On Love and Us vs. Them

Looking from a lens of how ubuntu is put into action in the United States, Time magazine explores the different ways ordinary Americans are giving back to their communities and each other and how it’s good for the country:  READ ARTICLE.

AmeriCorps is a domestic volunteer service organization that links young Americans with service opportunities in order to receive money for college. See their website here: <www.americorps.gov>

One supporter of AmeriCorps is President Obama. See his “Call to Serve” here.

Obama talks about leveraging the American commitment to serve to meet national challenges. Programs like the ones AmeriCorps support “invest Americans in their communities and their countries.” These programs empower people to form a “corps,” leaving behind their differences and working toward a common goal.

Any project that pursues the ubuntu spirit is therefore one that seeks to emerge past the “us vs. them” mentality and toward community. But we must also recognise the tendency people have toward “othering.” We are extremely driven to think in terms of dichotomies, be it man vs. woman, adult vs. child, or night vs. day. The way we create an “us” is by creating a “them”. Members of a group bond by recognising what they share and defining themselves by what – or whom – they are not.

But surely creating “us” is the goal – that is community. How, then, do we create us without “othering” them? A belief in the universal human experience can get us closer to human equality but runs the risk of “othering” all which is not human. A position of superiority over animals, plants and the earth doesn’t seem like an adequate cornerstone for Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.”

Helene Cixous[1] identified the binaries we affix to our lives as mutually exclusive and hierarchical. Not only do we assume men to be rational and women to be emotional, we think of rationality and (rational people) as being absolutely devoid of emotion and vice-versa – and we identify this (apparently uniquely masculine) rationality as superior.

Dr. King[2] understood this at a profound level: the false binary relationship between power and love.

“What happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. 

It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject the Nietzschean philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. 

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Cixous said we should “move beyond the singularity of terms” – transcend our binary thought. Life is a matrix of moments, locations, and relationships, so we should strive to think beyond dichotomies or even spectrums. It’s only through recognizing the uniqueness of every moment and every subject – be it a person or otherwise – that we can understand and appreciate each other and our connection.

When we appreciate people through their myriad identities – gender, race, class, language, age, etc. – we see ourselves as an equally unique intersection of identities and therefore value their “otherness”. Thus, we transcend “us vs. them” and can appreciate our place in a universal community. Smaller communities that exist within, such as a nation, therefore are fragments of “us,” not a distinct “us” that is defined by what it is not.

What we are left with, then, is love. When we love with power, we are active in our love because the “demands of justice” are as unyielding as they are lofty. They don’t accept moral compromise, nor do they accept moral inaction.

The Project Ubuntu team believes that this pursuit is inevitable. Human beings have what’s referred to as “second-order desires” – desires about desires. For example, we can desire to be less nervous when speaking in public. We seem to desire to find things to love. People name everything from pets to bicycles, all because they desire to have something to care for. John D. Caputo[3] said we start by loving and then try to understand what it is that we love. “It is love that drives our search to know.”

It is because of this powerful love that we believe in Dr. King’s assertion of our path toward humanity: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[4]



[1] Cixous, Helene. Sorties. (finish citation)

[2] King Jr., Martin Luther. “Where Do We Go From Here?” Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (16 August 1967).

[3] Caputo, John D. On Religion. 2001: Routledge, London.

[4] King: “Where Do We Go From Here?” (16 August 1967)