More on Cultivating a Love Ethic: bell hooks and Buddhism

bell hooksA MIND OF LOVE

To continue our discussion about an ethic of love – and what that means when we talk about activism, about participating in the political from a place of love – here is a quote from another article by bell hooks. For hooks, the idea of an ethic of love comes out of engaged Buddhist practice, an idea that hit America in the 1960s and 70s, during the second wave, and inspired a lot of Western activists: the revolution is love.

“When lecturing on ending domination around the world, listening to the despair and hopelessness, I asked individuals who were hopeful to talk about what force in their life pushed them to make a profound transformation, moving them from a will to dominate toward a will to be compassionate. The stories I heard were all about love. That sense of love as a transformative power was also present in the narratives of individuals working to create loving personal relationships. Writing about metta, [in Buddhism] “love” or “loving-kindness,” as the first of the brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes, Sharon Salzberg reminds us in her insightful book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness that “In cultivating love, we remember one of the most powerful truths the Buddha taught … that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them.… Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power. Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it.” Clearly, at the end of the nineties an awakening of heart was taking place in our nation, our concern with the issue of love evident in the growing body of literature on the subject.

“Because of the awareness that love and domination cannot coexist, there is a collective call for everyone to place learning how to love on their emotional and/or spiritual agenda. We have witnessed the way in which movements for justice that denounce dominator culture, yet have an underlying commitment to corrupt uses of power, do not really create fundamental changes in our societal structure. When radical activists have not made a core break with dominator thinking (imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy), there is no union of theory and practice, and real change is not sustained. That’s why cultivating the mind of love is so crucial. When love is the ground of our being, a love ethic shapes our participation in politics” (hooks).


thich naht hahnIn class during our first week, I asked if it was possible for anger to exist if we were practicing an ethic of love, and we talked about how anger is part of self-love, of self-care, especially for women, who may feel hesitant about claiming or expressing their anger. hooks once met and spoke to Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writer, and speaker Thich Nhat Hahn, who advised her to use the anger and suffering she felt as compost for garden, and reflects on both her excitement at this metaphor as well as the challenge she faced in trying to understand how to practice it in her real life:

“I remember talking deeply with Thich Nhat Hanh about a love relationship in which I felt I was suffering. In his presence I was ashamed to confess the depths of my anguish and the intensity of my anger toward the man in my life. Speaking with such tenderness he told me, ‘Hold on to your anger and use it as compost for your garden.’ Listening to these wise words I felt as though a thousand rays of light were shining throughout my being. I was certain I could go home, let my light shine, and everything would be better; I would find the promised happy ending. The reality was that communication was still difficult. Finding ways to express true love required vigilance, patience, a will to let go, and the creative use of the imagination to invent new ways of relating. Thich Nhat Hanh had told me to see the practice of love in this tumultuous relationship as spiritual practice, to find in the mind of love a way to understanding, forgiveness, and peace. Of course this was all work. Just as cultivating a garden requires turning over the ground, pulling weeds, planting, and watering, doing the work of love is all about taking action” (hooks).

See the full article, “Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love.”

Feminist Dialogues: bell hooks’ Interviews at The New School

bell hooksIn preparation for bell hooks’ visit to Purdue next week, I’ve posted links here to two of her recent interviews, part of her current (and second) residency at The New School. During next week’s Tuesday lecture, Dr. hooks will respond to student questions, which means that you all have the opportunity to shape the conversation with this prominent feminist, writer, and scholar. The following interviews, in addition to the assigned reading, should help you come up with some provocative questions.

In the first interview here, bell hooks speaks with trans actress Laverne Cox, who stars as Sophia on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The second interview is perhaps the most controversial. hooks sparked much debate and controversy on this panel when she equated Beyonce with an anti-feminist “terrorist,” despite Beyonce’s recent claims that she is, in fact, a feminist (see Beyonce’s much talked about performance at the VMA awards this year). hooks’ comment arose out of a larger discussion with activist and author Janet Mock about Black women’s bodies and the impact of Beyonce’s music and image, in particular, on young women and girls.





In a post on The Root, the author summarizes the controversial conversation between hooks and Mock:

“I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist—that is, a terrorist—especially in terms of the impact on young girls,” hooks said.

The writer and scholar raised a question about whether Beyoncé had control over her image on the Time cover.

“Let’s take the image of this super-rich, very powerful black female and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because she probably had very little control over that cover—that image,” said hooks.

Mock spoke in Beyoncé’s defense, arguing that Beyoncé was likely in full control of her image. “I would argue she chose this image, so I don’t want to strip Beyoncé of choosing this image—of being her own manager.”

