Interview: Philip McKibbin

Philip McKibbin

Kaupapa Vegan: The Source of Love

Philip McKibbin

This interview was originally published in Aotearoa Vegan and Plant-Based Living (Spring 2021).

Philip McKibbin
Philip McKibbin

What is the Politics of Love?

The Politics of Love is a new vision of politics.

I believe love can underpin our entire politics – everything from how we eat, to what sorts of decisions our government makes. I think of love as an ‘orientation’. It’s a way of relating: to ourselves, each other, non-human animals, and the natural world.

The Politics of Love is a values-based politics. As such, it affirms loving values, like compassion, responsibility, and trust. These values can influence how we act individually and collectively; they can guide what we do on a day-to-day basis, and shape the decisions we make together, including public policy.

An example of a loving individual action might be walking or cycling to work, because to do so is to show care for the environment. A loving policy could be the Labour Party’s proposed ban on conversion therapy, which expresses respect and understanding for our Rainbow community.

The Politics of Love has precedents in the everyday acts of kindness we show one another; our interpersonal relationships (like, for example, our friendships); as well as Indigenous struggle, and feminist, civil rights, and LGBTQI+ movement.

It insists that everyone belongs and all of us have worth.

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How has te ao Māori influenced this vision?

In so many ways! You know, the Politics of Love has a Māori name, which was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine, Jo Pannell. Jo is South African – she isn’t Māori – and her reo is fantastic. She has a deep love for te ao Māori; and she’s vegan, too! The name I gave it is ‘Te Mātāpuna Aroha’, which refers to the source of love.

The understanding of love at the centre of this vision has been strongly influenced by the Māori concept, ‘aroha’. When we talk about ‘love’ in English, we might be talking about any number of things – from the love we have for our companion animals, to the way we feel about the Burgerie’s burgers. Aroha is more encompassing: as well as reaching people, it extends to other animals, the land, our rivers, and so on…

Another thing that is very Māori about the Politics of Love is its focus on values. Defending our culture against colonial assault has meant we have had to be very clear about who we are and what’s important to us – so we refer to values a lot. We often talk about whānau, manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga – and, of course, aroha. The Politics of Love also has an explicit focus on values, such as courage and listening. I would suggest that certain Māori values, such as whanaungatanga and tiakitanga, can be thought of as loving values, too.

When I think about the way the Politics of Love has been developing as a set of ideas, I see Māori influences in that, as well. For one thing, it has been collaborative – many people have been involved in thinking through this politics. Also, the way it has been developing hasn’t been linear, but rather spiralling. We have been circling around this kaupapa, bringing new understandings to it and revising misapprehensions.

Finally, the Politics of Love is very candid in its acknowledgements. In my writing on the Politics of Love, I quote others – bell hooks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thích Nhất Hạnh, especially! – and I attempt to acknowledge everyone’s contributions, which is a very Māori way of doing things. There is a whakataukī: ‘He Māori te mihi; he mihi te Māori,’ which (basically) means, ‘To acknowledge others is integral to being Māori.’

You describe yourself as an ‘animal lover’. What does that mean for you?

I have always loved animals, ever since I was a boy – and I still do!

One of my earliest memories is from when I was four or five. I was crawling around on the kitchen floor with our cat Abbey, while my step-mum was preparing dinner. I remember saying, ‘I love Abbey. When I grow up, I’m going to marry her.’

Now, the term ‘animal lover’ is highly contentious. Sometimes, animal advocates are called ‘animal lovers’ by other people, as a way to denigrate us and our concerns (which is, of course, one of the ways they avoid attending to their own harmful behaviours). As a result of this, many activists and academics reject the term. They insist that it’s possible to advocate for animals without feeling affection for them. At the same time, there are a lot of people who call themselves ‘animal lovers’ – because they like dogs, for example – even though they still engage in harmful activities, like eating meat and riding horses.

I’ve written about the term ‘animal lover’ with my friend Kim Stallwood, who is an animal rights activist based in the UK. We write:

‘We want to transform the label, and infuse its meaning with a commitment to animal rights. Love is something that all of us have in common – those who call ourselves ‘animal lovers’, and those of us in the animal rights movement. All of us care about animals, even if we express our love in different ways.’

We argue that advocacy grounded in love is much deeper than advocacy that isn’t. Similarly, when we say ‘being an animal lover means respecting animal rights’, we encourage those who love dogs yet still eat cows to re-think their actions.

Is veganism a part of the Politics of Love?

Yes, I believe veganism is integral to the Politics of Love.

I wouldn’t want to say that non-vegans are incapable of love. I mean, I don’t think any of us were unloving before we went vegan – we were just less skillful in love, right? But I do think love leads us toward veganism, or something like it.

African-American theorist bell hooks argues that love is opposed to domination. She had in mind things like race, sex, and class – but I believe this can be extended to our relationships with non-human animals and the natural world, as well. The Politics of Love, then, is opposed to human supremacy, and speciesism more broadly.

A little while ago I wrote an article with Mexican philosopher and activist Carla Alicia Suárez Félix. Carla lives in Querétaro, and she started the Circle of Antispeciesist Studies. Our article is called ‘Love, Politics, and Veganism’, and one of the arguments we make is that social justice projects like feminism will remain incomplete unless we also interrogate our use and abuse of non-human animals. We think love leads us toward veganism – but there are many factors shaping the way we share our love.

We write:

‘The Politics of Love is not blind to the circumstances in which we live our lives. Rather, it is forward-looking, focusing on creating conditions under which we can express love. Unfortunately, many people feel threatened by veganism, because it implies a moral judgment, and because its steadfast opposition to harmful practices is often mistaken for a condemnation of the people who participate in those harms. The Politics of Love does not seek to condemn people, and it is not interested in punishment. Rather, it asks us what we will do now, for love, to make our world a better place for all of those who share it.’

As a Māori vegan, do you believe te ao Māori is moving toward veganism?

Change is happening. I know a lot of Māori who have embraced veganism.

A couple of years ago, I started a project called He Ika Haehae Kupenga, which shared kōrero with Māori, exploring connections between kai, lifestyle, te taiao, hauora, and non-human animals. You can read the kōrero at

The people I spoke with were involved in diverse kaupapa – some were vegan, some were vegetarian or reducing their meat and dairy consumption, some were actively revitalising Māori gardening practices, and others were focused on Māori kai sovereignty. I wanted to draw connections between these kaupapa. Of course, I learnt a lot!

Personally, I believe we need to change. We need to let go of some of the old ways of doing things, and reinvigorate other practices that once sustained us, like our traditional gardening methods. We have new insights into the lives of animals – some of which have been developed by Māori thinkers – and we can merge these with mātauranga Māori.

I think there are reasons for optimism. Veganism connects to important Māori cultural values, such as hauora, tiakitanga, and whanaungatanga. Importantly, it also connects to rangatiratanga. Now, rangatiratanga is usually translated as ‘self-determination’; but it’s also about being responsible – to ourselves and to others. Industrial agriculture is inherently exploitative, and we no longer need to kill other animals in order to feed ourselves. How can we keep saying others shouldn’t oppress us when we are dominating others?

I would like to see te ao Māori embracing veganism, but I do think that change has to come from within. It cannot be imposed from without. In my view, non-Māori vegans who say things like, ‘everyone must go vegan right now’ are – through their words and actions – demonstrating that they are ignorant of the history of our country, which has seen non-Māori attempting to impose their own ways of doing things on Māori, in violent ways.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford.

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Drawing Connections – Rebecca Lindum Greene

Drawing Connections: Art of War in a Politics of Love

Rebecca Lindum Greene

The year is 2000. I’ve just had the trip of my life: an unexpected gap year following a brain hemorrhage after falling off my skateboard, not long turned 18 and only a month following the completion of A-levels.

I’d have to go through my photos to check – stacks of pre-digital renderings on copy paper – but it’s October, I think, certainly Autumn.

The memory and sensation, as I am stood on the lookout platform over Liquorice Park in Lincoln – a Millennium Grant-funded community development on the South-West-facing Lindum Hill, accompanied by my new friend from the Foundation course at Lincoln Art School – is one of wonder, awe and a little trepidation.

The sun is low in the sky and the light golden. It is clear enough to see about 20 miles in the direction of the River Trent, or A1 where cooling towers punctuate the horizon. A ribbon of water known as the Fosse Dyke flows from Brayford Pool out via West Common, where horses freely roam the long-forgotten racecourse, a last reminder, the Grandstand nestled by the roadside.

Once an Iron Age fort, the history of Lincoln, like most places, is a story of conquest and invasion from a Roman Legionary Fortress to the present day, via agriculture, trade and everything in between. A significant seat in the Church Governance of England, once one of the wealthiest in the country due to the wool trade transported on the waterways, and from where the colour Lincoln green originally came. In the 20th century, it became better known for its contributions to Engineering and Industry: the first UK site to make Tanks at the turn of the last century for WWI, to aerospace and intelligence with numerous RAF Bases in the county around the city.

Towards the end of the ‘90s, the City of Lincoln was developing a new University, amalgamating the City’s Art School, De Montfort University, and Riseholme Horticultural Campus with Hull University. It was this development that I could now see peppering the Brayford Pool and beyond. All under the gaze of Minerva, the then University Logo.

My relationship with Lincoln began in the early 1990s, when I moved at age 11 to Lincoln as a full-time boarder at the former convent school, St. Josephs on Upper Lindum Street. I would spend my entire senior school years at this location. Encouraged in my creativity, I flourished and formed a community that would support me through my adolescence and beyond. Importantly, at the time of my brain haemorrhage, the school and local community showered me with love, encouragement and positivity. This, along with my youth, was instrumental to my significant recovery. Unable to thank each individual for their part in this, I took Lindum in to my name, to honour this community of people that encouraged me.

Rebecca Lindum Greene

The Art of War.

Born in a military hospital in a British Consulate in Germany, then growing up a ‘dependent’ of an employee in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force (RAF) propels you into a particular type of existence. The institutional landscape is no stranger to me. It is a world of order: restraint, routine; resilience. Fitting in, always fitting in. Simply to get on. Compartmentalisation. Compliancy. Coping.

Avoiding trouble. Recently I read a quote; ‘By avoiding conflict, we avoid the possibility of connection.’ Does that apply to conflict on the world stage, I wondered? At what cost?

For the RAF, whilst considered a more ‘gentlemanly’ institution of war, like its predecessors is a product of the technology of its time… The Army – land based, armed combat and projectiles; The Navy – sea based, naval vessels propelled by manpower and wind, steam and then the combustion engine. As flight evolved, the RAF took to the skies and, following lab experiments, developed biological weapons combined with other mechanisms that utilise the air. The path promising further destruction ensued… radar, nuclear, cyber, space. I understand these institutions manage and employ people, but weaponising as a form of defence? For whilst conflict has been a constant throughout our shared histories, now in an increasingly interconnected biosphere? There should be little place for conflict when managing finite resources on a global market?

Apart from my loving family nucleus and the objects which defined home, change was another constant: different walls, in different houses; different streets in different locations; different teachers in different schools; different ‘friends’ in different countries. Non-attachment.

