Monday, December 12, 2011

Linguistic Conceptions of Love and Idenity

This essay is the culmination of a semester's study of identity in my MA program on Conflict Transformation. I realized that it became a bit of a personal manifesto of belief as well. Identity does reach to the core of who we are, so that would seem to be a natural route for a reflection on the topic.  

     Whenever I'm asked about my religious beliefs, I say that love is the ultimate. I respond that love is God, which is one example of where my beliefs coincide with The Bible. We can see the thread of love in the makeup of all the world's great traditions, but is it enough to say that "I believe in love" and leave it at that? I say no, as not only will there be different ways of applying and defining love, but the universal nature of that small word opens up an entire new language that we can use; and much like language in the broader sense, love creates its own concepts by the very fact of its existence. It gives shape and clarity to everything that is. Its universal nature requires it to, and because of all that it envelops, "love" can seem impossible to harness into something neat and compact that we can categorize in our minds. There is a need to contextualize and explain what we mean when referring to love as related to identity.

     Perhaps then it is best to see how love looks in various situations. One of my favorite quotations comes from Cornel West (2010) when he says that "justice is what love looks like in public". There is so much in that statement, including something unsaid: that love takes on a different "look" depending on context. So how then does love manifest itself in issues of identity? Better, what are some of the words and/or statements that we use in this love language of identity? Looking back on a semester, I can see where my worldview of love as the ultimate has found itself enhanced by new additions to my vocabulary. These new words/concepts have sparked corresponding new ideas and potential ways to enact love in our world. It has created new entry points to tap into the energy described so well by Pierre Tielhard De Chardin - who portrays my metaphysical conceptions best - when he sees love as an energy of attraction or coming together of consciousness, humanity, knowledge and biology in a process of evolution that will ultimately culminate in "God" (Chardin, 1976). So, let's look at love as it appears in some of the words we associate with identity. 

Love and identity as dignity

     In my reading of Donna Hicks, I have not seen her name it as such, but her message is consistent with the idea that dignity is the essence of ourselves that is at base inseparable from and a part of universal love. It is where love resides in the individual, and tapping into that essence comes about through a process of self-reflection and discovery. Once we are able to see it in ourselves, then we can see it in others. This ability to see that internal space where love resides in humanity allows us to see true identity. I appreciate how she teaches us that dignity is not part of basic human needs, it is part of basic human essence. To deny someone's dignity is to deny their humanity (Hicks, 2011).

      From my own experience, I have found that it's when I'm most violent to myself that I'm violent to others (that is not to say physically violent, but violent in words/thoughts). It's when I'm least capable of overlooking personal faults that I'm also incapable of overlooking faults in others, and I tend to make sure the other knows about whatever "wrong" they've done in my eyes. My vision has been blocked in those moments. I fail to focus on the truly human and instead pick out external conditions and tie them to the person's identity. I have not placed dignity at the forefront in these situations, and because of this I identify myself and others in relation to the external or a particular context, instead of seeing a human in the midst of and irrespective of a context. Yes, we exist in relation to the world, but in and of ourselves we are still autonomous humans defined by the very dignity that is often denied by others. We learn from those others, and denying their humanity is to deny our own.

Love and identity as mimetic desire

     Vern Redekop (2002) gives shape to a concept we all use called mimetic desire. We learn to relate to the world by sent and received messages and signals in relation to others and through imitating positive responses that meet our needs, including the needs around identity. Mimetic desire or the desire to imitate can be positive or negative, but at base it is a desire for connection to something we see in the other. Redekop argues that what we are looking to connect with is at the very essence of what it means to be human, and it is here that I would agree. Notice the consistency with the other aspects of love which we've already addressed, such as Chardin's love energy working through evolution to bring us into tighter relation and consciousness as inter-connected humanity. Also, the desire to reach the essence of the human is the desire for dignity which is inseparable from essence.

