LOVE IS DISMANTLING SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION

“The moment we choose to love, we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others”. bell hooks

In 2021 “what is love” was one of the world’s most Googled questions[1]. Although the concept has been around for millennia, defining and understanding it remains relevant. As someone who works at an organization that fights inequality, I tend to view everything in terms of systems of power; and as a feminist I look to the wisdom of intersectional social justice movements and seek remedies to systemic power imbalances. What does it have to do with love, you ask?

In 2019, I first saw a collage titled “Love is dismantling systems of oppression” created by artist and activist Vienna Rye. Her piece adds to the wealth of subversive and revolutionary interpretations of love shared by other change-makers, such as bell hooks, Audrey Lorde, Nawal El Saadawi and others. It inspires me to think about the ways that love matters — deeply — in the context of social justice.

SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION

We live under the governance of systems that idolize control over everything — including the planet — by small groups of elites. For centuries, these small dominant cliques did everything to make power work in their favor: they excluded whole groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, sex and gender identity, and other characteristics, from access to resources, and resorted to violence to keep this status quo with them at the top.

A dangerous concoction of patriarchy, racism and neoliberalism is at the heart of this system that has become our collective reality. In addition to our economic and political systems, it’s penetrated so deeply in our culture that it changed our worldview reinforcing its own narrative in the very things that make us human. Over the years, what we believe in has been in part shaped by these systems, by the white, cisgender male gaze. Our thinking about love has also been influenced this way.

I don’t want to condemn flowers, cards, and other attributes of the popular and commercialized Valentines’-Day-version of love. But I do want to look more closely at the kind of love that trumps hate, destroys barriers, and brings people together. True love, radical love, is so powerful that it can dismantle a system whose only motivation is the accumulation of wealth and power. Love is the real form of power that the current elite doesn’t want us to unlock. What makes it so potent?

LOVE IS THE ANTIDOTE TO OPPRESSION

Although the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the systems of oppression and resulted in unprecedented growth of inequality, it also let love crystalize. Through the solitude of lockdowns, heartbreak of losing loved ones, being forced to spend every hour in abusive relationship, or seeing countless acts of love and self-sacrifice — we learned a big deal about what really matters.

The pandemic has catalyzed civil society to respond to both the unravelling health crisis, and to the growing inequality and political oppression. Social movements that address pre-existing inequalities, and the ones that came out of the pandemic, can teach us a lot about the transformational power of love. Led by people who have ‘skin in the game’, these movements continue reshaping power relations by winning hearts and minds around the world. This deep and organic change of our norms, beliefs, and the core of our shared humanity, is feared by the dominant system. Here are some of the ingredients of this antidote to oppression.

One of love’s superpower lies in setting us free. The longing for connection with other human beings makes us overcome our fear of rejection and expose our vulnerability. bell hooks emphasized the ability of love to liberate us — both as individuals and as communities — from the shackles of oppression. It is the desire for freedom that bands people together to stand against the power-grabbers. Love empowers us to overcome fear and join the struggle for freedom. The #MeToo movement created a wave of brave acts from survivors worldwide and began breaking the culture of silence that patriarchy fostered for centuries.

Love happens when people enthusiastically desire to connect to each other. Its opposite is a lack of consent. Lack of consent leads to (and derives from) power imbalance and abuse; these are tactics of oppression. Consent is forcefully withdrawn from women worldwide on the systemic level through laws allowing child, early and forced marriage, forced sterilizations, female genital mutilation or cutting, lack of protections against marital rape and denial of abortion rights. Feminist movements worldwide are demanding consent to be a woman’s prerogative, with several big victories in the past 12 months alone.[2] In a wider sense, all social justice movements demand consent — with voices of the marginalized and the most affected being brought to the center.

Another power of love is its ability to overcome individual differences. Just as romantic love draws together diverse personalities, in the social justice realm love prompts people with completely different experiences to care unconditionally about each other. Support from varied allies is instrumental in challenging dominant power structures. When men stand up for gender equality, cisgender people for trans rights, people without personal experience of forced migration for refugee rights — this erodes support for the status quo of control and oppression. Reproduction of inequalities depends on us believing we are too different to have a common cause. Fragmentation is the weapon of oppression, but love helps us overcome it.

Finally, love gives us hope. It helps us imagine the future we desire, and act together to bring it about. Like lovers dreaming about building their family home together, social justice activism empowers people to collectively imagine their future together — one of equality, freedom and peace. Love transforms collective imaginations. Racial segregation was engrained in all spheres of life in many countries less than a hundred years ago. The civil rights movement brought people together to take it down. Marriage equality once looked too radical — but it continues to progress around the world.

Systems of oppression try to crack down on this love that gives hope, yet new generations of revolutionary thinkers and doers continue transforming our imaginations. Activists pour their daily labor of love into making change and inspiring hope.

CHANGING RULES OF THE GAME

From helping overcome fear and fragmentation to standing up for each other, the secret of the power of love lies in making a cause more personal and closer to our hearts. Love is the symbolic glue that sticks together all we care about; it spans across our relationships with ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and beyond. It is a great connector that transforms the way we see and act towards one another and our planet. This power is desperately needed in the process of rebuilding our societies and systems from the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One doesn’t need to have a romantic partner to practice revolutionary and transformative love. Every act that contributes to eroding the lifelines of systems of oppression, promoting new norms of equality and justice, supporting the survivors and those who lead the struggle, is love and a revolutionary act of resistance.

This blog has been authored by Victoria Stetsko with valuable contributions from Rebecca Shadwick, and Andreas Larsen, from Oxfam International Gender Rights and Justice team.

[1] https://www.semrush.com/blog/most-searched-keywords-google/

[2] https://www.ippf.org/blogs/2021-sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-rights

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Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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Oxfam International

Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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