Art, or creativity saved me, and herein lay my tension.

Creativity is my essence. Art, the seed that was sown in my being. My mind’s eye is its resting place and from time to time I am lucky enough to catch a glimmer of it, whether a line inked on paper, a frame caught on camera, a pencil sketch, or simply sounding out the air. Essentially, growing up and living through life experiences, it was my way of making sense of, or coming to terms with, the world. This vision, this perception of the shifting world, this brutally honest way of seeing, had a tragic and deeply felt sincerity. Watching a world in conflict.

I wonder sometimes if this narrative explains my draw to a particular type of artist… Anselm Keifer, Paul Nash, Jonathan Keane, specifically. Notably, Nash, British War Artist of WWI and WWII and a lover of trees; Keifer, German Artist and re-teller of his Nation’s History; Keane, British war artist of the Gulf War and a myriad political subjects and conflicts around the world.

Sitting in the Religious Education classroom of a former convent building, aged 11, I came across Anselm Keifer’s work The High Priestess, 1985/89. A profoundly moving experience; I can still feel the sensations, and picture where I sat in the room. The stone-walled entrance to the classroom marked by the engravings of a century of ghosts long gone. More souls still resounded in the heavy lead tomes pictured in the book concealed within the Bible study pages. A short time later I read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? Every page of it a written experience of Keifer’s visual work.

At the age of 14, I studied Savernake by Paul Nash for my GCSE; that sombre woodland walk that curves in to the unseen distance always feels like home to me. The pull of nature, or Old Wow to quote Sam Lee’s exquisite phrase is the other resource that brought me great comfort from an early age. Whether gathering Autumn leaves to give to my pre-school teacher; hanging out in woods as a teenager to be amongst trees and watch wildlife, immediate and perpetuated months following my brain haemorrhage, or now as a balm in the time that has elapsed following the terrorist attack on London Bridge fused with the unworldly hours of lockdown.

Aged 17 in 1998 – BOOM! – John Keane entered my world. Assaulted visually by his paintings describing The Troubles in a riot of colour, for example The Other Cheek..?; violence, anguish, and pain shouted at me from the canvas suspended at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Inspired and captivated, Keane’s book Conflict of Interests resonated with me. A trip to visit family in Northern Ireland didn’t come without its own troubles. Armed military personnel, along with the state of fear; punctuated with Amber to Red warnings for heightened alert, searching vehicles for bombs every time we left and re-entered a military base, irrespective of which country. Needless to say, Keane’s visual, political commentary, work and practice spoke deeply to me and he became the subject of my A-level personal study.

A week after visiting the exhibition, the Northern Ireland Peace treaty violated, Omagh and its people wept.

Drawing Connections (2017)

On the day I began writing this piece, I had visited two exhibitions at Hastings Contemporary.  At the gallery, I encountered the work of Quentin Blake, in the exhibition ‘We Live In Worrying Times’ the title and works in the collection are inspired by the conversation he’d had with a Taxi Driver some years previously. Including the central mural, which Blake describes as his Guernica, taking inspiration from Picasso’s anti-war work and the taxi driver, his piece is an ‘outcry against the global disaster of the near future.’ Displaced figures wandering barren landscapes, empty, but for the drones and desolation of war.

The second exhibition curated by James Russell, Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach, is brighter in terms of engagement. It reflects on the marketing material of early 20th century holidaying Britain, when this destination was emerging from the weakening social constraints of the Victorian era to the more open engagement of the ‘70s. It contained works by modern British artists: Laura Knight, Eileen Agar, LS Lowry, and Paul Nash, among others.

The draw to the beach was strong for so many artists and people in general, like now especially, during the global pandemic. But like those visiting in the ‘20s, the people lucky enough to access one, what is the pull? To see this great force lapping placidly at the shore?

Could it have been a desire to view expansive horizons offering endless opportunity, contrasting sharply with the confines of oppression, of war? Or, as we have experienced, of lockdown? Certainly, in the UK, the national response to the silent predator has been postured some hundred years later in a very similar way. ’Martial Language has been used throughout the epidemic. We are at “war” with the virus,’ as Laura Dodsworth said in her recent article for The Spectator, ‘The War on Breathing’.

As this theatre of war plays out, in many parts of the world natural disasters are ravaging the land and razing settlements to the ground, and tens of thousands of people are being evacuated. As are the characters in Blake’s Mural, or featured in Finding Fanon, the series of three films by artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy. Displaced by the Conditions of Our Time.

The time has come for us to respond together, as one. ‘It is imperative to remain less interested in who or what we imagine ourselves to be than in what we can do for one another, both in today’s emergency conditions and in the grimmer circumstances that surely await us,’ writes Paul Gilroy.

Fascia portrait (insides), (2021)

Associated with another beach, or coast, named after the fishing village of West Cornwall, is the St. Ives School of Artists. Certainly, those of its earlier years – Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, Naum Gabo – had lived during WWI. Along with David Jones whose direct experience of war is captured as the epic poem In Parenthesis, and significantly, the extraordinary talent of Henri Gaudier Brzeska who died aged 23 in WWI, these Artists form a significant proportion of the collection found at the House and Gallery of Kettle’s Yard. Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard, was himself gassed during his service in WWI.

In Kettle’s Yard, there is no doubt Ede has created a Sanctuary – I believe as a result of, and as a balm to, the gnawing tensions we have come to understand as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like many before me, I experienced some of my most profound art therapy there, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack.

Studies following the SARS epidemic in China demonstrated an increase in related PTSD. In addition to the countless lives lost, there will be great trauma related to the pandemic, in addition to that already experienced by countless people whose anxieties have been amplified by conflict, violence and climate catastrophe.

Fear raises our levels of cortisol, which is detrimental to our health, especially if it is released over prolonged periods of time. ‘This can manifest along with other trauma-related illness, in ways such as substance addiction and dependency, anger, frustration and violence. Following in the footsteps of experts in the field such as Gabor Maté, Bessel van Der Kolk, Ruth Buczynski, Pat Ogden and Peter Levine, many practitioners are coming to learn and share somatic healing as a way to counter these effects. Working with Qi, or Prana, is a keystone in Eastern Philosophy, and health, breathing practices are fundamental to this – not just for maintaining physical well-being, but for mental health too.

In his 29th July, Politics of Love post What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?) Philip McKibbin presents a considered case, making insightful observations and piecing together a fundamental understanding and appreciation of the meaning of love, in a truly universal sense. Quoting from Hu Fang’s science fiction exploration ‘Dear Navigator’, McKibbin draws on the passage, ‘What makes humans human is precisely that, as the part of nature that is full of sympathy, they mutually complete the other things that exist in this world.’

In response, reflecting on this passage, my personal experiences of trauma and the research I have done around it, I wish to supplement the word ‘sympathy’ with ‘symphony’ in this quote. For that is, I believe, what we are all being called to do… If we are to orchestrate the best possible outcome for the planet and all that lives in this biosphere we call home, it is essential that we each play our part to the best of our ability, working collectively and creating collaboratively.

Our life force, Qi, or Prana, is effectively the energy each of us possesses. All things possess energy, whether dormant in carbon, or active in life. We consume energy to move, we absorb energy from the sun, we inhale oxygen on the breath to process energy, and to my understanding of a metaphysical reality we also pass energy to one another, in both positive and negative forms. This symbiosis of energy within ourselves and our environments nourishes or depletes us. It enables us to heal and grow, so it is essential that what we experience and share is good for us, to sustain positive physical and mental health.

This energy flows around our bodies through our cells, whether they be the cells that construct our bones, or our blood stream; our organs and nervous system; our muscles and ligaments, or fundamentally our inter-connective tissue, known as fascia. For several decades physiotherapists and holistic practitioners recognise and work in this field. In cases of trauma, whether as a result of an accident, mental or physical abuse, and invasive surgery, the fascia can get damaged, retain memory of the event, and be altogether blocked. We are now also coming to understand through epigenetics research, trauma gets passed down through generations. 

For good health, it is essential that we address our personal and collective trauma, to maintain the healthy flow of energy in our fascia, so that we may share positively with others as I have benefitted in the community following my brain haemorrhage in Lincoln and more recently in Cambridge following the terrorist attack. Many practices are shown to aid with this (such as qigong, acupuncture, yoga, and craniosacral therapy), but deep breathing, with a slow exhale, is shown to be beneficial. As we inhale the breath, it enters our lungs and permeates through our bodies, and in releasing slowly we help to balance the parasympathetic nervous system, or our emotional response.

In the pursuit of progress, humanity has achieved exceptional things, including technologies that have enabled us helpful and fulfilling connections during lockdown. Truly, the future is now. But as greed and hubris have come to the fore, populations governed through fear and war have depleted our most essential resource, the planet. Perhaps in this pursuit we have compounded the trauma of populations whilst traumatising the planet. The tipping point forecast several years hence is approaching. The planet, our mother Earth, is also struggling for breath.

The word ‘spirit’ is taken from the Latin word ‘spiritus’, meaning to breathe. Residing in the spirit is where we need to be. Whilst it may have religious connotations for many, whatever you consider it to be, if, as, McKibbin suggests ‘we determine to understand the spiritual not as gods or as God, but as love, we may be closer not only to appreciating it, but also to understanding why it has confounded so many.’

Expressing both artistic and poetic license, we may now come to realise this, and recognise the instrument of our being. Playing in harmony as one, we move from the Art of War to the Art of Love.

‘Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfil them, for it alone takes them by what is deepest in themselves.’ – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yew with Kintsugi, #creatingwithjackmerritt (2020)

During the 5th century B.C., the philosopher Empedocles proposed that all matter in the universe was composed of different combinations of four original substances and two moving forces: fire, air, water and earth; whilst the moving forces are love and strife.

In the 21st century we may have refined and distilled this understanding, fundamentally however, very little has changed.

‘Some time ago, a wise man said ‘love thy friends, love thy foes,

plant the seed then watch it grow.’

And then this man bent down with a bowl

to wash people’s feet, both beleaguered and the bold.

As he knelt down before them, with each one spent time

He spoke of this truth, and repeated the line

‘Love one another as I have loved you’

Go forth together and speak of this truth…

If we really believed what this man had to say

Then no Church, Mosque of Temple Should get in the Way.’

Sunken Garden Mural, Institute of Criminology (Spring-Summer 2019)
(Making process –

Rebecca Lindum Greene is Honorary Artist in Residence at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, Founder & Artistic Facilitator of Drawing Connections …at the Edges, and is Support Visitor Assistant at Kettle’s Yard.

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Peace Week 2021

Peace Week 2021

Philip McKibbin

Kia ora!

The theme for Peace Week 2021 is ‘inner peace for outward action’.

All of us want to make the world a better place. We talk a lot about how we can help others – it’s so important! But something we don’t talk about very much is how to look after ourselves.

This is a bit strange when you think about it, because how well we care for others is connected to how well we take care of ourselves.

Some people think love is only about other people, but have you noticed how much that leaves out? We can also love animals, the land, the natural environment, and – of course – ourselves.

