I have been meaning to review bell hooks All About Love: New Visions for a few weeks now, but got distracted by my tangent into postmodern feminism. But, by coincidence, I was teaching a class on Second Wave feminism last week and the topic of romantic love came up and it reminded me of her work. I brought up the topic of alternative forms of family life as a goal of some feminists during the Second Wave and my class, of first year u/grads, were discussing the idea of communal living. They really hated the idea as they thought that children wouldn’t be loved by anybody except their biological parents, and it struck me that they had failed to realise that many conceptions of communal living not only got rid of the concept of the nuclear family, but of the couple. So, I suggested that they try to think of the family as something where the romantic couple didn’t exist; where loving relationships could take a different form. And they could not get past the romantic couple. They were happy that the couple could be gay, but they insisted that there was something unique and special about the romantic couple that could not be got rid of. It surprised me that a younger generation could be so conservative that they could not even consider alternative ways of loving. hooks work is about thinking about new ways of loving, and it ties in with another interest of mine, thinking about how the feminist movement is going to move forward. All About Love is an attempt to provide a vision for a more loving, equal feminist movement, and through it, a more loving society.
hooks argues that we, as a society, do not know how to love, because we have never been taught how to love. She talks of how, perhaps unlike the ‘all we need is love’ ethos of the 1960s, young people today are uncomfortable about talking about love within social movements. Love is increasingly restricted to an act between two individuals and as such is viewed with scepticism and discomfort when explored as something that society and social movement should engage in. She argues that love is about hope and equality. It is about allowing people to be recognised as full human beings, able to recognise their full potential in a supportive environment. Love is about community.
All About Love highlights how society is confused about love. We combine love with authority so unthinkingly that we cannot see that to truly love, we need to love without power. She gives the example of childhood, where love and authority are complexly intertwined. Parents hold authority over their children, but call that authority love. Children are punished, even abused, in the name of love. She argues that many people grow confusing violence with love; while others, who receive no discipline, grow up to believe love means always having your desires fulfilled. She argues that to create a more loving society, we need to value our children more, to respect them as human beings, to offer them loving guidance, empowering them to make decisions over their own lives. She recognises that children are often too young to make responsible decisions, but that shouldn’t mean not allowing them to be involved in the process. It also doesn’t mean making children do things that are not in their own interests, because it makes our lives easier or because we can. It means giving them the necessary guidance and boundaries to be able to make responsible decisions over their own lives. It also involves teaching children that adults are human too, deserving of respect (not because they hold authority, because they are human) and consideration. It involves rethinking the power hierarchies we think arise naturally within relationships between parents and children.
hooks has lots to say on other loving relationships, including friendships and intimate partnerships. One her most interesting observations was her remark that we are increasingly taught that nobody will love you, unless you first love yourself, but that this is nonsense. hooks points out that having people who love you in your life is vital to your self-esteem and your ability to function well. It is impossible to love yourself, when you have no support network. She also highlights that we repeat the power hierarchies of childhood in our adult, loving relationships so that we repeat the same abuses and hurts as adults that we experienced as children. There is lots of great stuff here and some real, practical advice on how to move forward. It even involves an interesting section on ‘divine’ love or the role of spirituality or faith in our lives, which I thought was a brave and important discussion given the tensions that exist between feminism and religion.
One of the most important contributions, I think this book is making for the feminist movement, is its discussion of love in community. hooks argues that we have been brought up to place the romantic partnership as THE central relationship in our lives. When people ‘couple up’, they often throw all other friendships and relationships out of the window in their pursuit of the romantic dream. hooks argues that this is damaging for people and for society. She suggests that for many women, the focus on the importance of the marital unit has left them open to a myriad of abuses as they seek to shore up their relationship at any cost. The focus on the couple has destroyed our sense of community, so that we now live in a state of war with our neighbours, rather than in friendship. She argues for loving beyond the family, because it will help reduce the inequalities of power and abuses that exist when the family is the only place where we can have our needs fulfilled. Fellowship in the community reduces our sense of being along; it gives us a broader support network; it allows us greater empathy and awareness of the needs of our fellow man; and with it brings respect and friendship across society. Love in the community is about healing the tensions and challenging power inequalities that exist when we refuse to acknowledge each other.
I wonder what my first year u/grads would make of All About Love. I sense that romantic love, and the power hierarchies that it frequently reinforces, are so deeply entrenched that we may be uncomfortable with the idea of loving beyond the family. Yet, I also think that her message is one that should be well-received within the feminist movement. Rethinking the natural order of life has always been part of our tradition; perhaps romantic love is just the next shibboleth that we need to tear down.