Monday, 17 June 2019

What Is Love?

Posted by Berenike Neneia
     with Thomas Scarborough 
What is love?  There is the unspoken view that what love means to one it means to the whole world.  This is not the case, as I shall demonstrate by exploring the word in my mother tongue, I-Kiribati.
In English, love is hard to define – or rather, it has many definitions – while in my own language, the word itself informs us of its meaning.

In English, ‘love’ may be traced back thousands of years to the Sanskrit ‘lubh’, which means ‘to desire’.  Its meaning has not changed much since then.  Today the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone’.

To many, this is unsatisfactory – mostly for the reason that affections may change – alternatively, that they believe love to be deeper and wider than mere desire.  In English, the only real alternative to this is the religious meaning of the word, which compares our love with the love of God which is sacrificial and unchanging.  Yet this, too, is simply called ‘love’.

In my own language, the word for love is ‘tangira’.  It comes from two words, namely ‘tang’, which means ‘to cry’, and ‘ngira’, which means ‘to groan.’  Crying may be both positive and negative, in the sense that a person can cry if they are happy and if they are sad.  This already reveals something important about love.  Love does not change when it turns to crying, or where there is groaning.  This is by definition wrapped up with love.

'Ngira' has a further, related meaning, which is 'to sacrifice'.  Thus a person who is in love will engage in self-sacrifice.  This, in turn, needs to be mutual, to be shared equally between a husband and a wife, so that it will build a good and lifelong relationship which brings glory to God’s name.

Sacrifice, too, should rule out the possibility of violence.  In my culture, men may abuse their relationship role, and use it to gratify themselves alone.  In some instances, in which wives are violated by their husbands, men argue that they do such things out of love.  Then their behavioural beings, called ‘aomataia’, change and become violent.  This creates disunity and disorder.  But ‘ngira’ as sacrifice implies that a husband will sacrifice himself for his wife, and vice versa.  This lies closer to the religious definition of love in English.

‘Ngira’ has a social aspect, too.  People often identify themselves by the power they hold, and not by love.  The more people hold high rank in government, church, or non-governmental organisations, the more they are likely to define themselves as superior within the family, society, church, or country as a whole. Sometimes this quest for importance causes people to do harm to others because they want to be placed higher.  While power is not harmful in itself, it needs to be founded on sacrifice, to the benefit of all.

There is a related word in our language, to ‘tangira’.  It is ‘onimaki’, which means ‘belief, faith, confidence’.  This word clarifies the love that binds couples in marriage.  If both have faith in each other, it is assumed that there will be no violence, which leads people to separation and divorce – although this does not mean that they will not quarrel.  In spite of such things, there is a possibility that they will find solutions for their problems, because they believe that they are faithful to each other, and to God.

The meaning of ‘onimaki’ should rule out unfaithfulness.  Therefore, remaining a virgin is very important for unmarried women in I-Kiribati culture, and is still practiced nowadays.  If daughters are found not to be virgins during the first time they have sex after marriage, they will be returned to her parents and family naked.  To return the woman naked is to embarrass her, because she is not good enough to be a daughter-in-law, as she has already given her body to someone else.

Faithfulness also implies provision.  Sometimes marriage relationships are destroyed through the wife or the husband being lazy.  For instance, if a wife is lazy in the sense that she cannot look after her husband and in-laws, then if she lives in an extended family, as most women in Kiribati do, she can be chased away by the in-laws. This also applies to men, but is rare compared to women.

It will be seen in this exploration of the I-Kiribati definition of ‘love’ that it matters a great deal what we think of a word, and what it means – love being one of the most important words of all.  Yet some words give us little guidance in themselves, so that we profit from teaching ourselves their meanings.  The examples of ‘tangira’ and ‘onimaki’ in my language serve as an illustration of the value of knowing.

There is a tendency today to say that meanings are not defined but absorbed.  This is especially prevalent in religion.  Sometimes, however, there is great reward in reflecting on what our words mean, and applying these meanings to our personal and social situation.


Keith said...

Thank you, Berenike, for this interesting explanation.

I’d like to offer one observation, which focuses on the tenth paragraph. It says that the l-Karibati word ‘onimaki’ should ‘rule out unfaithfulness’ and that ‘therefore remaining a virgin is very important’. Of note is how the rest of the paragraph proceeds, indicating that the responsibility for preserving premarital virginity rests with the female, not the male.

I realize that gender equality — what it is, whether it matters — as well as sexual mores is culturally conditioned. But, has there ever been consideration among the Kiribati people (along generational lines, perhaps?) of equalizing the expectations of remaining a virgin prior to marriage? That is, either tightening the expectations of premarital virginity upon men, or loosening the expectations upon women, or some of both to arrive at the ‘golden mean’?

