What does love mean? What does it look like? How do we know if we are loved or if we are loving back? And are we loving in a healthy way or are we reproducing limiting and toxic behaviors towards loved ones as we have been taught and socialized into? How much of our lives, our happiness, our families, our communities, our work is determined, irrevocably damaged by an uncritical reproduction of learned, unhealthy, unloving behaviors we have come to identify as love?
What is healthy love and what is unhealthy love? If we practiced love individually and collectively in a different way could love transform some of the most persisting and enduring social evils within our neoliberal capitalist societies? Just how transformative can love understood, love practiced in a different way be within our lives?
These are concepts that bell hooks, renowned culture critique and feminist contemplates in All About Love. In this book she attempts to provide a powerful and transformative definition of love. She raises profound truths such as the fact that we do not as a society have a working definition of love which is deeply problematic and something we should consider collectively if we wish to capture and enhance the transformative capacity of love.
One of the most powerful aspects of her thesis in All About Love is that love and abuse cannot coexist together. This seems like common sense, but for many of us the representations of love in our lives, the love we give and the love that we receive has strong traits of abusive and toxicity. This quote below captures her views perfectly:
“When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care. Often we hear of a man who beats his children and wife and then goes to the corner bar and passionately proclaims how much he loves them. If you talk to the wife on a good day, she may also insist he loves her, despite his violence. An overwhelming majority of us come from dysfunctional families in which we were taught we were not okay, where we were shamed, verbally and/or physically abused, and emotionally neglected even as were taught to believe that we were loved. For most folks it is just too threatening to embrace a definition of love that would no longer enable us to see love as present in our families. Too many of us need to cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.”
Hooks explains the reasons why we have such an unhealthy understanding of love. She explains that the media for instance never portrays healthy loving relationships especially within the family setting. That women are often forced into the position of providing free emotional labor to men and within the family under the capitalist, patriarchal system. The way in which our friendships are devalued, considered less important than romantic relationships which are given immense significance.
However, her analysis is weakened due to a number of limitations which are deeply problematic.
Her analysis is profoundly gender essentialist and cis-hetereosexual centric. The over reliance on cis normativity and heteropatriarchy in which she views and hence analyses love, community, family and work is deeply marginalizing and downright erasing of queer people. There is a huge body of queer theory and literature that she could have drawn on to strengthen and deepen her critique had she chosen to especially for a renown academic of her position and stature.
Her tone speaks more to a “white feminist” audience and fails to capture a greater audience with a more pro intersectional focus on the issues that communities face. The token references to queer people (only two instances) reflects her disregard for intersectionality. Admittedly the book was written back in 2000, but there is ample evidence in her later writings and anti-trans gender women statements which suggest an ongoing ideological lense she has failed to critique internally.
Likewise there is another troubling element of her thesis: a complete failure to consider her privileged class position and how it has come to color her feminism and revolutionary vision. For instance, several times she speaks of her house in the city and that in the village which allows her multiple spaces and sites to practice her understanding of love towards others less privileged than her. It affords her the respite and the space to resituate herself as necessary and needed, taking a break from the traumas of the neoliberal capitalist system. A privilege many of us are not afforded. Another element of her class privilege is shown when she advocates doing work with love. This may sound good on paper, but this is within the neoliberal capitalist system which leeches the labor, love and creativity of working class people and does not return “love” in equal measures of pay. It is deeply problematic to advocate a loving attitude towards work when single mothers are working two or three part time jobs to make ends meet while earning minimum wage.
Another troubling element of her analysis is heavily God based to the point that her definition of love is based on the spiritual development and growth of the other person as the basis of “love”. Many would question this basis. For instance she states that “prayer provides a space where talking cures.” This may be manageable for many familiar with the self-help genre because one can easily replace prayer with meditation, journaling, and mindfulness among others.
There are other issues such as disturbing comment about Monica Lewinsky being a “prostitute”, dismissing power imbalance and the abuse caused as a result of a “sad” childhood that Clinton had yet to address. Some of these views were dated, old fashioned and downright patriarchal and sexist.
Hooks has largely been criticized for All About Love for sweeping generalizations, lacking citations and reliance on heavily anti-feminist books such as Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus the criticism appears to be well founded.
Overall, there are good practical solutions and thought provoking ideas regarding what love should look like. hooks also does a good job of dismantling the patriarchal idea that love is a woman’s issue, and that instead it is an individual and collective issues. All About Love is subjective, deeply personal, honest and forward in the telling of hook’s story as well as her vision and view of love. Even if, inevitably, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
She also invariably takes the reader through a re-analysis of issues such as love and personal responsibility towards loved ones, which we often take for granted and may not contemplate on a deeper level. She asks profound questions like “is giving care and feeling cared for, the same as loving and feeling loved?” and asks the reader to be equally, profoundly honest with herself in her response and revisions.