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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rihanna and "love"

Rihanna. (c) AP.
AP Reported today that the popular singer Rihanna has been interviewed following an incident where her boyfriend, another singer named Chris Brown, beat her. After the incident, Rihanna returned to Brown but has since said she is ashamed that she did this. She said that she realized that a lot of girls and young women will see her and that it sends a terrible message to them. She said she had fallen so far in love, and it was so unconditional, that she returned despite his treatment of her. She told young women not to "react off of love".

Whatever her situation or motivations, it is good that she's saying these things because a lot of young women are indeed inspired by popular figures like Rihanna. But I wanted to take this time to look at the concept of love as Rihanna has described its role in this situation.

Modern English provides us with the word 'love' which we English-speakers use for a lot of things. Other languages, and certainly ancient Greek, were and are more sophisticated - differentiating between all of the varieties of love. Here are some the ancient Greeks used:

  • Agape - A very general sort of affection and high regard. This can apply to a spouse, one's children, or even food. Presumably the regard we have for our favorite movies would be included.
  • Eros - Passion and sensual desire. Sexual attraction. Infatuation based on beauty - Plato even included our desire for beauty in art.
  • Philia - The love of friendship. This is a virtue-based love that includes loyalty to family, friends, and one's society. Incidentally, this is from the same philo root as in the word philosophy (the love of wisdom).
  • Storge - Close affection, trust, and familiarity like we have with family. This sort of love is such that we tend to put up with our family members' bad behavior.

    So, with this finer scalpel, lets look again at Rihanna's situation...

    What kind of love does/did she have for Brown? Certainly, Eros must have existed (I admit to some Eros for Rihanna myself), but sexual attraction alone doesn't seem to be the usual motivation for women seeking to stick with men that abuse them. It's ironic, but she may not have held Brown in 'high regard' (Agape) at that point. You know those love interests you 'love to hate'? Tumultuous relationships often include very low Agape, but very high Eros or other loves. But Agape is the most general and weak of motivations, easily overpowered by others. She probably hadn't been with Brown long enough to have Storge. Storge is the kind of love usually only known by parents or spouses who have been together in a trusting relationship for many years. In many ways it could be considered the deepest form of love. But when we think of loyalty and friendship (Philia) this seems to be the element we hear abused women speak of. They'll say things like, "he's the only friend I have", "he's the only one who knows me", "I couldn't find another like him", and so on. The old country western song Stand By Your Man comes to mind.

    Loyalty is a tricky subject in ethics. It is perhaps the easiest virtue to pervert, and requires wise comprehension of surrounding virtues to keep it in its correct context. You will find similar distortions of loyalty in the 'ethical codes' of gangsters, warlords, and thugs. What human beings long for is that deepest of connections - an unconditional love of Storge. But this is a difficult thing to develop because it involves a familiarity and trust that is hard to come by. So often, when we lack that family love, what happens is that Philia is distorted to act as a "stand-in" for Storge. In these cases, we confuse the loyalty of Philia with the tolerance of Storge.

    Loyalty is only a virtue insofar as the thing to which one is loyal is virtuous. Being loyal to a gangster, a warlord, an unethical company, or an abuser is not virtuous. Loyalty, then, properly exists through a filter and presumption of a shared association to the good. But when people are looking for that deeper sense of belonging, acceptance, and love, they will elevate the importance of loyalty as a cheap substitute. When we have Storge for a family member, we will tend to be more tolerant and forgiving toward them when they step out of line. This is mispercieved as the 'loyalty' of Philia when in fact it is something else entirely.

    So, when Rihanna asks young women not to "react off of love", what she really means is that we should not react off of Philia. Don't let your sense of commitment and loyalty distort what you know to be right, or trump other more important forms of love. So, really, when Rihanna left Brown, she did react off of love - but off of Storge for herself, and off of a less distorted form of Philia to her society (or the young women in that society).

    It is strange, but so often true, that when we cannot find enough love for ourselves to do what's best, that we can instead be motivated by our compassion for others. Rihanna should preferably have enough love for herself that she leaves Brown, but in thinking of the effect of her actions on other young women, she says she found the extra motivation to do what was right. This is not unlike the person who abuses themselves by living recklessly and irresponsibly, until they have a child. The child often saves such people, giving them the motivation to straighten up.

    Although any cause to help someone do the right thing is always welcome, ideally what we should be aiming for is not a love of self that puts our needs selfishly first as in many interpretations of Objectivism, and also not a love for others that makes a sacrifice of ourselves, as Objectivism admonishes. Rather, as I prescribe in the practice of Existential Deliberation, the task is to think, perceive, and love without bias. As the Buddha might say, we should expand our loving-kindness to everyone and... that includes ourselves - respected and loved as a person with equal worth. For those who may have difficulties in this, I'd invite them to spend some time with themselves and open up to that person as you would a friend. I invite you to fall in love with yourself!

    Let's hope the same for Rihanna.

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