The politics of hate is on the rise. A week before the Brexit vote, UK Labour MP Jo Cox was shot by a man shouting “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In France, Marine Le Pen draws parallels between Muslim migrants and the occupation of her country during World War II. In the US, Donald Trump wants to bring back torture, has called women “pigs” and made fun of a reporter with a disability.
In Australia, the share of voters who hate their opponents has risen from under one in six in the late 1990s to over one in four voters today. In the US, the share of people who say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from another political party has risen from 5 per cent to 41 per cent.
You can imagine the scene here in Australia. “Oh, thank goodness, sweetheart — when you said your girlfriend was a lesbian, I thought you said a Liberal.”
What’s the best response to rising hate? Martin Luther King put it best: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
I was first introduced to the idea of the politics of love by two New Zealand thinkers: Max Harris and Philip McKibbin. They advocate the kind of love the Ancient Greeks called agápe, meaning “to will the good of another”.
When trade unionists talk about solidarity and when egalitarians call each other “comrade”, it’s a kind of love. Just as when Gough Whitlam poured red dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hand and Lingiari said “We are all mates now”.
Essential to the politics of love is a sense of warmth and respect towards others. Rather than regarding those of a different gender, sexuality, class or race as enemies to be crushed, a politics of love requires an attitude of care towards those who are different from us.
On indigenous policy, the national apology to the Stolen Generations was an act of love, a moment in which, as Kevin Rudd puts it, our nation was “wrestling with our own soul”. There is plenty more work to be done. But indigenous reconciliation also requires a sense of celebration, a touch of pride in the achievements of the Cathy Freemans, the Rover Thomases, the Faith Bandlers, the Adam Goodes. A politics of love should give us a smile when nonindigenous Australians remember how lucky we are to share this continent with the longest continuing link to the land of any community in the world.
In combating racial discrimination, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi drew on love in their campaigns for racial justice. When it comes to sexism, Bell Hooks makes a similar case. When men embrace feminist thinking, she argues, they move from thinking of the world through domination and coercion to valuing mutual growth and emotional wellbeing.
Or take same-sex marriage, of which I’m a strong supporter. There is a sharp-edged way of making the case for marriage equality which focuses on the need to scrap prejudice and remove discrimination.
But when we look at the most successful campaigns for same-sex marriage, they often have the word “love” in the title. In 2015, when the US Supreme Court secured equal marriage, it was celebrated on social media with the hashtag #lovewins. Opposing same-sex marriage in the abstract is easier than when it’s about real people in love.
Finally, a politics of love should shape how we practise politics. When I coedited a book on trust in politicians in 2002, our publisher chose a cover image of one dog sniffing another’s backside. Trust in government and politicians is as low now as it’s been in two decades. Angry politics is a turn-off for many voters.
Distrust isn’t just a plague upon both our houses. The risk is that if people think politics is broken, they are more likely to believe that government is broken.
A politics of love doesn’t mean compromising on our values, or accepting the mushy middle. But a politics of love does mean that we need to always have in the back of our minds that how we practise politics matters as much as the outcomes on particular pieces of legislation. Politics isn’t a game — at its best, it’s a noble profession.
In discussing love, I recognise I may be raising more questions than I answer. But just because we can’t fit everything into a politics of love doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fit anything into it.
We can place a lot of emphasis in politics on cleverness — on designing the smartest policies, and forging cunning plans that will make the politics work. That stuff matters. But I’m increasingly interested in wisdom: how to live a good life and how to be of service to others. More smiles, fewer scowls.
I can’t promise to practise the politics of love all the time, but I’m going to try it a little more. Because love, like all of us, is a work in progress.