In an 1864 speech in Baltimore, Abraham Lincoln said that “the world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one.” Knowing the human condition as he did, Lincoln would surely not be surprised to find that we have the same need 159 years later.
“We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing,” he said. “And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names.” Those names are “liberty” and “tyranny.”
But today, on the eve of Valentine’s Day and one day after the Great Emancipator’s birthday, I would like to add another word to Lincoln’s problematic political lexicon: love.
Love of country, love of our neighbors, love of, yes, liberty, can all be virtuous things, but can all be turned to evil ends. As Lincoln said, there are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same names: “love” and “hate.”
Lincoln used the example of a shepherd saving a sheep from a wolf: a liberator to the sheep, a destroyer of liberty to the wolf. But wouldn’t the sheep also see a loving act, and the wolf a hateful one? Doesn’t the wolf love the pups she is trying to feed? Doesn’t the shepherd love his flock?
Hate is very much in our mouths these days, and, at least when it comes to those different from ourselves, we are unafraid to call it out in strong, sharp voices. But we are slow to admit love into our minds when we think of the others arrayed against us in the quest for power, and scarcely able to say the word at all.
Tuesday’s holiday celebrates eros, romantic love, not the loves associated with politics: philia, the love between friends, and storge, the love for the people, things, and places that are our own. But just as eros can either create or destroy depending on the quantity and context, so can the others. Love of country and principles are necessary for nations to flourish, but also have been the cause of endless, unspeakable horrors. That does not mean, though, that they are themselves evil. In fact, rightly directed and in proper proportions, only love can defeat hate. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” said Martin Luther King.
Consider: One of the reasons for the rapid, sweeping success of the gay rights movement was its embrace of marriage as its central objective. Even more than with the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision striking down state miscegenation laws that forbade unions between white and black Americans, the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges 48 years later came after a period of rapid change in public opinion on the subject.
Whatever one thinks of the merits or jurisprudence in Obergefell, there’s no question that the court was tracking with public sentiment, not opposing it. According to polls, in 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage outran support among American adults by a 2-to-1 ratio. By the time of the decision, supporters outnumbered opponents 52 percent to 40 percent. In the most recent polling, the ratio is 2-to-1 again, but now in the opposite direction.
Much of the opposition to full legal status for gay and lesbian Americans was connected to homosexuality’s close association in the popular culture and moral imagination with rampant, disordered, sexual behavior. Indeed, the gay pride movement that came out of the Stonewall era often seemed to play into the stereotypes—and still does sometimes. But the movement was tempered by the AIDS epidemic and the well-organized, well-funded effort to raise awareness, find treatments, and destigmatize those stricken with the virus: Not always an easy task.
The push for gay marriage that began in earnest around the turn of the century did not emphasize sex, or really even sexuality. The story that proponents told was about love. Indeed, the slogan “love wins” was effective because it appealed to the universal human need to love and be loved. Advocates of same-sex marriage asked only that they be allowed to show their love in the way that straight people did. It was inherently flattering because the movement sought a good thing already possessed by its opponents.
Contrast that with the trans movement that now roils and rages in our political life. Its stated objectives are no less universal: To express one’s own nature. But gender dysphoria is a psychological condition for which medical science offers certain solutions. The inequality in marriage rights under the eyes of the law was a legal problem for which politics offered a solution.
Love for others, both philia and storge, is certainly part of the solution when it comes to dealing with the challenges presented by transgenderism. Families and friends need to love those individuals struggling to be seen as they see themselves, and we as a nation need to love our people as they are, not as we wish they would be.
Those who fear the repercussions of the movement have to understand that there is love in the actions of activists: love for others they see struggling as they have. But so too do the activists have to understand that most of those resisting and grappling with the profound changes to society being sought do so out of love, too. What looks like hate —of traditional definitions of sex and gender or of suffering individuals—looks like love to those on the other side.
Both sides are now looking to the law to resolve this conflict, that like the battle for gay rights, the matter can ultimately be resolved in Congress and the courts. But we are far from that moment, if, in fact, if it ever does arrive. The fight for two consenting adults to get married or for any adult to enjoy equal protections under the law is different from setting policies for medical care for a condition we have only recently come to commonly acknowledge, especially when it comes to minors.
This conflict demands mutual understanding, and that requires better definitions of love and hate.