All of the visionary thinkers on love emphasise the importance of self-love. Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde believed that it is impossible to give and receive love without first loving ourselves. Similarly, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, ‘Caring for yourself, reestablishing peace in yourself, is the basic condition for helping someone else.’

When we show ourselves love, we nurture inner peace. This helps to ensure that we are happy and healthy. It also means we’re much better able to take care of others. All of us have to deal with difficult experiences. As humans, we sometimes experience embarrassment, insecurity, and guilt. When we love ourselves – by showing ourselves care, understanding, and forgiveness – we develop loving skills that we can then bring to our relationships with others.

What does self-love look like for you? It might involve karakia, meditation, spending time in nature – or something else entirely! For me, it means taking time to read, talking about my feelings with people I trust, and having lots of cuddles with my cat Minnie. This Peace Week, I hope you will discover more strategies for taking care of yourself. Your inner peace is important for all of us.

Me te aroha,

Philip (Piripi) McKibbin

This appeared as the foreword for the NZ Peace Foundation’s Youth Peace Week 2021 toolkit.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford.

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Interview: Stacy Russo

Stacy Russo

interview with Philip McKibbin

Stacy Russo is a writer, artist, and librarian living in California. She has written and edited numerous books, including Love Activism (Litwin Books, 2018).

Stacy Russo

What is ‘love activism’?

I thought that I would actually read a little bit from the book.

Love activism presents a new way to think of activism and the life of an activist. It is about working toward political and social change, as activism is often defined, but it is also about reimagining ideas and ways of activism. This is accomplished by valuing the profound nature of everyday activism and all of the components of the daily life of an activist, including even small actions and decisions. Love activism is a form of activism that is not composed of isolated actions or single issues. It is a way of life. The easiest definition is that love activism is a daily radical and holistic activism of kindness.

And I guess I would just add that love activism is concerned with all forms of oppression – and I kind of touched on that when I was reading that section right now. But it’s definitely a way to look at the interconnections between all forms of injustice. So, it’s not only focused on one type of injustice.

When I use the word ‘holistic’ what I mean by that is, it’s also a way of life, but it’s concerned with the individual, the community, the world, and all living beings on the Earth. And I know it can sound overwhelming at first, perhaps, to some people, but I feel that that’s the real essence and the magic of it, is that it does try to look at all the problems, and how we can live our life hopefully, working against them.

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How would you define ‘love’ in the context of activism?

Defining love is incredibly important, and in my thinking on love activism, it deepened, of course, and developed, over about a decade. So, initially, I had little cards I made, and then a pamphlet, and then ultimately the book – so it developed, and when I got to writing the book, I thought, ‘Okay, I need to really be able to define love.’ (laughs) ‘That’s the key piece here.’ It’s not an easy thing to do, because there are so many different definitions of love; it’s very complex. But within the context of activism, I like to think of love as ‘no harm’, and when I think of love in that respect of no harm, then I can think about, ‘What are things that I love?’ If it’s community, if it’s animals, the Earth, a city – you know, whatever it is – if we love something, we don’t want harm to come to it, we don’t want oppression to come to it, we want what we love to be free and to prosper. So, thinking of it in that context applies directly to activism work, because we can’t be perfect, but everything we do in our life, we can think, ‘How can I do this without causing harm?’ ‘Is there a way I can live my life that isn’t going to harm a person, or a community, or an animal, or whatever it might be?’ and try to make changes.

I think when people hear the word ‘love’, just from talking with people, they will often go, right away, to romantic love. And I understand, that’s an important type of love. (laughs) After that, they might go to love of family, and of course that’s important as well. I think that the idea of ‘no harm’, though, even applies to those types of love, because once things are happening that are, perhaps, abuse, or restricting or hurting somebody, then it’s really not love at that point, it’s something else. So I think that idea of ‘no harm’ can be a large umbrella for all forms of love.

Who has nurtured your understanding of love?

Definitely, I’m very fortunate that my immediate family provided me non-conditional love. That is very important to mention, and I understand a lot of people don’t, maybe, have that, which is very sad. But that is definitely my first feeling of love, within that context, with my parents and my brother. 

My understanding of love expanded over the last six years, actually, from a dog I adopted. (laughs) I adopted a senior dog, Joni. She passed away almost a year ago, now. When I adopted her, she hadn’t been treated well before. I don’t really know everything that happened to her, but that was clear. So it took her a long time to even trust me, and I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to keep her, because it was so difficult, but I hung in there with her. I had all of these ideas about adopting a dog and things that we would do together and how she would be, and I had to let go of a lot of that, and I had to meet her where she was, and she profoundly taught me – although I thought I knew a lot about love, I already had my love activism pamphlet (laughs), all my things – but really, I realised I had expectations and things, and she really taught me a lot about loving people where they are and not looking for people to be perfect or to always do the right thing. So she was a great teacher for me, and she actually appears in the book, Love Activism.

Stacy and Joni
Stacy and Joni

I’ve also been greatly influenced by bell hooks. I love pretty much all of her work, in its different contexts – even as an educator, her books on teaching, everything. She’s one of the most amazing writers on the topic of love, and her book All About Love is my favourite. That book shows love in a lot of different contexts, and that’s what makes me really appreciate that work – because love activism is also in a lot of different contexts.

Also, June Jordan, who has passed away, was a phenomenal teacher and poet and activist, and many other things, and I was fortunate to be her student when I was very young. She taught me and others in her classroom, and other people out in the world who’ve discovered her, about aligning yourself with whoever’s oppressed, and that was something that I hadn’t really witnessed before. 

June Jordan was a Black woman, and during even that short time I was her student, I saw her advocating for oppressed people at times, including sometimes white people, and I had just never seen that before, a life being lived like that. Her understanding had broadened so much that she was able to do that. She also spoke about truth and, as a poet, that truth is essential to being a poet, and I was blown away by that. I see truth as part of love, right? Because love, I feel, requires an honesty. So she also taught me about this essence of truth as something in your work if you are a writer or an artist, that that should be a part of it, and I thought that was really profound, too.

How would you respond to someone who said that love is too gentle for politics, that the world’s most challenging problems – racism, gender oppression, violence toward animals, the climate crisis, et cetera – need stronger responses than love allows?

I think that goes back to having a definition of love and thinking about what that means, because as I mentioned, when people think of love they often go to romantic love or something like that. It might have a connotation of something fluffy, ‘Oh, Isn’t that cute?’ when you hear the word ‘love’. You don’t have to embrace my idea of love as ‘no harm’, but if you embrace something like that, that’s a very profound thing. That’s a challenging way that takes dedication in your life, to live that way. So if you think of love in that context, it’s a very powerful, intense force, and I think love has often been a part of activism, even if it wasn’t clearly stated all the time. 

So I’m not too concerned about that. Whenever I’ve encountered that, I just go back to that definition, and then I think when people hear that, they think, ‘Oh, okay, that’s how you’re defining love,’ and it is powerful, then, in that context.

What does love activism look like for you personally, in your day-to-day life?

I just want to mention, again, that when we think about activism, we often think about really large things. And that’s important, of course. But there’s also part of me that- It could be my age, as well. I first became aware of issues that were forms of injustice as a teenager. I’m 51 now. At the time when I first became an activist, I really did think, ‘Oh, we can change the world by going out into the street and doing this protest.’ And sometimes you can change things with that, so I’m not saying you can’t. But we just ended four years of a Trump presidency – and that’s just one example of something over your lifetime, and you start to see cycles of these terrible things, and you can become burned out, or really jaded about things and feel like what you do doesn’t matter if you’re not able to completely dismantle a large system or structure. An example of that would be as a vegan, someone concerned about animal rights, how would I be able to dismantle that entire structure, right? I mean that’s a dream, but there are realities in the world, and those systems of injustice and violence and cruelty are very well funded and very well established. 

So one reason for writing the book about love activism was to provide ideas and ways that you can change the world in small ways, maybe, but they’re still important in your daily life, because – just an example – if I go out to a large protest, whatever it might be, and let’s say it’s an anti-racist protest, and then I find out that a company I’m supporting is racist but I love their products so much that I’m not gonna make that change, I’m really not in line, overall, with my views, then. So, with things I buy, with how I treat people, with what I do with my writing and my art, my approach to being a librarian and a professor at the college where I work and how I interact with the students, with what I choose to eat – all of these things are forms of activism. 

So in my daily life, like, I have my coffee cup right here. It’s organic, fair-trade coffee. I can afford that, so I’m gonna buy that, even if I see something cheaper, you know? (laughs) When somebody comes up to get help from me as a librarian, I’m gonna try my best to be present and kind to them, and try my best to be aware of that. So it’s really about all those small things I can do during the day. I’ll still go out to the large protests, but I’m gonna also try to live my life like that all the time, and that’s really what love activism is about.

How do self-love and radical self-care fit into love activism?

As I mentioned, love activism is concerned not just with the world and the community, but also with the individual. Another reason I wrote the book was to hopefully help other people who either want to be activists or are concerned about issues, who may be burned out. And that’s why taking care of ourselves, I feel, first, can be examples for other people, and that can help other people when they see that, but it also helps us be more resilient.
I’ve seen so many people get burned out and quit – just give up – in a lot of different contexts, and one, of course, is activism. That’s why I think taking good care of myself, as much as I can, allows me to then do more out in the world.

How does creativity connect to your loving practice?

So creativity is another element of love activism. There are a lot of ways to define creativity. For me, in my life, it’s my writing and my art, and possibly gardening. Creativity can be brought into self-care and self-love, of course, and also art can be therapeutic, and anybody can be an artist, obviously. I feel like we’re all born with creativity, so we can all do that. 

It can be a form of self-care, self-growth, to engage in creative practices such as art or writing. But also, creativity is so amazing in terms of community-building, and an important part of being creative, I feel, is sharing what you create with others, teaching others, creating things that hopefully make the world better when people see them, that can inspire them, and there are so many examples of creativity or art in activism being combined together.

One form of creativity that I write about in the book is making zines, which are small self-published pamphlets or booklets. It’s obviously a very accessible form of art, writing, creativity, that anyone can do, and the zine can be about activism, or whatever. There’s a large zine community – they’re all over the world – but here in the Southern California / Los Angeles area, there are many festivals around zines. Through the zine community, there’s so much of a sense of belonging and shared experience, and I feel that these are all forms of making the world better, they’re all forms of activism. 

So that’s why I include creativity as an important part of practising love activism.

(Interviewed on 8 July, 2021.)

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What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?)

What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?)

Philip McKibbin

What is love? Chances are you’ve given this question some thought. In all likelihood, it’s something you’ve dwelt on a lot. Love occupies a central place in most of our lives – even if we wouldn’t admit it to others, and even when we don’t admit it to ourselves.

Around the world, calls are being made for politics to be more loving. Over the past few years, in the United States of America especially, these voices have intensified. Politicians have used the word ‘love’ to describe their platforms – most compellingly, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Social initiatives have arisen, such as Valarie Kaur’s Revolutionary Love Project, which ‘champions the ethic of love in movements for justice’. And books have been written, among these Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, which offers a plan for change.

