We hear a similar appeal to love from Ernesto “Che” Guevara who understood that although love might begin with a feeling, if it is to gain revolutionary force it needed to be directed toward political action for liberation.[3] And lastly, let’s not forget Dr. King’s relentless pursuit of “love with justice [as opposed to] weak love [which] can be sentimental and empty. I’m talking about the love that is strong, so that you love your fellow-men enough to lead them to justice.”[4] For hooks, Freire, Guevara, and King, without an ethic of love, the struggle for liberation will devolve into tribalism and lead us not to justice but to new forms of bondage. Without an ethic of love, tribal interests eclipse social responsibility, resistance turns reactionary, and hope ripens into sentimentality.

In a weird way, we have Trump, McConnell and the rest of the GOP, and, of course, the Democratic Party’s abandonment of working-class people and people of color to thank for blowing oxygen onto the smoldering flames of discontent. Without their declaration of war on democracy, overt support of white supremacy, open disdain for working people, dismissal of any science that challenges their orthodoxies, and celebration of toxic masculinity, I am not sure recent history would have unfolded the way it has. Before the plutocracy’s full-frontal attack on the moral principles of democracy, universal human rights, and the environment, a large majority of the population in the United States, liberal and conservative, seemed to be a bit too comfortable with the status quo.

Growing economic inequality was hidden and/or rationalized by endless news cycles about low unemployment, a booming real estate sector, and a bull market; gun violence was dismissed as an unavoidable consequence of the second amendment; Obama’s ascension to the presidency signaled for conservatives the end of racism and for liberals evidence that we were moving in the right direction; and generational poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, food and housing “insecurity,” militarization of our urban schools and neighborhoods, and the persistence of gender inequality were all moved to the margins of civil discourse. If you couldn’t see how good things were and/or how they were getting better, there was something wrong with you.

Within the context of democratic education, an ethic of love—radical love—lays the foundation for teachers and students to trust each other, learn to understand difference beyond empathy, develop a critical sense of social responsibility, and, most significantly, confront their fear of freedom. According to Erich Fromm, people fear freedom because

though it has brought [them] independence and rationality, it has made [them] isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives [they are] confronted with are either to escape from the burden of [their] freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.[5]

Within the context of positive freedom, we love each other because of our differences, not in spite of them. Love with justice, as King said, is strong because it is courageous; it helps teachers and students confront their fears, articulate their hopes, and share their dreams. Radical love transforms individuals into communities while providing a check against tribalism; it roots the practice of teaching deep in the marrow of mutuality and understanding just as it provides routes that lead us away from sectarianism (negative freedom) and toward the horizon of justice (positive freedom). Justice is realized not in the negative; that is, not in the absence of rules and regulations, but in the struggle to create systems that are balanced and fair. Positive freedom can’t be realized in isolation, only in community. Radical love speaks to a commitment to struggle and fight for someone else’s rights as though you were fighting for your own. Teachers must love their students deeply, radically, in order to teach against the grain.[6]

My commitment to an “ethic of love” was renewed this summer with the help of ten doctoral candidates in a course I designed and taught over the last six weeks called Educators as Intellectuals. Before the course began, my commitment to critical pedagogy and love for my students had been waning for years. Cynicism, mine and theirs, like a malignant tumor had begun to metastasize; if hope is the fruit of radical love, mine was withering on the vine. It wasn’t that I stopped caring for my students’ learning or wasn’t committed to teaching them how to think critically, develop habits of mind/body that were consistent with the demands of democracy, or tried to nurture and protect their curiosity and creativity. But something was missing. After twenty-years of teaching at my university, maybe, I would catch myself thinking, it’s time to do something else. I didn’t know what was missing until I started working with the doctoral students who had registered for my course.

James Baldwin Smoking, © Weiner, watercolor, 2020

The love for each of these students grew deeper and more complex as the course and our community evolved online over six weeks. In this very short but intense time together, we were able to build a community of hope, trust, respect, compassion, and caring. We didn’t always agree with each other, but we disagreed in a way that showed the love we had for each other and our collective hope for a future in which there is less pain, violence and oppression. Within our community, we opened ourselves to the possibility of critical learning; that is, the practice of confronting our personal and social fears, hopes, passions, and desires to make the world more just, humane, and sustainable. My students’ commitment to a pedagogy of love and their courage to get inside the dark, messy spaces of domination and exploitation was contagious and empowering. The deeper we went into the work of Edward Said, Myles Horton, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, Antonio Gramsci, Stanley Aronowitz, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Maxine Greene, and especially James Baldwin, it became clear that in order to be a critical educator who also functions as a transformative-dissident public intellectual you must have an ethic of radical love guiding your praxis.

What I still find surprising was that we were able to do this fully online. Using a combination of synchronous Zoom meetings and asynchronous discussion posts and counter-posts, we achieved a level of intimacy that I find is too often missing from the pedagogical relationship, online or in-person. Intimacy develops out of a pedagogy of love; it slips into the language of critique and possibility by delving deeply into the many beautiful and painful ways the personal is political. The questions that were asked during our three hour Zoom meetings revealed our need to know and reimagine ourselves-in-relation to each other and the world. Through large and small group dialogue as well as during one-on-one Zoom conferences, the medium seemed to disappear. But it wasn’t the same as being in person; it was better.