To those questions, has Kiribati society ever considered rephrasing the paragraph here? Like: ‘If sons are found not to be virgins … they will be returned to his parents and family naked. To return the man naked is to embarrass him, because he is not good enough to be a son-in-law, as he has already given his body to someone else’?

I don’t use the word ‘rephrasing’ in a literal sense, of course. Though, perhaps, the point is clear: the rephrased paragraph as representational of hypothetical social change. I propose that the issue extends beyond parsing the connotations of ‘onimaki’, and intersects with the more consequential issues of human rights, customs, equality, standards, and ethics. Anyway, just a few thoughts.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. The author was untraceable, so we published this post 'with Thomas Scarborough' to indicate that there is another hand in it. Berenike Neneia is a scholar, and I would think that this post is in large part descriptive. It would be interesting to have her input, though. But now, let's turn this around and ask, 'Has there ever been consideration among the American people ... ?'

Keith said...

Ah; I didn't realize that the ostensible author, Berenike, was unavailable to engage with. I would be happy, Thomas, to answer your question, "But now, let's turn this around and ask, 'Has there ever been consideration among the American people ... ?' " However, I'm unsure what's being queried here. That is, "consideration among the American people" regarding what, precisely? If you could be specific — what is the question in reference of? — I'll gladly take a run at answering, to the degree I'm capable.

docmartincohen said...

The post starts well with what I would consider an exploration of the word 'love' in a particualr socail context. But I agree with Kieth, the seque into an apparenlty quite accepting description of one of mankind's cruellest policies - the supposed obligation on females to remain virgins awaiting selection by males - is at the very least a lost opportunityto push back against such thinking.

Firstly, as keith says, the approach is one-sided, in that if virginity is desirable then the policy should cover both men and women which of course it doesn't. Secondly, it is illogical as 'if' loss of virginity outside marriage is so bad, then there must be two people responsible, yet no culture (as far as I know?) penalises males for pre-marital sexual activity... There is also the flat way the post records "finding out" that a woman is not a virgin which is presumably a reference to the biological breaking of the hymen... a test which is not only wrong in principle but also wrong in practice as the hymen can break for many reasons. At least, it seems that enterprising women can ensure they pass the 'blood' test by cheating it.

But how did all this patriarchal violence come to be part of a post on the nature of 'love'? It is a sad commentary on an ancient prejudice.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Love doesn’t have one meaning, it changes when the word travels on a geographic map. Here, in the comments, we should bare to mind the influence of Romanticism that has shaped western society, but has not influenced the whole world. Love, for the largest part of this world population, means a contract with strict rules in which meeting the set rules is seen as a prosperous engagement, and once met, the dedication of a couple can be immense. The article describes a clear vision about what love means for a specific population.

To disagree is always easy, we all think by what we know, this is how the word ‘normal’ finds its course. We think within borders, not beyond, and we should be careful with this. Thinking opposite means to close, not to open. The word love, no matter the significance given to the word, is as far as I know always bound to expectations, and if we should enquire, then we should question those expectations, whether one way or another.

docmartincohen said...

"Love, for the largest part of this world population, means a contract with strict rules in which meeting the set rules is seen as a prosperous engagement, and once met, the dedication of a couple can be immense"
I don't see this as 'love'. "Marriage', yes.

Thomas Scarborough said...

At Pi, we have encourageD submissions by citizens beyond the familiar West -- in Africa, Asia, and in this case the Pacific. This post offers a glimpse into the concept of love in the central Pacific: tangira and onimaki -- a love which, we find, is embedded in society itself. Martin comments, 'I don't see this as 'love''. Yet what if it is? We might all have missed it.

I showed the first comments above to a non-Westerner. First silence. Then the reply: 'It's culture. They (Keith and Martin) think that their culture is superior.' Superiority. Patriarchy. We need to 'push back against' Pacific norms, writes Martin. It may be the idea of progress in a form that the early Greeks knew: 'The earliest condition of men resembled that of the beasts.' But look at us now, how we have advanced! While it seems that Keith comes to the issues with greater care and sensitivity, he nonetheless asks, 'Has Kiribati society ever considered rephrasing ... ?' What I meant in my original reply to Keith is that one could just as well consider rephrasing Western social norms. I miss a more exploratory thinking, a greater openness on our part in the West, more self-reflection, and a greater interest in the total context of others.