Already, this ‘return to love’ is being taken advantage of by demagogues. Donald Trump professed his love for Mexico in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, while demonising Mexicans and campaigning to build a wall to keep them out. And in 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, in an effort to deflect criticism from his destructive politics, declared his love and respect for the Amazon rainforest as it was burning. These are both clear instances of the language of love being misused for political gain.

The word ‘love’ presents a serious challenge – and the problem isn’t only that certain people are less-than-sincere when they use it. ‘Love’ is used to refer to very different things: even when we aren’t being manipulative, we talk about love in very diverse ways, some of which bear little relation, if any, to each other. How we think about love is informed by culture, language, everything. What connection is there between the idea of love as, say, divine grace and the notion of ‘falling in love’, what Slavoj Žižek defends as a ‘totally contingent encounter’ that changes your entire life – or my love of [vegan] hamburgers? When we enquire, it quickly becomes obvious that saying what ‘love’ is might be as difficult as defining art…

Those of us who wish to defend loving politics, as I do, need to be able to say how it might work. This involves offering an account of political love and giving examples of what loving politics looks like in practice. If we don’t do these things, we risk putting forward a vision of politics that can be easily dismissed as nonsense, adding to the perception that a politics of love is necessarily insubstantial. That is, we risk doing far more harm than good.

I suspect artists have a role to play here. As a writer, I think first of literature. Like Kurt Vonnegut, ‘I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve.’ (He goes on: ‘Mainly I think they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change. For the better, we hope.’) Artists imagine new possibilities, and inspire others with their work. Love is often the subject of art: New Zealand artist Shane Hansen explores aroha (love), kotahitanga (togetherness), and whakapapa (relatedness) through painting and sculpture, attending to our relationships with our histories, each other, and the natural world we inhabit. And sometimes art inspires love: Chinese painter Qi Baishi’s works prompt us to reflect lovingly on the non-human animals who are here on this planet with us. Of course, I am not the first person to comment on the apparent relationship between love and art. Many people turn to artists to express our love.

If we want to realise the Politics of Love, we need to determine what love is. This is extremely difficult. Part of the problem is that it isn’t at all clear where we should begin. We might ask philosophers about it – but, as Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins note, philosophising on love is perilous ‘even for the most cautious thinker’:

‘What seems at first to be an obvious point about sexual desire turns out to be an embarrassing confession of eccentricity; what is argued to be a general feature of love turns out to be no more than a prominent feature of the author’s last failed marriage.’

(Or, as Stendhal writes, ‘I am continually beset by the fear that I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating a truth.’) So, philosophy might muddle us more.

Perhaps we should ask the artists…

Poets! Poets are supposed to know about love – aren’t they? Well, it probably isn’t what Philip Larkin was referring to in the opening line to his famous poem: ‘Love again: wanking at ten past three.’ Surely it’s more like Shakespeare’s ‘star to every wand’ring bark / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.’ (Whatever that means.) Or even Jack Gilbert’s ‘romantic love with its bounty and half-life / of two years.’ Surely. But do these mean anything at all for politics?

Iris Murdoch – who has the distinction of being both a philosopher and an artist, specifically, a novelist – holds that art and morals are one and the same, and that through art we learn how to love. In her essay ‘The Sublime and the Good,’ she writes,

‘Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. What stuns us into a realisation of our supersensible destiny is not, as Kant imagined, the formlessness of nature, but rather its unutterable particularity; and most particular and individual of all natural things is the mind of man…’

The value of art, she argues, consists in enriching our understanding of the world and the people who share it. Murdoch thinks that love – ‘the non-violent apprehension of difference’ – is extended by art. But this ‘is not to say, is nothing to do with saying, that art is didactic or educational,’ she writes. That art improves us is incidental. ‘The level at which that love works […] is deeper than the level at which we deliberate concerning improvement.’

One of the less controversial things that can be said about love is that it is relational – but love, as I understand it, does not have as its first focus our obsessions, our attentions, or even our wants, which is how we tend to talk about the concept. Instead, it concerns itself with how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world we share. Love for others is most often experienced in our friendships and romantic/sexual partnerships. But we must not make the mistake of thinking only in terms of people: other animals, and the rest of the non-human world, should also figure in our politics. Our task, then, if we wish to realise the Politics of Love, is to discover – and, if we are artists, do our best to articulate – what loving relationship looks like. We must be both open-hearted and open-minded, for there is much to learn.

Of course, not everyone agrees that politics should be loving. Some people argue that love is not tough enough for the hard world of politics, while others insist that, as people, we are not ‘good’ enough to realise love. Some even question its importance. Cultural critic Laura Kipnis, in Against Love: A Polemic, savages the concept – before conceding: ‘To be against means to be opposed: resistant or defiant. It also means next to: beside or near.’ (Although how near her work really is to love is unclear…) But the importance of this project is hardly in doubt: here, at the very edge of climate catastrophe, only a few of us have realised that the lyricists were right all along – that, to quote New Zealand singer-songwriter Shona Laing, who treats environmental themes, ‘love’s the only way to save the day.’

Some thinkers have entertained the idea that love does not need elaborating, that its meaning is self-evident. In one of his notebooks, Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus suggests that love is of such importance that we should simply defer to it:

‘If I had to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write: “I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.”’

(At the time of his death, however, Camus was planning a cycle of works on love, including a play merging the Faust and Don Juan legends. He clearly had more to say.)

Personally, I am drawn to the related, but slightly different, idea that love is irreducible: that all of our attempts to explain it, while hinting at what love really is, ultimately misrepresent it. I look to two historical figures: Te Whiti o Rongomai, the prophet of Parihaka who led the passive resistance movement against the unjust confiscation of Māori land, and Martin Luther King, Jr, the Baptist minister and civil rights leader. These men used spiritual language, and in so doing gave political expression to the ineffable – to that which words cannot but misrepresent (however slightly; and however much they also manage to convey). Where they truly succeeded in expressing the spiritual was in the actions they inspired. If we determine to understand the spiritual not as gods or as God but as love, we may be closer not only to appreciating it, but also to understanding why it has confounded so many.

We in the so-called ‘Western world’ continue to return to the Ancient Greeks – to privilege them as we do the rest of our culture. This is especially true when it comes to love. For many of us, turning to concepts such as agápē (universal love), érōs (sexual love), philía (friendship), and storgē (familial love) satisfies a need for deeper meaning. Well, why not give consideration to these perspectives? There might be some insight there. At the very least, such an excursion is necessary, because it will help us to appreciate why we think the way we do now. Imagining how these understandings led us to this point may let us notice some of the avenues we missed along the way. Appreciating how we came to think as we do will free us: it will allow us to explore more of the world’s thoughts and create new possibilities…

We will, for example, give greater attention to the world’s Indigenous knowledges, and ask what they have to teach us. I think, first, of the Māori cultures of my native Aotearoa. This is natural, because on my mother’s side, I whakapapa (relate) to Kāi Tahu, the largest iwi (tribe) of Te Waipounamu (the South Island of New Zealand). We might find inspiration in whakataukī (sayings), such as, ‘Ehara te aroha i te kiri moko, engari koia tērā e pupū ake ana i te whatumanawa.’ (‘Love is not tattooed skin, but it is that which swells up from the depths of one’s being.’) And waiata (songs) could help to elucidate the concept – such as ‘Tai Aroha’, which was conceived by tohunga whakairo (master carver) Kereti Rautangata (Tainui, Te Arawa) and translated by mātanga reo (language expert) Wharehuia Milroy (Ngāi Tūhoe), and which begins, ‘Ko te aroha anō he wai…’ (‘Love is like water…’). Why continue to insist that one cultural tradition holds more insight than any other? Why limit our understanding?

We must not rely on received wisdom, though. It is extremely important that we think critically, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of all ideas, lest we act on (or continue to act on) harmful ones. And we should try to imagine newer, better ideas, too!

I choose to understand love as an orientation or ‘attitude’ – not a disposition as such (because love is something we choose), and certainly not a character trait, but rather a way of relating, as individuals and communities, which is consciously affirmed.

The Politics of Love rejects the notion that feeling and thought must be separated. Many people think of love as an emotion – but importantly, it is intellectual, too. Love can even be rational. It might make use of rationality as the poet Audre Lorde describes it in her interview with Adrienne Rich:

‘Rationality […] serves the chaos of knowledge. It serves feeling. It serves to get from this place to that place. But if we don’t honor those places, then the road is meaningless. Too often, that’s what happens with the worship of rationality and that circular, academic, analytic thinking. But ultimately, I don’t see feel/think as a dichotomy. I see them as a choice of ways and combinations.’

(Indeed, we will not dismantle the system of oppressions – racism, sexism, etc. – that prevents us from fully realising love without rationality.)

And it re-imagines our relationships. Self-love is foundational, as all the visionary thinkers on love affirm: by loving ourselves (‘and no one said only’ – Lorde, again) we are able to fully extend our love to others, including other people, non-human animals, and the rest of the natural world – the planet, its systems, and all that they contain…

The Politics of Love, as I envision it, is a values-based politics: it operates through loving values – such as compassion, responsibility, and trust – which are able to guide decision-making and inform policy. It also upholds what we might think of as ‘critical commitments’ – to equality; to non-violence; to, perhaps, consistent anti-oppression… – which are integral to its creative potential, and also offer means by which systems can be challenged. What love offers us is not simply freedom; it extends so much more!

In the collection What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It? Hu Fang, for his science fiction exploration ‘Dear Navigator’, writes:

‘What makes humans human is precisely that, as the part of nature that is full of sympathy, they mutually complete the other things that exist in this world.’

The thought is certainly incomplete: so much of non-human nature is sympathetic (many other animals experience emotions analogous to ours) – and so much of human nature isn’t! Still, it captures, I think, something of what our love might aspire to. What if we imagined love as that which ‘mutually completes’ the world that all of us share? We might design a politics that realises integrated relationships not only with and amongst ourselves, but also with the rest of the world – which, of course, we participate in, and are, anyway, constituted by.

The Politics of Love, then, gives structured expression to the affirmation that we are important – that all of us are important – that the world, and everything in it, has value. Our love brings into focus everyone who has been marginalised and everything that has been relegated to the periphery. It holds all of us in sight: it sees all of us, including, especially, those of us who have not been seen. In doing so, it reveals us in our entirety: it sees the ‘we’ in other animals, in ecosystems, in the biosphere… in rain, and in the soil it nourishes…

The question, ‘What is love?’ is also, ‘How should we understand love?’, and for those of us who care – for those who take this world upon ourselves, however humble our aspirations, however grand our hopes – it translates as: ‘What responsibility do I have to help extend our understanding of love?’ I believe art has a purpose, which is to inspire love. But where love will lead us, and whether or not it will save us – I don’t yet know.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford.

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Interview: Golriz Ghahraman

Golriz Ghahraman

Golriz Ghahraman

interview with Philip McKibbin

Golriz Ghahraman is an Iranian-born New Zealand politician and human rights lawyer. She was a child asylum seeker, and became Aotearoa’s first refugee Member of Parliament as a member of the Green Party. She previously worked at the United Nations.

