A culture of opposition: How too much negative definition stops us attaining our true identity
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” – GK Chesterton
To be Conservative is to be anti-Labour, to be Labour is to kick out the Tories. To be atheist is to be anti-religion, to be religious is to be anti-science. In summary, our idea of what it is to be a good person is to not be whatever we perceive to be a bad one. This notion of operating primarily from opposition is a strong theme within our movements and rhetoric; walking around university campus’ hearing “Divest, Disarm, Decolonise”, “Bollocks to Brexit” or Stormzy’s infamous “F*ck Boris”. The aggregation of morality based on the ability to hate a chosen evil. In this sense definition is made negatively, as an opposition to the evil being fought, and as such the evidence of virtue becomes defined by the vice it stands in opposition to. This dichotomy is reflected within personal relationships, with disagreements on politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality, war and other such subjects becoming a justification of rejection of individuals either in a personal sense or in an inability to step out of our echo chambers to hear conflicting opinion.
The problem with these ideas is that the hatred seems to flow both ways, with hatred established in the subjective opinions of the group and the opposite hatred being established with the same malice and zeal, degrading both movements into insults and violence. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that both the groups and individuals within the groups have self-ascribed virtue based on their interaction with the opposite evil. The aim of establishing community and a common good is limited to the people that are already in agreement as virtue is derived from membership to the ideology. In trying to formulate a response to the deterioration to tribalism, it challenged me to derive the value in an opposite opinion, to extricate the common humanity rather than dismiss the person and pathology as one.
In reflection to this I attempted to lean on Biblical passages and ideas and found myself reading “Love your neighbour as yourself” in a way I had never done before. I read the ‘as’ in the sense of the two being simultaneous notions, in the way a student can watch his lectures back while eating his dinner (might be speaking from personal experience here), the act of loving a neighbour is simultaneous to the act of loving oneself. Building on this, we dignify the humanity in the other in the act of loving them and therefore raise the capacity of our own lived humanity in the world. As I felt I was getting somewhere, I realised that love still needed defining, if the subjectivity of morality be the principle undermining factor – why assume that love had a common definition. As I thought more, the realisation that the definition was bound in the earlier quote. If the process of love must be simultaneous; the level of love received must directly correlate to the amount of love given. If I do not come away from an interaction feeling a sense of love, then the interaction I committed could not have come from a place of love. If a charitable action has been done but the lasting sensation is resentment, or an action is undertaken on the basis that “love” is reciprocated, then the action ceases to be loving.
The best definition of love I could obtain from the previous train of thought is that it might be something along the lines of sacrifice without resentment, acknowledging the value gained in the self is the same as the love given to the other. In some senses I believe this is the interaction required to aim at something like a common good, if the exchange between peoples fundamentally benefits both then it perpetuates the exponential growth of the society within which it sits. We contribute of ourselves via our community interactions and love is realised when no direct return outside of the good of the other is required.
This stands in opposition to the culture of self-love that we see in society, with the conflation of sitting watching netlix for hours on a weekend being an action of love of the self. I do understand the need and requirement for rest and relaxation (see my 9am lecture attendance as a guide). The other aspect of exploring this led me to thinking that the love Jesus sets out with this statement also points out that loving another is not an easy thing to do. Lay down your life for your friends, and don’t resent their failings while you’re there. I hope you agree it makes the statement “I love chocolate” somewhat benign. This again drew reflection on when I might claim an act of love in my own life.
My working out of why not hate the opposition breaks down into a two layered response, behaving in this way derives as the antithesis of love in the descent of the discourse to include dismissive and derogatory attitudes. The deeper and more profound reason is it also reacts against the call to aim at a common good. If I define myself in opposition to something, I dismiss the aspect of the common good that person is embodying – however generic and flawed. It could be something as simple as wanting to be heard and being part of a community. In dismissing the humanity and the search for meaning in the other, I start to dismiss my own humanity and replace my search for meaning with a search for power over my opposition.
Additionally, in the dismissal of a common good in the pursuit for a power trip, we embody a view of society that denies our own identity as children of God. Our lives are not played out in a way that point to the character of our Father in heaven. This concept is called out in the beatitude as a call to meekness, the definition of the Greek is to “have the right or the power to do something but refraining for the benefit of someone else.” It is to have an ability to overpower or stand on ceremony in the aim of a cause but to forgo that action for the benefit of the common good.
If we extrapolate the way Jesus behaves in accordance with this, we can draw parallels to our own actions and lives. In the temple when Jesus points at the common truth between the Jewish people out that temples aren’t auction houses, he does this in a context where important principles have been infringed upon. We may apply this to our own church where we see abuses occur. Jesus in his trial by Pilate, simply states the truth with no offensive additional commentary, understanding the consequences of his speaking the truth. We can apply to ourselves when standing up for our beliefs in groups we know will not approve. Jesus on the cross is taunted to save himself - however he accepts his responsibility and lifts humanity in his actions. We see ourselves come somewhat close to this ideal when we sacrifice ourselves in the cause of something bigger without harbouring resentment.
To conclude, to love and to be loved are one in the same and aims at something analogous to the nature of God. In defining ourselves negatively we create separation from this ideal and therefore our own humanity. In Jesus however there is an opportunity to define ourselves positively in standing in the truth of being characterised by love and put some of that love into a world with too much hate in it for my liking.