     Redekop himself refers often to dignity, and it's concomitant element of autonomy. Both Redekop and Hicks are consistent in their descriptions of the seeming tension between the dual needs of individuation and integration. This tension is not so difficult to resolve when love as the mimetic as brought in. What we desire in imitating the other is that which defines us all as humans. It can be as simple as learning the appropriate way to dress or as complex as connections at the deepest emotional level. Thus, once we attain those desires/needs, we are then fully realized in our individuated humanity while at the same time we have achieved connection with the humanity around us. The two cannot be separated, as seemingly disparate as individuation/integration look at first glance.

     This makes sense when we continue to keep in mind that love is universal. Therefore ultimate love would by nature be fully capable of realization in the whole or part of the whole. However, the part only retains identity in relation to the whole. Identity cannot happen in a vacuum. There must be a relation in order for the individual to stand out or identify to humanity. If humanity or larger societies were universally homogenous, there would be no individual identity as there would be nothing to relate to. Love as mimetic desire fulfills the need for relation and autonomy in its healthiest manifestation by allowing us to be truly present witnesses through an awareness of others and how we identify in a continuous give and take. Thus the individual continues to combine and work towards higher levels of consciousness, unity and love by having their needs fulfilled while at the same time offering back to others those parts of one's self which we are able to give. In this way, mimetic desire works in all areas of the human experience and makes clear why healthy self-care and knowledge is inseparable from the love of others.

Love and identity as biology 
      I have already referred to Chardin's metaphysical paradigm of evolution as love, but I want to expand on that idea a bit and bring in thoughts of biologist Mary Clark as well. The idea of evolution as love and what that means for our identity is a profound departure from the normal discourse of evolution as natural selection. Both Chardin and Clark argue that we have evolved into beings that are by nature social and not competitive. 

      Clark (2002) takes this somewhat novel idea of evolution as a point of departure and argues that our minds are essentially "meaning-making" organs (p. 62). She illustrates this by showing us how language itself has evolved out of relationship in that it is a shared system of making sense of the world. It is through coming together that we come to a greater knowledge simply by the mere fact that we have a common basis for understanding in linguistic terms. This is a refreshing departure from survival of the fittest as a paradigm for increased intelligence. How often have we seen the power of ideas in a group of thinkers being superior to the individual, even if that individual has a higher singular intelligence than any one member of the group? 

     This is but one example of what I take from Clark in that biological evolution is a relation of love, and that the coming together of cells mimics the coming together of humanity. At this point, we enter into the metaphysical, as we cannot see the end of our evolutionary road. Chardin posits that the ebbs and flows of power structures, the errors and violence, the love and hatred are but the normal process of humanity's evolution towards the highest or ultimate realized for him in Christ and for me in love.

     Chardin died before the invention of the internet, but the advancement of technology is another example of evolution at work, and a form of evolution that unites us rather than separates us. Further, It is from imperfections in learning to deal with new and unfamiliar others - and their corresponding identities - that violence can occur. As technology makes the world smaller, we are facing new challenges of how to continue to come together. But Clark argues that it is in our nature to be social beings, and in this I find agreement with her. It is natural to unite, and the violent reactions we see in our world when diverse identities first engage in the trial and error process of unity are a result of earlier evolutionary processes that form the makeup of our individual cells. To continue to evolve, the human as organism will "learn" that going with the grain of the universe means learning to unite, not divide. Their evolution is centered around the ultimate goodness at the heart humanity, which I call love/divinity.

     So as Redekop (2002) and Clark (2002) both point out, we have evolved towards self-preservation, but when we bring that idea together with Chardin's ultimate metaphysic of combined humanity-as-one, we see that the self-preservation will eventually reach to a much greater macro level than anything previously envisioned. For in the end we individual humans, now seen as a whole in and of ourselves, will become - and in many ways already have become - the makeup of a higher form of life, much like the individual cells which make up our bodies.

     This evolutionary energy of love that drives life at all levels is what we must learn to tap into as we become ever more physically closer on this planet. This is my conception of becoming closer to divinity - working towards the divinity in ourselves as united with others - and this is where I see and understand the Christian concept of God in man as Christ. This vision of Christ as the ultimate evolution - which is the true view of Chardin and all Christians - is really a vision of the highest stage of humanity and consciousness. Our identity and purpose as humans is to be part of the greater whole that is driven by love. So, to me, love and Christ are inseparable, and to say that I believe in love would also carry a form of belief in Christ, but additionally would include other energies of love that can be seen in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. All are attempts to identify humans as tied to this energy of love, and that's why I cling to love as the ultimate force and God of the universe.