Golriz Ghahraman

In your maiden speech to parliament in 2017, you addressed the resistance you had received as an Iranian refugee and Green Party candidate. You said, ‘I love this country. But a love of this country – patriotism – means expecting the very best for her. It means fighting for the country we know is possible.’ Then, alluding to Cornel West, you said, ‘So I criticise leaders who fall short, I protest, I fight for equality and justice, because that is what love looks like in public.’ Could you say more about what political love means to you?

Yeah. I guess the idea that I was expressing there was that I felt like my valid participation in democracy – which is a form of equality – in public life, in our broader community, was seen as a threat. I’m being very kind in describing it as a ‘threat’! (laughs) People were opposed to someone like me having that level of equality, as to be able to stand as a candidate in a general election and participate fully in democracy. They hated that, and what I got was hate. And one of the things that was weaponised against me was this idea of patriotism as an unconditional love for not only New Zealand, but that it should manifest in support of whatever our leadership was doing, and that criticism, even in the context of a democratic election by an opposition political party candidate, was seen as hateful. I was seen as being hateful, and that wasn’t a criticism that was directed toward the policies that I was supporting or representing; it wasn’t about anything in particular that I’d said. It was about who I am as a person being the one to say those things.

So it was a really deep, deep, sort of an attack, I think, to anyone who was receiving it, cos it was about whether or not you are grateful and love the country that has saved your life as a refugee, and it was about you as a human person and your origin, your birth nation and the fact that you’ve had to flee, being what defines what you’re allowed to say and do in public life. And so, I think the one thing I knew when I knew what a maiden speech even was and that I was going to do it was that I had to say something about this. There was absolutely no reason for me to even be in politics, or in parliament doing a maiden speech, if I wasn’t gonna address this idea of equality and democracy meaning that we can criticise, that we all can criticise leadership, and that that, in fact, that manifestation of what it means to be equal was what love looks like in public.

So I felt like the attack was so fundamental that if I didn’t redefine what love is – for a country, a nation, a community – which includes protest, then the fact that I’d been in public life at all and had worn that criticism would actually mean that my presence is detrimental, cos there’d be people out there who are from my background consuming those attacks that I was getting and there wasn’t enough of a platform before then for me to respond.

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You have spoken and written about the importance of lived experience to your politics – as examples, you have mentioned your experience as a child refugee, a woman of colour, and someone living with multiple sclerosis. How have your own experiences of love informed your politics?

Just to bring it back to public life, I certainly see it as an expression of collective love to say that the Refugee Convention, for example – which is a very widely-ratified, accepted piece of international law that New Zealand accedes to – that that protection was granted to my family. So that was an act of love that I’ve received, and I feel very emotional about that moment of being accepted and saved from harm. Even though that feels like a policy-level, public expression of love, I think it was very, very personal to us, and I think it is very personal to every refugee once they’re resettled in a country and in a community and they have that status granted to them. And even the word is very, ‘refuge’ – like, to be granted refuge, especially when you’ve experienced harm, is very personal. So it’s like being loved and accepted by the global community, and by this particular community, where you can now live and grow and put down roots and have a family. That’s what the idea is, that you won’t be harmed again. I do hold that as a real moment of affection.

Iranian culture is a very loving culture in terms of an extended family version of what love looks like. And it’s very, very expressive – emotions are expressed, grief is expressed, and love is expressed. With every casual interaction you call someone ‘darling’, and your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would very readily say that they would die for you, constantly, cos it’s a colloquial thing that people say. So it’s very expressive! (laughs) I’m much less-so than that, so I feel like I was saved a little bit by stoic Kiwi culture.

But I also experienced love very early on in a time of great, great turmoil. I was born in the year that Islamic law was introduced to Iran and the war with Iraq started. So women and minorities – and men who were political, as well – were targeted very viciously. I think it might have been the following year that the massacre of the communist-identifying dissidents happened. So that set the tone for how dissidency would be received, how criticism of the Iranian government would be received. Which is ironic, cos that was the thing I wasn’t meant to do here either, apparently! And of course, women were suddenly outsiders, and I was a girl child, and my mother, who was my primary caregiver at the time, was suddenly in a state of grief for her lost humanity and deep anger – such deep anger – that I don’t think has ever died within her. And my dad was very political and had been photographed in protests, and so he was very fearful, and his friends and family were very political, and they kept disappearing, either to prison or they would become refugees, and you wouldn’t hear about them. So I was loved by these people who were really angry and really sad and uncertain.

I guess for me the model is that you engage with public life as much as you do with private life, and that’s what love looks like. I don’t remember a time when our private home life, for me as a child, was dominant over the conversations over what we needed to do for the country, and other people. People were dying, and amputees were coming back from the war, and children were being conscripted, and women were being lashed, so it was constantly about what we could do about those things, and what even I could do about those things, and everything was political. Like, what are you gonna buy your mum for mother’s day? Well, you need to buy it from somewhere that it’s a handmade thing that was made by a minority. (laughs) It was, every little thing had to be thought about. So maybe I’ve got a little bit of a warped view of what that looks like. (laughs) I’ll cry much more easily about something that’s happened out in the world than like, you know, having MS.

Are there political figures who inspire and sustain your political love?

I am endlessly really inspired by Iranian women lawyers who have stayed. Iranian opposition is everywhere, and it’s like in L.A., and there’s all these men who have radio stations and T.V. programmes on YouTube, and they’re forever formulating the next government – but there’s these women, like Nasrin Sotoudeh, who’s in prison now, and Shirin Ebadi, who has had to go into exile, who was the Nobel laureate. They are there – there’s teams and teams of them – constantly working out how to get an inch – an inch – for the people that are left there: for women who are losing their kids because the justice system is stacked against them; for political prisoners, at the risk of themselves becoming political prisoners; for the Baháʼí community, who are one of the most oppressed religious minorities – that’s a religion that’s indigenous to Iran, they’re not even allowed to participate in higher education, it’s harrowing. They just keep bringing these actions, keep becoming more and more and more well-versed in this Iranian constitution to keep using it against the regime, and pushing in a very real way.

Nothing I could ever do would be as difficult as that, or as meaningful, because there’s 70 million people or whatever trapped in Iran, and it’s really easy to talk about human rights here.

Golriz Ghahraman

As a human rights lawyer and Member of Parliament, you work within imperfect political systems. The criminal justice system, for example, is deeply flawed – it could be argued that a truly loving society would have a thoroughly transformed justice system (which even, perhaps, transcends the notion of ‘criminality’). How do you nurture your moral and intellectual integrity in your work within these systems?

I’m not saying I’ve perfected anything per se, but I think it’s really, really important to keep remembering who you’re accountable to and whose criticism you should be really fearful of, and I think it has to be the people who have the least platform or voice, in terms of political life. Like, if you look at the Israel and Palestine situation – just because that’s front of mind for me right now, I guess, and that happened over the last week – it’s sort of, ‘Why do we keep talking about Palestine? Why are we continuously as outraged as we are about that when there’s other conflicts happening as well?’ And I think it’s the disparity in might. I think it’s about the fact that it’s literally the world’s second most powerful military against this trapped civilian population. But when I talk about Palestine – I mean, it’s Green Party kaupapa, but I’m not accountable in my own mind so much to the Green Party or, say, parliamentary staff, or to opposition leaders, or the Labour Party, or the Israel Institute, as I am to the community of Palestinians here. So I think you have to continuously check in with the people that are most affected, that have the least voice, and if you’re doing what they want you to do, or if they feel you haven’t done what they needed you to do, then I think that’s where the measure should lie. I’ve tried to continue to do that, but I think it’s really easy in the political world to become disconnected from that.

It does help, I think, if you’ve gone through a sector. I worked outside of parliament for 10, 15 years, or whatever it was, so I think I feel the watchful eyes of the child rights sector, or the actual people in the Human Rights Commission and the Criminal Bar Association. If you’ve only had politics and you’ve only ever consulted with sectors and never been at the front lines, I think it’s easier to let go, and you end up going along with the louder voices. They just are louder, they’re more present, you don’t have to constantly access them; whereas with others, you actually have to, like, find out their phone number and call them, and be like, ‘What do you want? How can I do that thing?’ and then call the next person, and the next person. (laughs)

I think that helps, and I do think criminal defence practice is the purest form of human rights law in our system, domestically. It’s every single day that you’re dealing with a prejudiced system, and it’s you advocating for this person who’s stuck in that system, and dealing with police powers and unlawful detention and search and undue process, and it’s every single day the Bill of Rights Act, and I don’t think there is any other area in New Zealand, where you walk into a district court and that’s what’s happening on a mass scale. There’s hundreds of cases going through. Every time someone stands up, they’re applying the Bill of Rights Act, and they’re standing between the mighty force of the state and this individual person who’s already, probably, triply marginalised for various reasons.

Most of the clients that I served who were in custody couldn’t read or write – like, no one could read or write. It was just so normal. You couldn’t give them a piece of paper and be like, ‘This is your police charge sheet.’ You have to adapt to that, and you have to deal with it really respectfully and uphold their humanity while you’re doing that. You can’t lose their trust. They can’t see you as looking down on them – that would be an absolute breach of your responsibility to them. So how do you read that to them without being weird about it? Or, everyone’s come up and it’s been the worst day of their life, and the complainant’s their family member. Every time you felt like you should have got a psych report for someone, it would have been a removed child. It was so common. If you had a little bit of an inkling that you should get a psych report for someone, 80% of the time you’d get it and they’d gone through the foster care system cos they were a Māori child that was removed.

It’s so much cheaper just to support those mums, way back. So much cheaper just not to be racist, than these billion-dollar prisons!

As well as working for legal change, you have called for cultural change. In your view, what sort of cultural changes do we need to realise the Politics of Love?

So many levels.

So, obviously, the things that massively stand out are things like misogyny, and racism, and ableism, and whatever, and we just need to get rid of those. But that’s a very weird and oversimplified thing to say. And then we often also say, well, we just need to acknowledge our privilege.

I was talking to Judy Bailey about my book before, and it was so funny. She was like, ‘Do you think that New Zealand is inherently racist?’ and I was like, ‘Well, no, no one’s inherently good or bad or inherently anything, but we are racist, and so we need to be open to learning.’ But I think if you just relate it back to the experience that I’ve had, and you go, ‘Okay, what can we do to make public life safe for a woman who’s from a refugee background; who is brown; who is from the Middle East, so perceived to be Muslim?’ So if you just take that, one of the things that I often get screamed at about is identity politics. So, ‘you’re using identity politics’. And there’s that idea where it’s only identity politics if it’s a minority identity, or a marginalised identity. So we’ve never realised that majorities, or the status quo, also carry those same identities and they have benefitted vastly from those identities. Everything is identity politics. The size of that door, and the fact that a wheelchair can or maybe can’t get through it is identity politics. You know, someone has decided what is ‘standard’ to suit them, and violently attacked the rainbow community for years and years through its laws and whatever else – that’s identity politics. So it’s not a gay man standing up and saying, ‘We’ve got to reform homosexuality laws.’ It’s the guy who put in place the homosexuality laws – that was identity politics. And if we start to look at it that way, what love looks like is dismantling those systems and going, ‘We are actually willing to start over.’

