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What's Love Got to Do with It?

Posted By Madhavi Sunder, Nov 20, 2015

I’m honored to be a participant at this historic conference on civil rights at Duke Law School this weekend, "The Present and Future of Civil Rights Movements: Race and Reform in 21st Century America,” organized by the school's Center on Law, Race and Politics.

I offered some provocative thoughts on the opening plenary here this morning, challenging the panel and audience to grapple with a subject that is crucial to the success and sustainability of any civil rights movement: LOVE.

King and Gandhi led the two greatest civil rights movements in modern history in the name of love. Both knew that to bring about change – and most importantly, to sustain it, they needed to cultivate sympathy and love for one’s fellow citizens.

In her new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, the political philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that a society based on the premise of the equal rights and dignity of each person must not neglect the important work of cultivating what she calls “political emotions.” Without education and arts that help people dive into the intimate life and problems of the other, through literature like To Kill a Mockingbird and Between the World and Me, we cannot develop mutual understanding and feelings of empathy and affection for others different from ourselves.

Nussbaum’s book centers on the question of this conference – how is cultural change introduced? What are the tools and prerequisites for social revolution?

Social revolution is to be distinguished from political revolution. While the latter refers to changes in government, social revolutions – or what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls “moral revolutions” – incite change in social attitudes, real world behaviors and people’s way of thinking. Revolutionary thinking requires, literally, a change of heart towards others—towards persons formerly viewed as slaves, as inferior, and as subhuman. From the mantra that “women’s rights are human rights” to  #blacklivesmatter, the challenge is to promote an emotional transformation that would bring strangers, even enemies, within one’s own “circle of concern,” as philosopher Nussbaum calls it. We need to see the other is one of us and part of our own nation, community, and story.

As a scholar of law and culture, I study the role of popular culture and the arts in social production and social revolution. As John Dewey reminds us, there is nothing quite like art as a vehicle for offering an intimacy with the lives of people different from ourselves. In short: art matters for justice. It is a critical tool in the process or emotional transformation. Nussbaum writes: “If the other has been dehumanized in the imagination, only the imagination can accomplish the requisite shift.”

So Bono and Will i. Am. are as important to this conference as the great scholars and lawyers assembled here. Music, book clubs and conversations in the public culture about television, film, and social media can help foster empathy for distant others, and also the critical commentary that is central to a democratic government. Unlike legislation or works of political philosophy, they “promote readers’ emotional involvement in the events” and encourage dialogue.

On that score, however, a report of Hollywood diversity in 2015 reveals that in fact, the world’s most powerful cultural producers are failing our democracy.  The report finds that though minorities are 40 percent of the U.S. population, they are only 1 in 6 among broadcast scripted leads and white actors dominate top credits. In short, according to Hollywood, black lives do not matter, and neither do Latino or Asian lives, or women, for that matter. These numbers reflect the failure of our collective imagination; our failure to use art to imagine a better world.

We cannot shun art, culture, and emotions in our movement. As Nussbaum says, “ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as boring and tepid.” Love is the very life of our movement.