On Common Ground
Illustrations by Anieszka Banks
“I could have hit him, I could have hurt him…but something in me said, you know what? He just needs love.”
These were the words of Aaron Courtney, an African-American football coach from Gainesville, Florida. Courtney hadn’t planned on protesting at an event by white supremacist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida, his first public appearance since leading a violent torch-burning rally at Charlottesville. But he felt compelled to turn up by a deep sense of obligation for his nation and a desire to break down the barriers that wall people off from each other. Courtney explained his presence by saying, “this is what we’re trying to avoid…it’s people like him who are increasing the distance between people.”
In the arena, Spencer was hopelessly drowned out by chants and heckles. Meanwhile, Randy Furniss, with hands in his pockets and swastikas on his t-shirt, walked back through the protesters, having missed out on a ticket. “Go home, Nazi scum!” they roared at him, spitting and hurling insults. The frenzy climaxed in Furniss being punched by a man in a hoodie. Blood began dripping from his mouth.
By this stage Courtney had been protesting for hours and was about to leave, until Furniss, roughed-up by the crowd, crossed his path. Wanting desperately to engage and understand, Courtney took the opportunity in a surprising way. “Why do you hate me?” he entreated passionately. “What is it about me? Is it my skin colour? My history? My dreadlocks?” He pulled Furniss close, embraced him and pleaded again: “Why do you hate me?” Furniss remained motionless, eyes vacant and lips still bleeding. But eventually he reciprocated, timidly wrapping his arms around Courtney in an embrace as unlikely as it was powerful, and simply answered: “I don’t know.” Courtney believed him.
A black man and a white supremacist hugging. An amazing story of shared humanity overcoming one of the bitterest divides in a nation. “One hug can really change the world,” Courtney concluded.
We’d all like to believe in the power of a hug, in the potential of love to close the distance between people, to renew society and repair our fractures. But do we dare hope that it is true? Can love, a concept we often use so casually and cheaply, really possess the power to redeem the way we relate to our neighbours and our fellow citizens?
We are not often confronted with actual Nazis and New Zealand is not America, but even as a tiny island nation in the bottom of the South Pacific, we are not immune from the corruption of public discourse that has been sweeping Western democracies, a corruption that reveals a stark absence of love.
These trends are discussed so often that we can almost be desensitised to their harm. They describe a kind of blockading in and around our public square, segregating that shared space where we come together as inhabitants of the same nation to debate questions of meaning and purpose and ultimately to forge our national identity and our future.
The goal is not to reach consensus or to stifle debate with politeness, but instead to elevate disagreement and allow it to be expressed openly and productively towards the common good.
Take, for example, Don Brash’s experience at Massey University. Invited to speak to a student group about his time in politics, Brash was “de-platformed” in August ostensibly because of security concerns, but it was later revealed the Vice Chancellor sought advice on how she could ban him due to his apparently offensive views on race-related issues. Refusing to listen to each other puts at risk the healthy conflict that we need to move forward.
When we aren’t walling off the public square, we have little trust in others to genuinely engage well inside it. In a recent survey, the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies found that only around half of New Zealanders trusted their fellow citizens to “make informed choices about the future of the country.” A similar proportion had little or no trust in politicians and media to do the right thing. A discourse based on distrust affords no space for love.
In many ways, the problems we’re experiencing and the lack of love that we see in our public square represents a failure of liberal democracy. That means it’s worth looking back to the origins of liberalism, starting with the crisis that birthed it.
The foundations of our liberal democracy were constructed in the shadow of a blood-soaked century of religious wars following the Reformation, where European conflict over the dominant Christian worldview—which formerly held medieval society together—was tearing it apart from the inside. This was a time when subjects were required to follow the monarch’s religion, like it or not. Freedom to dissent wasn’t permitted. Millions lost their lives.
With a strong desire to avoid that kind of conflict again, to avoid a “war of all against all,” political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke conceived of a new, liberal political society as autonomous individuals coming together to agree on a “social contract,” exchanging some of their freedom for order. Government would depend on the consent of the governed, and a neutral, pluralistic public square would allow individuals to come together and rationally discuss ways to co-exist, respecting each other’s differences while securing the conditions to pursue their own conceptions of the good life.
This liberal consensus provided unprecedented peace and prosperity for centuries, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was famously described as the “end of history” by political theorist Francis Fukuyama: the final evolution of political society. And yet, just a few decades later, Fukuyama is now arguing that liberal democracies are in peril, “fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole…a road that only leads to state breakdown.”
The problem lies at the heart of liberalism. According to sociologist Christian Smith, the cornerstone idea is that rights-bearing, autonomous individuals ought “to make everything new, to leave behind the past, to be unbound by any tradition, to enjoy maximum choice …to live however one desires.” In short, we are bound only to what we choose. But while this protects us against top-down oppression, this idea has slowly disintegrated our commitment to unchosen bonds of belonging, like political society and the nation itself.
This has led to the rise of what is now called identity politics, where people enter the public square not as members of a shared nation seeking to deliberate about a shared future, but primarily as members of tightly-defined communities competing with members of other communities for recognition of their conflicting rights.
