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Love, Violence and Equality

In this chapter, and the previous one, I have presented love and forgiveness as examples of positive recognition. The reason why I have chosen these particular phenomena is because I consider that their exploration affords the best way of examining and explaining what positive recognition might entail. In some ways, the phenomena have a lot in common, most obviously the fact that they are both of the utmost importance in theology. Forgiveness, however, differs from love in one crucial respect. When forgiveness happens, it automatically goes well - if something can be called forgiveness according to the characterisation given in the previous chapter, it has happened and it has gone well. The forgiveness could, in some strange and unusual circumstances, be given back, but in general it will stand, completed and accomplished. Love is entirely a different sort of phenomenon, romantic love in particular but also, to some extent, love as caritas. Not only is it a persistent state, or at least a state that continues for a certain length of time rather than an event, it also does not require perfectly respectful and pleasant behaviour at all times to be considered worthy of the name. Even in love as an example of positive recognition, there will be negative moments. How might one approach this sort of question or problem? What does it say about the value of positive recognition?

We can return at this point to Gillian Rose’s insights, discussed in the Introduction to this work. According to Rose, love is always violent. This sounds like an entirely negative view of love and human interaction in general but, as with the use of ‘confrontation’ at several points in this work, it is in fact used neutrally or even positively. As Rowan Williams puts it in his analysis of Rose’s The Broken Middle and whilst referring also to Rene Girard:

Violence negatively constructed suggests a primordial situation of equal or ‘parallel’ subjects, each in possession of itself, a situation that violence proceeds to disarrange... but in fact there is no such situation. Subjects are always already unequal, and the processes of negotiation work with a fiction of equality...The abstract universalism and egalitarianism of enlightened social philosophy must be ... exposed as fiction.25

Relevant similarity and the thought that the Other could be the subject for the self-as-object does not imply some kind of strict equality, and even less so that each be fully ‘in possession of itself’, that is, on one understanding, fully autonomous and individual in some kind of caricatured Kantian sense (whose work Williams’ reference to enlightenment recalls). Nowhere is this idea of inequality in human relationships more clearly observable than in love and forgiveness. In forgiveness, this is obviously the case: one person in the interaction or confrontation is the seeker of forgiveness, or candidate for it in some way, and one is the person who, perhaps uniquely, has the power or right to forgive. There is no primordial equality; quite the opposite. Love, depending on the type of love, but really any kind of human love, has the same structure of inequality. It is a rare case, at any point between lovers or partners, parents and children, siblings, or similar close and defining relationships, where what one person offers to the other is returned in precisely the same type and measure. This is precisely because we are not contentless subjects, bare placeholder autonomous rational legislators as in a Kantian caricature. What we love, in any relationship, is not a mirror image of ourselves. If it is, the only result can be alienation, because this is not a genuine other.

The defining features of love and forgiveness as examples of positive recognition are precisely this inequality or lack of same-ness in combination with reciprocity as a key requirement. At first, this might seem paradoxical. In fact, however, it is here that we can see most clearly how recognition can function as a building-block for an ethics firmly rooted in ontology (in senses (a) and (c) as described in the Introduction). When we recognise the Other, we are not recognising her as a friend, a teacher, a marathon runner or whatever else she might be, but as the relevant sort of being that can be the subject to one’s object and the object to one’s subject. That the Other might not have the same status as the self, whether in terms of social standing or in terms of the relationship the self has with the Other in terms of inter-relationship power. One person, in a relation of love or forgiveness, or any other relationship of recognition, might hold all the cards or have the upper hand. Relationships of recognition do not have to be scrupulously fair: recognition as an ethical concept does not have this kind of content.

What recognition can do is to ensure a basic underlying respect, both given and demanded, in a confrontation as defined in Chapter Five as a purposive and transformative encounter with an Other or others, where ‘purposive’ and ‘transformative’ are understood extremely conservatively to include anything that might count as genuine social interaction.26 An ethics which takes serious account of recognition as described in this work will also be able to take genuine account of the social self, which is not an unchanging, completely autonomous self that could ever exist without the social world in which it finds itself. Such a social self could be rooted in a monistic ontology which, far from preventing genuine intersubjectivity, could be a pre-condition for it. Finally, the study of love and forgiveness as promising examples of this kind of positive recognition could overcome a dichotomy which is often overlooked in these kinds of studies of inter-relations, ethics and the social world - that between epistemic and emotional relations between the self and the Other.

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