Like, this police force was implemented by people playing identity politics. It’s not the critique of the police force that alone is identity politics. We have to accept that there’s these dominant identities built into, woven into, every single institution, and we have to be willing to undo that, and say, ‘It’s unfair. What does it look like if everyone’s identity is duly noted?’ And ‘duly’ means, if it affects you most then it should reflect your needs most, and otherwise let’s just be equal about it. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that. I think that as far as we’ve come is to go, ‘Well, maybe we should listen to marginalised communities or voices and try and do them a favour.’ We’ve never recognised that, actually, we actively took away from them, as dominant identity holders.

I don’t know if we’ll get there, but I think we can try. (laughs)

You have a broad portfolio, and it includes human rights, foreign affairs, and trade – things which most New Zealanders understand as having relevance to us – as well as refugee policy and ethnic communities – which are often labelled ‘minority issues’. Are these really ‘minority issues’, though? How would love treat them?

Yeah, I find it really conflicting. I mean, refugee policy, I get, cos it’s like immigration policy. It’s not policy about immigrants per se, it’s just immigration policy – so, just the visa system. It’s literally immigration policy. But then once immigrants are here, then the whole range of policies obviously affect them. And refugee policy’s the same: it’s just about, ‘How do we run our quota system?’ or whatever. So I’m okay with that. (laughs)

But ethnic communities, or women, or whatever, starts to be conflicted for me, in terms of whether they should be freestanding. There’s benefits to them being freestanding policies, cos then you have someone that’s solely responsible, and maybe there needs to be that point of contact and watchful eye, if they’re empowered in that way – which they’re not necessarily in political parties that don’t value those issues. But then it also means that you’ve ghettoised the input or interests of those communities. So you’ve potentially exercised a ‘tick-box’ approach. Whereas, obviously, those communities are actually really internally diverse. Ethnic communities also have disabled people in them; they have a queer segment; they have women and men. So, what is an ethnic issue? And then you go, well, we also use roads, and we use the justice system, and we use healthcare, and we go to school – so is it actually education? Is it justice?

I think the starting point of what love may look like in terms of the way politics treats those community-based portfolios – so, they’re not issues-based, they’re community-based – is to recognise our humanity, and the fact that we are internally diverse, so that there isn’t one sort of blanket tick for the interests of ethnic communities; and that even within our communities, there are power structures, there are loud voices, there’s conservative religious voices, there’s progressive feminists – that they’re all authentic and real to our communities. You know, when we look at how someone interacts with the justice system, we don’t ever think that women and men will come through the same, but for some reason we think ethnic communities might? But actually internal to that is a queer, brown, recent migrant is going to have a different experience to a third-generation, straight woman. We have humanity, and that makes us diverse. So if we come to those portfolios in that way, I think that would be quite loving – but I don’t think we have, as far as I’ve seen. 

In your book, Know Your Place, you talk about the responsibility you have felt to your country of origin, Iran, which lost ‘generations of human resource, innovation and activism’. You write, ‘For me, the state-sponsored atrocity that shaped my life was ongoing. Helping build accountability for state crimes was part of the reparation I felt I owed for escaping.’ I find it fascinating that you used the term ‘reparation’ here – and it made me think about the privileges that all of us enjoy as New Zealanders. In what ways do these privileges shape our responsibilities to people living in other places?

There’s that great quote: ‘Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.’ I thought for a long time – because my parents were activists, and they paid the ultimate price for their activism, and they did lose pretty much everything, and as they live on as refugees here, I think it becomes more and more stark to me how much they’ve lost. You know, as they’ve become retired, and their family members passed away, and so it just builds and builds. It’s immeasurable what they have lost. And yet, others have stayed, and they’ve never had their freedom. I mean, anyone who’s my age – and there’s that bit about Behrouz Boochani, and what he lost is vastly different and far worse than anything I could ever say I lost. And actually, our conversation was really interesting about race. (laughs)

So, maybe I used the wrong word to say ‘reparations’, cos I hate for people to feel- It’s a very personal feeling that I have, and it’s a bit- You know, it’s that thing we have much more compassion sometimes for our friends and people in the community than we have for ourselves. So I do feel guilty – like, a type of survivor’s guilt – and I do feel like I have to pay some type of reparation, not just to Iranians, but to communities that have had it harder than I have. But I don’t want every refugee to feel that way. (laughs) You actually don’t owe anything for being free from torture, or persecution, or war. Those are fundamental human rights. You don’t have to be grateful, even, because as you note, some of us are born into that, and that’s great.

In fact, I think it’s the idea of feeling guilty for privilege that’s maybe hindered the kind of race equity and gender equity movements the most. (laughs) We’re not trying to get anyone to feel guilty for having the level of freedom and access that any human being should have. We just want those people to acknowledge that they may be benefitting from somebody else being marginalised and help undo the marginalisation. So maybe it’s not so much a feeling of needing to give reparations so much as that responsibility to help bring others up.

Yeah, I mean, having said that, I said this to my dad the other day, cos he’s retired and he was feeling like he wasn’t doing enough for the world, and I said, ‘Well, everything that we do in human rights – everything we do in human rights and law-making and everything else, but especially in that kind of atrocity crimes-type law – is to make sure that most of society doesn’t have to be engaged in those things; like, most of society can do their gardening, and walk their kids to school, and dance and drink and all of those things.’ (laughs) It’s not to say that there should be any guilt for enjoying the freedom that human rights and justice institutions like at the UN are supposed to afford us.

(Interviewed on 26 May, 2021.)

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Possums Deserve Love, Too – Philip McKibbin

Maurice the possum

Possums Deserve Love, Too

Philip McKibbin

Possums are persecuted in Aotearoa, but I believe they deserve love just like humans do.

I know this is a controversial position. In New Zealand, we are brought up believing possums are bad, and we are constantly told we need to get rid of them.

Maurice, a rescue possum living in Canterbury

Possums are widely blamed for environmental destruction, but much of what Kiwis think they know about these animals is incorrect. For example, most New Zealanders believe possums habitually prey on native birds and their eggs – but there is little evidence of this, and plenty to suggest that they don’t. The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals says these introduced animals are ‘opportunistic herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves’. 

Possums have been linked – more convincingly – to defoliation and die-back, as well as bovine tuberculosis, but it is unclear how big an impact they have. One thing is certain: the effect they have on the environment is minor compared to the harm we do.

Despite this, possums are targeted with traps and poison, which are inherently cruel. These so-called ‘pests’, along with stoats and rats, are now victims of the ‘Predator Free 2050’ campaign, which aims to kill them all off by the middle of this century. 

(Just as the term ‘predator’ is an inaccurate descriptor for possums, ‘predator-free’ is a perverse vision for the future of this country. Aotearoa never was predator free, and hopefully it never will be – unless the Department of Conservation is also planning to eradicate kārearea, and the countless other native species that prey on animals.)

Maurice, at home

Possums are often denounced as ‘invasives’, but this label is misleading. Possums did not invade New Zealand; they were brought here, by humans, to be exploited for their fur. Now, we blame them for problems we have created.

Rather than reckoning with our own destructive behaviours, we are wasting money on a spiteful campaign that will inevitably fail. Instead of looking critically at the most serious causes of environmental degradation – like animal agriculture, which is responsible for deforestation, pollution of our land and waterways, and greenhouse gas emissions – and working to end our harmful practices, we are scapegoating possums. As humans, we blame them so we can feel better about the devastation we cause.

Of course, some people argue that because humans introduced possums, we have a responsibility to get rid of them. But I believe the notion of ‘responsibility’ leads us in a different direction – namely, toward relationality. We brought possums to Aotearoa, so persecuting them is extremely unfair. Instead of cruelty, we should show them aroha – which means treating them with compassion, kindness, and empathy.

But what about biodiversity? We can promote this without eradicating possums. We will do it by changing what we consume, divesting from animal agriculture and diversifying our economy, returning land to native forests, and reinvigorating traditional Māori gardening practices. If we continue to establish wildlife sanctuaries like those at Tiritiri Matangi and Tāwharanui, we will not lose our native species. (We can do this non-violently, by trapping and neutering so-called ‘pests’, then releasing them away from sanctuaries.)

The reason we are not yet doing those things is not because they are impossible, or because they would be ineffective. It is because they require us to change. As well as making changes to our lifestyles, we will have to make changes to our economy and re-think how we do conservation.

Still, we must change, because animal rights abuses are unacceptable. As UK-based activist Kim Stallwood points out, Predator Free 2050 is a state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded torture and killing programme. It is morally atrocious.

Ultimately, we need to learn to live with possums. Just as it would be absurd to suggest that humans should be exterminated because of the harm we do, it is wrong to torture and kill other animals because of the – much smaller – impact they have.

We should show possums love.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford.

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Review: ‘Revolutionary Love’ by Michael Lerner

Revolutionary Love

Reflections on Michael Lerner’s Revolutionary Love

Philip McKibbin

An earlier version of this review was published on

When Rabbi Michael Lerner generously invited me to write an article for Tikkun exploring the similarities and differences between our conceptions of loving politics, the first thing that occurred to me is that there are far more similarities than differences.

I came across Lerner’s book, Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, last year at Epsom Library in Auckland, where I live. Our government here in New Zealand – led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – is sometimes held up as an example of caring leadership, but I dearly wish that it would embrace love.

Although Ardern’s government is certainly more caring than the Trump administration was, there are many ways in which it is failing – especially on urgent issues such as child poverty, the climate crisis, and our abuse of non-human animals. When Ardern became Prime Minister in 2017, I was glad, but also wary: it would have been naïve to believe we would achieve a loving society simply by voting in a centre-left government!

Over the last few years, I have been sketching the Politics of Love, a radical vision of politics which reimagines all of our relationships. I understand love as an ‘orientation’. It is a way of relating: to ourselves, each other, non-human animals, and the natural environment. As well as guiding our interpersonal relationships, I believe love can govern the other ways we relate. The Politics of Love is a values-based politics: it mobilises loving values such as compassion, responsibility, and trust, which can guide action and inform policy. It also carries with it commitments to mutuality, anti-exclusive inclusion, non-violence, etc.

Reading Lerner’s book, I felt an affinity between his proposed plan and the vision I have for our world. His ‘manifesto’, which is written for an American audience and is aimed at liberals and progressives in particular, sets out a programme of revolutionary love, imagining how it might be brought about in the United States of America.

Lerner understands that loving politics must be grounded in, and directed toward, action. One of the many things I admire about Revolutionary Love is that it is filled with practical ideas for creating a more caring society – like, for instance, decoupling work from basic survival needs, so that we have more freedom to direct our lives. This proposal – inspired by several months’ work on a kibbutz in Israel – will not simply alleviate poverty, it ‘will also allow workers to stay with jobs that feel meaningful and valuable for their community, even if the firms they work for can no longer afford to pay them.’