There was something about the digital distance that encouraged and amplified the level of intimacy. Maybe it was because we were in the relative safety of our homes. Maybe the screen provided a sense of security that then allowed for the level of engagement that might not otherwise have occurred in person. When there were disagreements during our Zoom-mediated classes, people could “push back” without feeling the enfleshed presence of the actual body/mind against which they were pushing. Maybe the absence of a “body” made intimacy easier. Maybe our isolation gave our coming together an urgency it wouldn’t have had pre-pandemic. In the end, and I guess this is my main point, from an ethic of love arose a pedagogy of love, both conditions—not outcomes—of intimacy. I still don’t quite understand how it all works. But it helped to erase the cynicism and silence, the fear and mistrust—the hopelessness—that can quickly threaten and derail the critical/creative educational project. Because of our radical love for our communities, the world and each other, our class grew into an intimate space of laughter, hope, critical thought, curiosity, reflection, shared pain and passion, beauty, intellectual courage, and creative action.

To Marlene, who spoke with her whole body, eyes wide with curiosity, your trenchant critique of racial bias as well as your representation of the dissident intellectual shows us the power in authenticity and indigenous knowledge; to Victoria, who turned the academy on its head, demanding we provide our students alternatives to traditional academic routes, your work reminds us that critical pedagogy when done right is a praxis of soulcraft; to Monica, who eloquently dismantled the dominant discourse on standardized testing, your work unravels the structures of commonsense that disempower teachers and students; to James, whose own boredom motivated him to advance a notion of schooling that was less so, your work challenges the most sacred of cows without apology; to Robyn, whose brilliance and courage allowed her to disentangle the complicated legacy of white supremacy in her life and schooling, leaving us humbled and self-reflective, your critical journey signals the transformative power of the sociological imagination and points to your future as a dissident leader for your congregants and your students; to Donna P, who opened up space for the children to speak, and when they did, we were forced to account for how we may have silenced them, your work reminds us that we must learn to listen more and talk less; to Ashley, whose intellectual curiosity and radical compassion helped us understand how love is a necessary dimension of critical teaching, your patience and empathy teaches us that our differences are sources of power and transformative action; to Sarah, whose commitment to fighting for justice in higher education was made all the more formidable because of her critical techno-literacies and theatrical background, your drive and tenacious refusal to accept anything short of mutual respect shows us the importance of courage in the struggle for freedom; to Meredith, who wrestled with intersectionality, complicating our understanding of race, gender, sexuality, and class within different spheres of learning and teaching, your powerful writing illustrates how we can move our ideas beyond our schools and neighborhoods; and to Donna V, whose intellectual integrity and dexterity, emotional honesty, and passion for doing what is right made us question whether the system could be reformed or whether it should be radically dismantled, your commitment to dissident work reveals the power we can have if we refuse to accept our place in the world: Each of you, in your own way, reminded me how fundamental an ethic of radical love is to critical pedagogy and the work of the dissident intellectual. I am forever grateful. As I witnessed each of you growing more confident and self-assured, your voices becoming more amplified in the service of those who are silenced, I felt renewed and reawakened to the possibility that intellectual and pedagogical work matters. I know each of you will make a critical mark on your schools and communities, pushing people and systems to bend to the needs of those who are silenced, marginalized, and/or made invisible behind the veil of ideology.

As parents, students, teachers and other educational workers struggle to imagine what school will look like during these times of civil unrest and dis-ease, let’s remember to reassert an ethic of radical love into the teaching and learning experience. Whether the experience is fully online or supported by some other “modality” of teaching, students should feel the teacher’s commitment to working with them to develop what Maxine Greene calls a “social imagination.” This is the ability to be able to distinguish between what is and what should be; it’s a categorical rejection of the hegemony of the real. By paying critical attention to the “not yet,” we move from imaginative inertia into the social and aesthetic dimension. Within this dimension of teaching and learning, dissident hope rips reality from fatalism’s grip. The social and aesthetic imagination challenges the idea that the world and all its horrors and tribulations are immutable; as we enact a pedagogy of love, we must be wide-awake to our “unfinishedness,” imperfections, and power. We must struggle against the “indifference and disconnection” that lurks within the (virtual) hallways and classrooms of our schools through the imposition of curriculum and pedagogies that ignore or shut down the critical and creative capacities of our students.[7] What’s love got to do with it? Everything!

[1] https://uucsj.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/bell-hooks-Love-as-the-Practice-of-Freedom.pdf

[2] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. Print.

[3] https://www.globaljusticecenter.org/papers/che-guevara%E2%80%99s-concept-revolutionary-love

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1964/08/29/letter-from-jackson

[5] Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. 1941. Print.

[6] Roger Simon. Teaching Against the Grain: Texts for a pedagogy of possibility. Praeger. 1992

[7] Maxine Greene. Teaching the Art of Wide-Awakeness. New York: Independent School. Stella Adler Studio of Acting. 2012.