Tessa writes, 'We think within borders, not beyond, and we should be careful with this.' We often do not understand how concepts are embedded in a way of life, in remote places. We often do not understand their significance in the context of survival. In our Western culture, we have loosened ourselves from nature. Islanders do not have this luxury, and this shapes much of their thought.

Looking back one day, others may judge our own culture harshly. We are creating tomorrow's scandals today. Mental health practitioners see it today: our norms cause grief and injury. Marcia Cross made a revelation this month, and in the telling of her story, CNN included Chrissy Teigen: 'Many fans came forward to thank her for helping them realize that what they were feeling had a name -- and that they were not alone'. There still are millions alone -- because of what our society is today.

Having had some discussions in the past with Berenike, I would think that she is progressive as an islander. I know that, through her careful exploration of the received terms for 'love', she has sought to restore what she believes to have been a greater equality and sensitivity in earlier times.

Keith said...

‘[O]ne could just as well consider rephrasing Western social norms.’ In fact, Thomas, social norms change all the time in Western countries. One example (among others) is the dramatically increased acceptance of LGBTQ rights and related nondiscriminatory practices, including acceptance of same-sex marriage, across the United States. The turnaround of polling numbers has been pronounced over just the 2000s: Per well-regarded Gallup polling, in 1999, only 35 percent of adults said gay and lesbian relations were ‘acceptable’ and supported gay marriage; in 2019, the approval number for gay and lesbian relations and same-sex marriage is 63 percent — an increase of 28 percentage points! The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015, that the Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry. Two years earlier, the Supreme Court struck down parts of national law that had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. Nationally, the issue became increasingly and quickly recognized as one of deep respect for human rights, equality, morality, non-bias, the ascendancy of love over hate, and fairness across all aspects of social, political, legal, and business practices.

My point with this more-detailed example of LGBTQ rights is that the ‘rephrasing of Western social norms’ does happen, with regularity. And which goes, I suggest, to the heart of your point about the appeal and desirability of ‘greater openness on our part in the West’. Other social-justice movements, or instances of challenging ‘social norms’, are many, including the movement to curb and punish sexual violence and harassment by men of power against vulnerable women; the movement to reform the criminal justice system, for increased equality and fairness (including, on a separate but parallel path, significant cutting back of capital punishment); the movement to re-litigate what had been assumed ‘settled law’, namely pro-life versus pro-choice in the abortion debate … and so forth. All of which could be described in the same detail as the instance, above, of LGBTQ rights. In short, social norms in the West, especially the progressive West, are being revisited, reargued, re-litigated, and ‘rephrased’ all the time. I respectfully suggest that the ‘exploratory thinking’ and ‘self-reflection’ you refer to as possibly missing are, indeed, very much alive in much of the West.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. This is not really at issue, in my comments. My assessment still applies: 'I miss a more exploratory thinking, a greater openness on our part in the West, more self-reflection, and a greater interest in the total context of others.' I think that we are not, generally speaking, in a frame of mind that permits this. An observation about our exchange above. You have introduced the concept of rights, while I spoke of norms. There are big differences between them.

Keith said...

‘There are big differences between [norms and rights]’. It would seem, Thomas, that perhaps we view and define ‘norms’ differently. I’m using the term to refer, quite literally, to a fundamental belief held by the people within a society or community — that is, a core philosophy of life (values-based standards) that has become ‘normalized’, and not uncommonly codified. In this way, norms reflect points of view based on what’s right and wrong (ethics), regarded as standards that in turn influence behaviours in society. I suggest that the several examples of rights I cite above mirror such core values — values that shape social thinking and behaviour — and how those values indeed might change. Even though such norms are fundamental and in some cases persist for decades or longer, at their best they’re not irreversibly ironclad but instead are fluid in the noble sense of being open to modification in light of the presence of different information, outlooks, attitudes, and beliefs that begin to surface for any number of reasons. I suggest that the matter of ‘rights’, therefore, is simply a reflection of how to live out (sometimes even institutionalize) norms. Hence, rights are unavoidably part of the equation of norms; critically, rights are outward manifestations of social standards and norms. By the way, the definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary supports my take on the word ‘norm’: ‘an accepted standard or a way of behaving or doing things that most people agree with’. Rights, I would contend, are simply norms’ outward, practical expression and appearance (even, sometimes, codification). Well, to borrow a trite expression, ‘we may have to agree to disagree’. But thank you, Thomas, for sharing your thoughts, which are always interestingly incisive.

docmartincohen said...

The view that women should be virgins but men need not used to be dominant in the West too, so it is hardly a cultural issue. I see it as one of ethcial consistency and even logic, hence it is appropriate to challenge the claims made in the piece here at Pi.

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