Using A French Philosopher’s Love to Better Understand Black Lives Matter

In the wake of the exposed racial tension that has been bubbling under the surface of the American Dream, and in light of increased accessibility to the thoughts of the American public, a social media phenomenon has posted its way to the forefront of America’s virtual consciousness. Citizens are calling on one another to love in the face of murder.


The past three years, marred by scores of racially and politically charged violence (ranging from Mike Brown to Freddie Gray to Sandra Bland to Orlando to Philando Castile to Dallas), have shown that where there is tragedy, there is always a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to greet our logins: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”


This quote has surfaced in response to police brutality, failures to indict, and vehement racial protest in cities across the country. It emerges, devoid of commentary, in the middle of Ferguson, after Baltimore, and between Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It seems that in the face of tragedy and uncertainty, when we do not know what to say or how to say it, when we are unsure of our role, or have yet to confront the racist infrastructure of our country, we default to quoting and invoking a beautiful—yet poorly defined and contextually vacant—notion of something called “love.”


We post believing that the quote will meet the minimum down payment of a peaceful psyche: in white liberal circles, there seems to be an unspoken belief that once the requirement of expressed sympathies and “allyship” with the African American community is met, duty has been done. This is not so.

There is a set of underlying questions that is oft-ignored: in light of injustice, what exactly does it look like to drive out hatred with love? When we come face to face with the injunction that we must “respond” with love, how exactly does this response manifest itself in the everyday actions of the American people? If someone were to ask you why you posted that quote, what would you say?


How does it look to love back?


This essay will aim to offer an interpretation of what this “love” means, as applied to the Black Lives Matter organization and movement, with help from Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love. In it, I will argue that acknowledging that black lives “matter” is the same thing as proclaiming “love” under Badiou’s definition. Understanding what it means for a black life to matter specifically, requires understanding of Badiou’s conceptions of love and fidelity. Like with most concepts, understanding the Black Lives Matter movement comes down to understanding the language that we choose to operate with when defining, debating, and acting upon it. It is my hope that analyzing the significance and semantics of the word “matter,” in light of Badiou’s love, will lend itself to understanding how exactly love drives out hate.


The declaration of love is what Badiou calls a “truth procedure.” True to its ostensible meaning, a truth procedure is the creation of a truth in a space where it did not exist before. Declaring love has a single function: it takes the randomness out of the chance occurrences that bring two people together. While all human encounters are the result of a random combination of events (think: mutual friends, late for a train, attending a certain school, taking a wrong turn, etc.), the act of openly stating love for another takes the randomness from whence it was born, and turns it into something that “takes on the appearance of destiny.” Stating love for another person signals the beginning of something that was not present prior to the encounter between the two people, but is now necessary: a formerly empty space becomes occupied by a shared sentiment, perspective, or value.


As Badiou states,


“To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.”


America exhibits the exact “stage fright” that comes with professing love: as a country, we are scared to say that black lives “matter” because the second that they do, we are forced to reckon with the entirety of the black experience and the totality of our participation in its oppression. This reckoning does not render the majority in a favorable light, but casts us as co-conspirators in a culture of grave injustice. Awareness of the issues that plague the black community begets a responsibility and a culpability that the majority of white Americans are not yet willing to take on; the moment that the words “Black Lives Matter” is uttered, the black life becomes necessary to our conception of what it means to be “American.” An absence of chance is a presence of responsibility: something that the American public at large is not yet willing to recognize.


This “American-ness” has long since been owned by white, cis, straight, male, Christian Americans, and the addition of texture to its definition complicates things for the typical white American. There is an “extra-ness” that comes with the analysis of the black life and the black body, as it has been subject to ferocious oppression and exploitation throughout our country’s history in ways that no other group has, rendering white citizens both unwilling and unprepared to confront the realities of their co-existence.


Declaring that black lives matter has precisely the same function as Badiou argues declaring love has: it intentionally eliminates perceived randomness from events that are derived from a common thread. Stating that black lives matter means acknowledging the lack of randomness in police brutality incidents against African Americans. Stating that black lives matter” means refusing to bear witness to the murders of Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd and blaming it on “bad apple” cops, isolated events, fractured police departments, “disrespect,” or any other number of gilded explanations that deny the inherent connectivity of these events. Mattering means locating and identifying pattern, which in turn means locating and identifying culpability.


Badiou posits that by exhibiting and claiming our love to fellow man, we acknowledge that their existence is necessary for the truth we have created. When existence becomes necessary, no longer does the truth of the oppression of African American citizens become subject to question. The debate would not center on whether or not they matter, but what in fact, should be done in light of mattering. In the way that declaring love for another person or thing necessitates what was once chance, declaring that the black life matters acknowledges the need for identifying and protecting the black life in the way that other, more privileged groups are.


Simply put, the declaration of a love—of mattering—does something for the world. It is what allows us to say that the violence we are witnessing is not by chance. It is not random. It allows us to say that the events that shape our individual and racialized lives in this country is not happenstance, but the product of white supremacy and turned heads. It allows the creation of a shared and acknowledged truth–a creation of something that was previously “space.”


As anyone that is or has been in a romantic relationship knows, the declaration of love is not enough to engage and sustain a lasting, healthy relationship. That love must be resilient. Once it is declared, a life so dedicated to that love requires fidelity. For Badiou, fidelity is roughly translated to the regular maintenance of the declared love—remaining steadfast in the face of difficulties that will undoubtedly confront the statement of our responsibility for the welfare of the black life. Badiou argues that fidelity signifies an “extended victory” in which “…the randomness of an encounter [is] defeated day after day through the invention of what will endure, through the birth of a world.”


Perhaps we are, as a people, hard-wired to default to love. The trick is understanding what exactly that love requires of us. When confronted with threat to our fellow man, the call to love is the call to actively acknowledge the reasons by which that man is threatened, and take responsibility when and if necessary. When we can acknowledge truth, defeat chance, and create something that will endure, only then can we create and participate in a world by which love drives out hate.


Image courtesy of germalnewms, Flickr Creative Commons.


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