In hooks’ eyes, Beyoncé not only may not have been in control of her image but was a slave to it.

Now might be a good time to review bell hooks’ definition of feminism, as well (handed out the second week of class), which sheds some light on her analysis of Beyonce above:

“Feminism is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels -sex, race, and class, to name a few – and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”  (1981)



Midwifery and the Home Birth Movement: Women Questioning the (Medical) System

In 2008, actress and talk show host Ricki Lake and filmmaker Abbey Epstein collaborated on their revolutionary documentary film The Business of Being Born, which explored the current experience of childbirth in the U.S. and the history of the home birth movement.

Featuring a number of birth stories – including Epstein’s, which occurred during the course of making the film, and Lake’s second birth, which was a home birth – the film was made in a similar spirit to the hugely popular Our Bodies, Ourselves, compiled and published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (see Wendy Kline’s article “Please Include This In Your Book…”).

As Dr. Kline mentioned on Tuesday, much of our current conversations about women’s reproductive justice centers on access to contraception and abortion – but here is a key piece of reproductive justice for women as well: the messages we give women about birthing and about the options available to them for a safe birth.


So What Can I Do? Becoming an LGBTQ Ally

This list, recently published by Everyday Feminism online magazine, provides those who want to disrupt heterosexual privilege and become allies for the LGBTQ community – specifically trans- individuals – a series of small ways they can change the conversation for the better in their everyday lives.

Want to do more? Sign up to attend one of the Safe Zone Workshops at Purdue’s LGBTQ Center. There are several each semester.

Trans Ally To Do List


Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: Constructing Heteronormativity

In her groundbreaking article for the feminist journal Signs in 1980, feminist poet and scholar Adrienne Rich argued that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a “natural” life path that women are “innately oriented” to desire – that is, we are not born desiring these things, but rather learn to desire them. Judith Lorber would say that we learn that certain desires are connected to “doing gender,” or performing femininity or masculinity. In other words, we need to understand how the dominant social order has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

So not just gender, but sexuality, is also socially constructed and reinforced through socialization and the ways we are taught to “police” each other’s behaviors and desires.

In American culture, heteronormativity is the dominant narrative – that is, heterosexuality is considered “normal” and images of heterosexual life dominate our advertising and popular culture.Look at the cover of every rom-com ever produced:

rom coms

In the last decade or two, popular culture has started to embrace certain images of homosexuality, but because even people who are gay live in a patriarchal society, we have largely gotten images and stories of gay men. Shows like “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and more recently “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all feature gay men. Where, we might ask, are all the gay women? Though they’re becoming slightly more common, gay female celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres tend to be exceptions. (Check out “Leaps and Strides: The History of Gay Characters on TV.”)

queer eye

Of course, we might also consider the ways in which these particular stereotypes of gay men have so frequently served and supported heteronormativity. For example, the cast of “Queer Eye” allows for straight men to engage in fashion and appearance without their own heterosexual masculinity being called into question. Or the images of gay men we so often see in fashion or in drag culture seem to instruct women to better perform femininity, sometimes by highlighting its extremes.


Ok, so calling an independent woman today a lesbian for being too “pushy” or sure of herself doesn’t have quite the same impact it did in 1970 when women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement frequently had this insult hurled at them. (This is a perfect example of binary thinking: if a woman will not perform femininity, she must by default want to be the opposite, i.e., masculine. There’s no continuum on which one might identify oneself here – there is only a pair of opposites.)

So how have our attitudes toward women perceived as lesbian changed? Let’s consider for a moment the whole barsexual trend. A “barsexual” is slang for a woman who kisses or otherwise engages in sexual behavior with female friends (often at bars) in order to attract the attention of the men they are actually romantically or sexually interested in.

Watch this clip from the Tyra Banks’ Show, where a woman in the audience who is lesbian confronts two heterosexual female guests on the show who engage in barsexual behavior:


  • How does such behavior help or hurt women – particularly young women like those on the show – interested in supporting solidarity with their sisters (lesbian or otherwise)?

Homosexuals on the Prowl?

This PSA (public service announcement) was produced in the 1950s, in cooperation with both the local police and school district. Notice that it’s directed toward young men, specifically boys. Female homosexuality is invisible here.

How do we still use the “threat” of male homosexuality – what C.J. Pascoe calls “the specter of the faggot” – as a form of social control to “police” masculinity?

Gender Identity, Essentialism, and Social Contructivism

Ever wondered what might happen if parents tried to raise a child without a prescribed gender identity?

Watch the story of Baby Storm on NBC Today.