Indeed, there are many similarities between the Politics of Love and the ideas Lerner expresses. For example, I agree with his suggestion that transforming our social and economic institutions will not, in itself, be enough to realise loving community. He believes that spirituality is necessary, too – and I think something very similar: if we wish to transform our societies, we should let our highest values lead us. However, I prefer to talk about the importance of cultural change. There are people who, at the first mention of spirituality, will dismiss the notion of loving politics outright – and not without their reasons. I believe it is possible to present the Politics of Love in words that speak clearly to everyone.

Perhaps my favourite part of Lerner’s book is his treatment of human weakness. He says that we should extend our love to those we disagree with, and that this must include those who do very bad things. In my writing, I have argued that we need to have love for ourselves, too, and acknowledge those parts of ourselves that are most difficult to hold. In exploring self-blame, Lerner shares his work at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, explaining the importance of recontextualising our perceived shortcomings:

‘Always, our goal is to steer toward the question “Is it reasonable to say you created this reality?” and some variation of the answer “No. Although we make our own choices, we do so in the midst of social arrangements that we did not choose and which constrained our ability to imagine alternatives.”’

If there is wisdom in his book – and there surely is – it is here that it reveals itself most clearly.

Nonetheless, there are things I would challenge in Lerner’s account of revolutionary love. First, I think releasing a ‘manifesto’ is problematic in the context of loving politics. The word itself is controversial: it is strongly associated with communism, which will make many Americans suspicious of it. However, that is not the thing that concerns me most. If we are successful in realising a loving world, it will be because we create it together – not simply by following a plan, but by co-determining our future. It is very important that the contributions each of us make to loving politics are offered in a spirit of genuine humility. We do not need manifestos written by individuals so much as we need everyone contributing – and it is imperative that the offerings we make inspire collaboration in the truest sense.

(It is worth noting that Lerner is not the only American to have written a ‘manifesto’ for revolutionary love. Sikh activist Valarie Kaur’s book, which was published a few months later, is titled See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.)

The second thing I want to challenge in Lerner’s account is his insistence that we abandon the language of privilege. He believes that we have become preoccupied with ‘political correctness’, and that the way we talk about politics no longer resonates with Americans. The problem, he writes, is ‘identity politics’:

‘[W]hen identity politics are uplifted but the needs of most white working class people, and particularly white working class men, are dismissed as “white privilege or male privilege,” don’t be surprised if many of them turn to the Right, which acknowledges their pain (while blaming it on the liberals and progressives who instead seek to privilege “the most oppressed”). The Right gives expression to the resentment many people feel at the lack of respect they get in their lives and work with the misplaced nectar that blames various groups of historically demeaned Others.’

I agree that the term ‘privilege’ sometimes operates to alienate people who would otherwise see us as supporters, and that some conservatives have taken advantage of this. However, the experiences of people who are disadvantaged cannot be explained exclusively, or even – I would argue – primarily, in terms of class. (I believe the idea that the world’s problems more or less reduce to capitalism and class is misconceived, and that with the same tools – selective logic and clever word-play, we could perform a similar intellectual trick using sex, for example, or species-membership – and possibly much more convincingly!)

Sexism and racism operate in ways that impact people’s lives. It isn’t the case that they simply harm some of us; they also create benefits for others. The correlation between harms and benefits is not always direct, but that does not mean privilege is not real. (A ‘white’ man may not benefit directly from a Black woman being shot and killed by police, but such atrocities result from a system that oppresses Black women in order that ‘white’ men will benefit – with, for example, better experiences in education, more desirable work opportunities, and easier access to healthcare. Even ‘white’ working-class men benefit from white male privilege – by, for example, being shown greater trust by neighbours, shopkeepers, and the police; and by seeing white men being positively represented in the media.) Pretending that privileges do not exist – which is what we do when we refuse to acknowledge them – means that the injustices they arise from, and which they work to uphold, go unaddressed. A solution might be to ensure that when we talk of ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’, we acknowledge that the causes of disadvantage are complex, and that it is possible to experience brutal class oppression, which in itself is extremely difficult, without also experiencing the compounding negative effects of sexism and racism.

We can work to uplift the working class while at the same time acknowledging the reality of white privilege and male privilege. I follow African-American theorist bell hooks, whose writing on love – especially her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love – embraces men, including white men, while challenging us to engage critically with our privilege and work to dismantle what she calls ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’.

The third challenge I would make with respect to Lerner’s account of revolutionary love involves its strong focus on nationalism, and its appeals to American nationalism in particular. Of course, loving politics is – by its very nature – focused on community, and it is important that we work with the communities in front of us. However, our love becomes distorted when it is conceived only, or predominantly, in terms of a specific community. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against this when he spoke of ‘the barbaric consequences of any tribal-centered, national-centered, or racial-centered ethic’. When communities are conceived of in exclusive terms, love is undermined. (It is impossible to affirm nationalism without affirming some form of exclusion: national communities are defined as much by who they exclude – foreigners; those who choose, or are forced, to renounce their citizenship; ‘illegal’ immigrants – as who they include.) Any vision of loving politics that arises within the United States must critically interrogate the notion of American exceptionalism – the idea that the United States is superior to other nations – because as a nation it has been, and continues to be, a harmful force in international politics, with severe consequences for people living in other places.

(It is important to remember that Lerner has subtitled his book ‘A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World’. It should surprise readers, then, that the book is written primarily for Americans – as if Americans alone will heal and transform the world!)

I am wary of offending Americans with this analysis – and of course, that is not my intention. In fact, the Politics of Love owes a tremendous debt to American thinking. Much of the literature on love and politics has been written within the United States, and without the works of thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, bell hooks, and angel Kyodo williams, I would not have been able to sketch the Politics of Love. Nā reira, kei te mihi, kei te mihi, kei te mihi…

It is only fair to point out that Lerner is generally critical of nationalism, even though he sometimes affirms its legitimacy – as when he writes, ‘Nationalist celebrations can be positive if they are done in ways that affirm the particularity of a given people while also affirming and fostering appreciation of all other people on the planet.’ Toward the end of his book, imagining the future in 2140, he suggests that open borders will become the norm and that the very notion of national borders will eventually disappear. This is pragmatic: any talk of dissolving national borders must acknowledge that it will only be accomplished in the long-term.

Still, his treatment of nationalism is problematic. For example, he writes that rather than celebrating Independence Day, Americans could dedicate the fourth of July to ‘Global Interdependence Day’ – ‘a day that balances celebration of what is good in our country with critical reflection on the oppressive practices in our past and present’. Although he outlines some of the ‘horrific acts of violence, theft, and domination’ that were committed in creating the United States of America, including the genocide of Indigenous peoples, he stops short of explicitly addressing the ways in which American nationalism upholds American exceptionalism. The two notions are closely – if not inextricably – connected. It is for this reason that, without a strong critique of American exceptionalism, his proposal that Americans take the fourth of July, a nationalistic holiday, to acknowledge and reflect on our global interconnectedness inadvertently perpetuates that supremacist myth.

Lerner is not the only thinker to make this mistake. In her book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution, Marianne Williamson attempts to summon American nationalism in the service of love. However, without a sufficiently critical analysis of American exceptionalism, and the ways in which it is bound up with American nationalism, her efforts to mobilise nationalist sentiment for revolutionary change undermine love.

The Politics of Love is committed to anti-exclusive inclusion, and as such it works to replace nationalism with a strong sense of global community. This does not mean that it denies our differences, or erases human diversity. Rather, it insists that this diversity can contribute to creating a community in which all of us are equal and each of us has a place. I often describe the Politics of Love as a ‘space’: a round space, within which all of us gather, with our diverse knowledges and histories, to debate and deliberate – and from which we act.

Although I disagree with Lerner on certain points, there are far more on which we agree, and I am grateful for Revolutionary Love.

Perhaps where our views most align is on what Lerner refers to as ‘meaning needs’. In discussing leftist movements of the past, he writes:

‘Historically, socialist and communist movements […] focused almost exclusively on the external realities of life, the economic and political arrangements, ignoring the inner realities, the need to place love, empathy, and genuine caring for each other, for all of humanity, and for the planet at the top of their agenda. They did not recognize the importance of what I call “meaning needs” – being connected to higher values for one’s life than simply satisfying material wants and needs. They did not ask themselves how to shape an economy and political system that embodied and promoted that kind of caring…’

Where Lerner emphasises ‘meaning needs’, I emphasise values – such as humility, respect, and understanding. With different words, we are both exploring ways of ensuring a connection between the lives we live and the things that really matter. By affirming the importance of love and working to give expression to our highest values, we will bring about a better world for everyone, together.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford.

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We Need a New Model of Emotionally Intelligent Justice – David Patton

Justice, Power, Love

We Need a New Model of Emotionally Intelligent Justice

David Patton

Justice Power Love

My name is Dr. David Patton and I work as a Criminologist in England. I would like to suggest in this article that the current models of justice that dominate the Criminal Justice System (CJS) in England are promoting more harms than goods and perpetuate further violence and inequality. I believe that a new paradigm of justice is needed. Throughout history we have witnessed periods where justice has been reimagined and reinvented. My observation is that we are at another hinge point in history. We are witnessing the collapse of the ‘old’ structures, systems and institutions and so within this context there is also the opportunity to reinvent justice. One that is based on a love ethic to create an ‘emotionally intelligent’ model of criminal justice.

It is very tempting to focus on criticising the current CJS in England and Wales and its dominant approaches. To evidence that it does not work. For example, in 2021 the Ministry of Justice statistics show that the proven reoffending rate for adult offenders released from custody is 44%, increasing to 60% for those sentenced to less than 12 months in prison. Further, 60% of juveniles released from custody also reoffend within a year of release. The average annual cost per prisoner being housed in prison is £28,974 – £38, 991. The average number of reoffences committed per person is 4 known offences. The ongoing collateral harms to victims as a result of the crimes committed against them can not be adequately measured. Further, the ongoing negative ripple effect to those convicted of a crime continue years after their sentence has been completed. It is easier to critique than to offer an alternative. It is always a creative and vulnerable endeavour to articulate something new. However, I have decided to be vulnerable and share some of my early thoughts on ‘what’ an alternative may look like.

In addition to being a Criminologist, I also work as a Life coach. One of the key messages that I give to clients when setting a new goal or vision, is to focus at least initially on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. If you look at the ‘how’ too soon, you will almost certainly never come up with the very thing that needs to be done. So, this article will look predominantly at the ‘what’. It is hoped that some of your input in the comments to this post may help point to some of the ‘how’, as well as helping me refine my thoughts further in relation to the ‘what’.

As I write this post, looking at the gap between where things currently stand and where I believe things can and could be, is intimidating and scary but, I am determined that it should not deter me from suggesting it. My intention is that this post can hold space for the realisation that we are off track, that change is desperately needed and possible. Therefore, new definitions and models of justice are needed.

Where are we now?