     Additionally, since all humanity contains the grain of divinity within their very biological essence, then is it too far of a stretch - given all that we've discussed thus far - to envision different autonomous expressions of God in the diversity that is the makeup of humanity? To take it further, isn't it this diversity contained within an even larger whole that will culminate in God? Cannot this God then be diverse as a part of its makeup? Does this not mean then that the energy of love is great enough to be all-inclusive and uniting and even has a destiny to unite? I say yes, and these questions are the kinds that I've grappled with in my own mind in attempts to make sense of the metaphysical. Furthermore, they are all directly related to the very core of who we are as humans, and how we identify with the universe and particularly the "others" around us.

Love and identity as politics

     At first glance, you the reader might think this statement oxymoronic. Politics is traditionally thought of in terms of governments, deal-making and power struggles. Yes, this is a part of politics, but Kenneth Hoover (1997) reminds us that there are power dynamics in any human relationship. If we are alive, we have power, and therefore power is a part of our identity. It cannot be ignored and it cannot be avoided, so awareness of the critical importance that power carries in human identity is crucial to our further evolution and survival.

     Interactions of power-containing individuals and societies, in Hoover's conception, are meant to draw off of the same energy of love that we've been discussing. Proper use of power as political relations is pragmatic application of the energy of love. Politics also encompasses far more than the macro government level. Politics is human relations. Therefore for these relations to remain healthy rather than self-destructive to our species, we need to focus on providing the kind of environments that will contribute to mimetic exchanges that allow diversity, tolerance and equanimity. Stifling mimetic desire as described by Redekop (2002) is to try to counter-act the process of evolution. Eventually this is doomed to failure if we accept everything posited thus far, yet this is what many governmental power structures attempt to do in our world today.

Love and identity as revolution

     Further, it is the stifling of these rich mimetic exchanges, in their ideal form, that becomes a threat to identity and is a direct contributor to violence. This is easily perceived when we remember that mimetic desires help define and shape our identity, and to be aware of our identity is to be aware of our dignity. When governments or power structures establish environments that try to homogenize or restrict this identity formation, they are also engaging in an indirect or direct denial of human dignity. Those subjected to this denial will often rebel and become violent, and these environments are the atmospheres from which revolutions are born.

     Granted, revolutions are not necessarily a bad thing, and much like the evolution of humanity, they can be seen as an evolution of the conditions that contribute to the positive evolvement of human structures of power. The problem is in the violence. Revolution by nature does not equal violence, but it of course often includes it. Revolution at base is about change, and the kind of change that revolutions work towards is to bring conditions that not only provide room for human dignity to shine, but to enhance and grow the dignity of humans; ultimately, it's about increasing awareness in the lives of the oppressor that the oppressed are claiming back their identity. This may sound like some grand statement, but isn't any revolution a progression, which is born out of a desire that a certain group has to elevate their worth as humans?

     While I cannot endorse the methods of a Che Guevara, he did capture the essence of revolution in his statement "at the risk of sounding absurd, a true revolutionary is motivated by love for the people" (Franklin, Hsu & Kosanke, 2000, p. 20). What I find admirable about Che's writings is that he was seemingly driven by the lack of dignity that he recognized in his fellow Latin Americans. He had seen how the machinations of power and imperialism had de-humanized the people with which he identified, and he felt this de-humanization in his deepest core essence. Ultimately, he identified himself as one of those people which the power structures of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly the United States, were oppressing.

     I am convinced that Che's revolutionary motivations were as much an effort to restore his own dignity as they were to elevate the dignity of others. His methods became extreme, and he acted violently to keep the revolutionary movement progressing forward. This I can no longer agree with, although there was a time when I did. However, I have come to a greater empathy of the reasons for the actions of a Che Guevara, or at least the actions of the Che that I've read about and that has been presented to me through Cuban and other leftist literature.