Of course, this phenomenon can be exaggerated—we all belong to varying groups and communities as well as our country, and it’s possible to hold those multiple, sometimes conflicting, identities in healthy tension. At times, identity politics is also a necessary response to injustices suffered by specific groups, or a valid way to pursue particular aims that are unique to a group.
But in order to hold our ever-narrowing identities in healthy tension in a vibrant, cohesive society, we need to preserve and build upon the common ground we do have. We need something that binds us together, especially to those we haven’t chosen to share space with but who, just like us, call this land home.
A neutral, pluralistic public square would allow individuals to come together and rationally discuss ways to co-exist, respecting each other’s differences while securing the conditions to pursue their own conceptions of the good life.
Contrary to the liberal vision, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton claims that society’s “binding principle is not a contract, but something more akin to love.”
Love is a staple of songs, sermons, and sonnets, but it’s also been making a comeback in New Zealand political life. The Oxford-educated author, Max Harris, made waves when he published The New Zealand Project and called for our country to embrace a “politics of love.” Similarly, economist Shamubeel Eaqub has argued that “tax is love,” and the Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, appeared to heed Harris’ call when he said his party stood for “the politics of love and inclusion” in a speech during the 2017 election.
Terms like love have a lot of rhetorical firepower, so when they start to appear in our public conversations it’s important to stop and ask what they mean. So let’s look at Harris’ definition of love as “a deep warmth directed towards another.” Harris hopes to infuse and inspire our national politics with values, including the “key value” of love, reinvigorating a sterile public square in the process. But while his intention is laudable, the concept of love he offers isn’t up to the task. Paradoxically, it asks too much and too little of us.
Think of the idea of “warmth” at the heart of this idea of the politics of love. This describes a certain type of love, but it’s typically the kind of affectionate love we have for people we know well—our spouses, children, family, and friends. In an ideal world warmth would be enough to sustain our politics, but it’s hard to have warmth for people we’ve never met, who may be little more than abstract ideas or categories to us. It’s hard to believe that Aaron Courtney would have felt warmth towards Randy Furniss, let alone white supremacists as a group. Asking us to show warmth in those situations asks too much; it asks for a kind of love that just doesn’t fit.
When the warmth just isn’t there, what might fit is something a little cooler. We can draw some inspiration from the political philosopher Jeremy Waldron, who advocates for the “chilly virtue” of civility to redeem a fractured and polarised public square. This is a formal commitment, which requires that in debate we tolerate each others’ opinions, and treat each other as humans first, opponents second, but never as enemies. The goal is not to reach consensus or to stifle debate with politeness, but instead to elevate disagreement and allow it to be expressed openly and productively towards the common good.
In an ideal world warmth would be enough to sustain our politics, but it’s hard to have warmth for people we’ve never met.
Now civility is not love, but the kind of love that we need in our politics is a lot like this: a chosen commitment to will the good of others regardless of who they are and regardless of how warm we might feel towards them. We choose to love, not who to love. The ancient Greeks called it agape love, and it was described memorably by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbour. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbour-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbour in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both.
It is a binding love, the kind that recognises that we do not choose our obligations to one another, only the way we respond to those obligations. Dr. King’s famous dream for America wasn’t just about bringing oppressors to justice, it was about this kind of love uniting and healing a divided nation. The sense of obligation that drove Aaron Courtney to attend the protest is a good example of just this kind of disinterested commitment to all people. His cool choice led to a warm embrace.
By now, it might be becoming clear why a politics of love that depends on warmth also asks too little of us. Politics is often cool, rather than warm, because our public square is filled with people who think differently to us, people we haven’t chosen to share space with. If we only have to act in love when we are warm towards each other, the isolating distances between us will continue to grow.
In fact, this kind of love requires consciously chosen sacrifice. It is a virtue not just a value, one that requires something from each of us; one that we grow into. But as the story of Aaron Courtney and Randy Furniss illustrates, it is also the kind of love that may just turn out to be truly transformative.
Their story should give us hope, especially as it didn’t end with a hug. Seeing Furniss in trouble, another protester, Julius Long, fended off the chaotic demonstrators and escorted Furniss to safety. They proceeded to walk and converse for the next hour, getting to know one another’s stories, hopes, and fears, discovering that they shared more than they expected. Following their encounter, Long and Furniss want to set up a panel session with the university, and perhaps even co-author a book on their exceptional encounter.
“If we sit down and we can talk about our concerns and our issues,” said Long, “the things we like and dislike about our communities, that builds dialogue…what we did was, we were able to break the barriers and to communicate and to have understanding.”
“What he did, he rised up and above what anyone else was doing.” Furniss responded about Long. “He set a high bar of standard because he understood what I was going through.”
No-one would have presumed to tell Aaron Courtney he needed to hug Randy Furniss that day. Love cannot be enforced, laid down as law in such a way that would compel our hearts to be open to those who might mock us or antagonise us. The most that can be done by legislators is to create open space, free for us to speak and interact, in the hopes that all people in our society will break out of our tightly-defined communities and fill that common ground with the diverse, messy, imperfect interactions that allow us to remain connected. It is up to each of us to choose how we engage. Let it be with love.