The CJS is dominated by negative responses and reactions to crime and criminality that are focused on retributive punishment, exclusion, labelling and shame. Justice is administered in an adversarial court system in England, which is premised on conflict, opposition and the presumption of guilt. The dominant models of criminal justice, namely the models of Crime Control, Status Passage and Power promote further violence and exclusion, and cannot succeed in attaining the much-needed results of a new form of justice. The Crime Control model is defined by its social function of punishment and its creation of high conviction rates due to its disregard for legal controls, support of the police and implicit presumption of guilt as well as the desire to highlight the unpleasantness of the experience for the offender. The Status Passage model is defined by its social function of denunciation and degradation along with its focus on public shaming and asserting the agent’s control over the process. The Power model is defined by its social function of maintenance of class domination thereby promoting the labelling, stigmatisation, alienation and punishment of large classes of people.

The political and public discourses, social constructs, and moral panic that need to be created and maintained in order to justify the continuance of the above models are based on fear, hate, condemnation, labelling and stigmatisation. They foster a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset, highlighting ‘risks’ to the majority, which in turn typically evoke negative emotions and responses from the general public towards the ‘other’/criminal, and also, importantly can only evoke negative emotions and responses from those on the receiving end of the punishment provided by each of the above models. When the models are administered in an adversarial system this only serves to entrench the patterns of negativity and violence.

A call to action

Therefore, there have been repeated calls by many to redesign justice and to move away from retributive justice and punitive justice so that criminal justice is positive, unitive, peace-making, transformative, emotionally intelligent, intuitively intelligent, and community based. Further, many of the civil rights and social justice movements that have advanced notions of justice have been based on an ethic of love and a non-violent approach.

It has become clear as Albert Einstein stated, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ We need a different approach. Fundamentally, in order for a new paradigm of justice to happen, love needs to expand beyond the confines of personal relationships, to become a collective force, framework and strategy for social and political change to help formulate new models of justice. It is not a sentimental emotion. I believe the ingredients for this new paradigm and model of justice are encapsulated in the words of Martin Luther King when he said: ‘Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.’

A triad of love, power and justice needs to be reconstituted to create a new paradigm of criminal justice. We are currently witnessing a demise of the old definitions of power, as ‘power over’ and domination, and of justice that only serves the interests of the privileged, and so across the globe we are witnessing events that are redefining notions of power and justice with for example, the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, etc. The model of emotionally intelligent justice would seek to dismantle the negative and corrupting effects of a ‘white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ as stated by bell hooks.


In order to understand why the system is creating such negative outcomes (at least for some in society) we need to explore the types of inputs into the CJS. Garland has observed that different modes of penal power act as inputs in to the CJS that produce different outcomes. He believes that negative penal power is incapacitating, whilst positive penal power is capacity building:

‘Penal power takes different forms and may be oriented toward different ends. The power to kill, the power to incarcerate, the power to supervise, the power to levy fines, the power to transform individual conduct, and the power to transform families or communities are distinct forms, and they each may be deployed as means to different ends.’

When reviewing official government data, the following outputs are created as a direct result of its inputs: the CJS is clearly oriented towards punishing the poor, males, those with low educational attainment and special educational learning needs and disabilities, and those with mental health issues. There is also an over-representation of Black and Asian males in the system who are also more likely to be sent to prison and serve longer prison sentences. Such outputs creates the question, ‘what inputs (modes of penal power) create such outcomes? There are constant calls for the CJS to be reformed but, the CJS isn’t broken, rather it was crafted and systematically and structurally engineered to produce such results. The results produced are not just current trends but are also historical. The different forms of penal power create accompanying discourses and hegemonic narratives as justifications for its actions. Within such narratives, justice is equated with retribution and punishment, power is equated to the state exerting punitive and incapacitatory powers over socially constructed deviants, and notions of love are mocked or more accurately absent.

Inputs are are first conceived with the ideational philosophies that relate to key questions such as ‘who is a criminal?’ and ‘what is a crime?’ Philosophies, ideologies and paradigms built upon subcultural understandings or a criminal type or deviant who is significantly different to the majority promote a deficit model that pathologises people with specific characteristics which then legitimises the legislative framework that permits them to be policed and punished. This leads onto the creation of a web of actors, agencies and institutions with a series of related practices that are in alignment with the subcultural, pathologizing and punitive philosophy/ideology.

Means inherent in the ends

At present we have structures, systems and institutions that are dominated by negative inputs. Yet, somehow, an expectation is promoted within this context that says that after a duly punished person who has journeyed through the ‘negative’ penal system, that they should come out at the other end, as a well-adjusted and reformed person. One who is ready to make a positive contribution to society, participate fully within it and not commit any further crimes or cause harms in society. This makes no sense!

The observation by Ghandi that ‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind’ highlights the fact that a negative act, responded to in a negative way can only produce a further negative result. This is in part what we are witnessing at present with the CJS. Martin Luther King noted ‘For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth.’ What is needed is an input/response of a different kind, he said ‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ If we want to see a different result in relation to crime, recidivism and more specifically justice, then a different input, approach and response is needed from the State, the CJS, and society. In addition, if we want to see a different result, one that is positive, then it is advocated here that the input needs to be positive in nature to ensure that the means are inherent in the ends in order to provide the much needed congruency and alignment with the desired positive outcome.


If we accept that the means are inherent in the ends, then we need to redefine the ends (the metrics) of justice and of the CJS. At present the CJS almost exclusively focuses on recidivism as a prime metric to measure the success of a criminal sanction. A paradigm change is needed in relation to the metrics of the CJS so that we judge the CJS not by the the harms the system prevents but rather by the goods that it creates. The suggestion here is not that recidivism should be removed as a metric but, rather become one of a larger range of metrics of justice. The range of new metrics would focus not on the cessation of the negative but, the creation of the positive, (and therefore also indirectly achieving a reduction in recidivism). This shift will require fundamental shifts in perceptions, understandings and paradigms of justice, power and love.

If the patterns of fear, control, ‘power over’ and punishment continue to be repeated, this will do little to alleviate the negative cycle of violence perpetuated by the CJS or foster the creation of new metrics of justice. It is advocated here that a new paradigm is needed to allow for model(s) of emotionally intelligent justice that will allow for the creation of an emotionally intelligent CJS. New theories, paradigms and approaches need to be created and developed further, and existing ones brought to the fore to support the creation of such emotionally intelligent models of justice.

Suggesting an alternative

I recently conducted a research project exploring the hopes and pains of desistance. The written diaries of 43 male prisoners were analysed to explore how they viewed their future self and future lifestyle post release. In the research it was argued that their diaries were a form of utopian literature due to their expressed desires for a better way of living and of being. The hopes expressed within their diaries revealed a vision that was not just personal but inherently political and transformative in nature due to the envisioned future that they sought to experience at the personal and societal levels. The respondents were not just hoping to stop offending, to find employment, or a place to live, find a life partner, or to study or settle down, etc, but rather, also pointed to something deeper, something beyond themselves and something radical. Their inherent goal in desistance was not just to ‘go straight’ but to ‘go somewhere new’.The society they envisioned was one of acceptance, inclusion, transformation, reconciliation and restoration, of second chances, reparation, generativity, achievement, contribution and participation. In contrast, the pains of desistance identified in their diary entries were of shame, stigma, rejection, exclusion, surveillance, goal frustration, disappointment, self-isolation, goal failure, and hopelessness. Such pains provide a harsh commentary, reveal a significant critique and condemnation of where we currently are, and identify what is lacking in our structures, systems, institutions, policies, practices, perceptions and relations.

The type of society the respondents hope for and one that can accommodate the realisation of their personal hopes is radical. The new vision of society that we envisioned based upon their diaries is not for a perfect or Hollywood-ised mode of living. It acknowledges that people make mistakes, cause harms, can behave in self-destructive ways, have estranged and negative relationships and so on. However, such a radical society can accommodate those who are engaged in a negative and downward spiral of behaviours and importantly have within it, structures, paradigms and pathways for re-entry, full participation and for human flourishing to be regained. They envision a more inclusive, emotionally intelligent and fairer society. Reform is inadequate in the face of such a radical vision which rejects some of the fundamental principles that govern our societal structures to create something new. Such a radical agenda requires changes at the penal, political, and public and not just personal levels. The respondents’ hopes embody both an individualistic and personal utopian vision for themselves, and in order for this to be realised they inadvertently provide a collective vision of the communities and society or world that is yet to become.

Table 1

The new model of emotionally intelligent justice that I am in the early stages of thinking about and am proposing in the right-hand column in Table 1, is built upon a foundation of a love ethic to inform paradigms, policies and practices. The model is intelligent and as such does not seek revenge, to harm or diminish but to repair, restore and transform. It acknowledges the harms created as a result of negative behaviours and holds the person accountable for them. It is non-violent in its approach and is focused on inclusion and integration at the micro, meso and macro levels. It seeks to put an end to the patterns and forces of division, separation, exclusion, excessive punishment, shaming and humiliation etc. currently dominating notions of justice. It recognises that these are some of the very forces and mechanisms that have contributed to the problems in the first place. Instead, it utilises positive encounters and forces in offering a transformative experience. The model also seeks to raise the emotional intelligence and awareness of its staff of the therapeutic or anti-therapeutic effect of their words, actions, decisions and working practices/systems/structures. It is informed by all of the voices of those affected by crime and criminality to deliver justice for all. Further, it has a congruence between its aims, means, theories, values and the principles upon which it is based and the positive outcomes it aspires to produce.

A few examples of existing practices that encapsulate some of the features of the above model would be Therapeutic Jurisprudence courts whereby staff are sensitive to the therapeutic or anti-therapeutic consequences that their actions and decisions can foster, strengths-based models of practice, e.g. the Good Lives Model that seeks to enhance key strengths and talents and promote goal attainment; self-help, recovery groups and the 12 steps which provide accepting and empowering spaces and relationships through positive pro-social modelling to support one another; restorative justice and victim and offender mediation schemes which seek to repair the harms caused by increasing awareness and promoting responsibility for actions taken whilst leading to social integration. The list is not exhaustive, and clearly new agents and agencies would need to be created to help operationalise the emotionally intelligent model of justice. Ultimately, this would also require the creation of a web or networked agencies working in alignment with the method and values of the new model of justice.


In order for the above model to be adopted by the criminal justice system it would require a radical shift in its approach, requiring seismic shifts in its philosophy, aims, values, policies and practices. I am aware that some would say it is naïve to think that such a model will ever be adopted. I am at a point where the evidence demonstrating that the current system is not working is so overwhelming that it is naïve to think that the system can keep doing what it has been doing, reproducing the same negative cycle of results and promoting continual cycles of structural violence. I don’t know how such a change will occur but, I think people are beginning to wake up to the reality that justice is not delivering what is desired. I am keen to hear your thoughts on the above model. What features or perspectives need to be added or considered to the proposed model of justice? What are the particularities of criminal justice in your own community? How are they similar/different to the system we have in England? I would welcome your thoughts, reflections and comments and so I invite you to drop me an email at so that we can keep exploring the notion I propose here of emotionally intelligent justice.

David Patton is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom.

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