     Che's actions as presented were an effort to restore equality and dignity in all people. Theoretically, this is the message of Marxists everywhere. However, the dark side of power inserts itself into dialectic materialism by not acknowledging the fact that one power class ends up replacing another. A purely Marxist message is not one of equanimity and dignity for all humanity, it's only for those who were formerly oppressed. If the Marxist revolution succeeds - at least in the real world outside of Marxist literature - the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Love and identity as divine revolution

     We can see from the preceding statement how identity can instantly take on a different form when conditions are not created for the proper dignity of all, including the former oppressors. When this happens then we as the greater body of humanity have arrived at the position we held before the revolution. The death and violence involved in the cleansing of the old guard has done nothing to advance the evolution of the new guard. The new guard has separated itself from the greater body by attempting to elevate itself above the previous oppressor. This separation from the larger body of humanity is a form of identity loss, and is akin to a branch being separated from a tree. By refusing to recognize the dignity of the whole, the dignity of the part is lost as well. As previously mentioned, the part can only maintain its identity in relation to the whole.

     However, divine revolution, the revolution that goes with the energy of love recognizes the dignity of all and must by that fact alone be a revolution of non-violence. For how else can we respect our common human dignity but to remain non-violent? Any form of violence is at base a de-humanization. It is a judgment placed on a particular human life, stating that in this situation that human no longer has a place in the greater body of humanity. It is a denial of dignity - of identity at its very foundation - which is the identity of being human.

     Revolutionaries such as Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Cornel West and many others, like Che Guevara have also fought for the oppressed. But they have done so in a way that keeps the dignity of the oppressor intact. For the revolution means nothing if it is not universal, and for it to be universal it is absolutely necessary to stop the cycle of violence not later, but now. Forgiveness is necessary to restore the dignity of the oppressor, and it is necessary for the restoration of the dignity of the oppressed. The bond comprising the greater human identity has been ruptured in situations of oppression, and to restore it both parties must be reconciled. Forgiveness by the oppressed is at the base of this process as well as the acknowledgment of the rupture committed on the part of the oppressor.

Concluding remarks

     In addition to the methods above, I'd like to close this reflection on the love language of identity by stating that love and identity are also knowledge and awareness. Love grows out of knowledge and awareness. Anything we as individual autonomous members can do to increase our awareness extends itself to the whole through the mimetic exchanges with which we are constantly engaged. We have no choice but to intervene in our world, as the very essence of being human is to interact. Even an inaction is still an action.

     Therefore, when we increase our own awareness, we work towards increasing the awareness of others. At the same time, we cannot increase our awareness separated from others. Awareness, like human existence itself, is individuated yet integrated. Without a cultural base, a frame of reference, linguistic terms to make sense of what's around us, and interactions with others, whether it be in print or in person, our awareness is nothing; it is a vacuum. Even the contemplatives, monks, Buddhists and other ascetics are ultimately trying to tap into the same divine universal energy of love that we all seek and find in ourselves and through our relations with others. Their seemingly isolated search is actually a very intense process of reaching towards the whole. Those who are able to achieve the feeling of ultimate connection of being at one with the universe have tapped into divinity. They have found love, and they are now speaking its language. May we all work towards finding this connection in our lives, for there is no truer way to define our identity than through love.


Chardin, P. T. (1976). Activation of energy: enlightening reflections on spiritual energy. New York: Harcourt, Inc.
Clark, M. E. (2002). In search of human nature. New York: Routledge.
Franklin, C., Hsu, R., & Kosanke, S. (2000). Literary studies east and west: navigating islands and continents: conversations and contestations in and around the pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Guevara, C., & Deutschmann, D. (2003). Che guevara reader. Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press.
Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity: the essential role it plays in resolving conflict. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hoover, K., Marcia, J., & Parris, K. (1997). The power of identity: politics in a new key. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc.
Redekop, V. N. (2002). From violence to blessing: how an understanding of deep-rooted conflict can open paths to reconciliation. Ottawa, Canada: Novalis.
West, C. (2010). Brother west: living and loving out loud, a memoir. New York: Smiley Books.

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