Jul. 27th, 2012

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Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.3


My FaceBook feed has been hopping quite a bit discussing political issues. I guess it always is, but for some reason I'm more aware of it than I usually am. Between the Chick-Fil-A blow-up and the Colorado shootings (and really, the only thing these things have in common is that they've been talked about a lot lately!), my more liberal friends have been passing around a lot of pictures with pithy quotes or sarcastic one-liners. Some of it is clever (the thought of one I saw a few days saying that Kermit and Miss Piggy had been supporting non-traditional marriage since 1974 or whenever still cracks me up).

But much of it isn't nearly so light-hearted. It makes it seem like "the other guys" (whoever they are) are completely unreasonable, either by taking a thoroughly reasonable point and making it seem like no atheist/Christian/liberal/conservative/whatever could ever agree with it... or by simply creating a straw man of what the other side actually says. And here's the thing. Sharing these things just takes a click of the mouse, and I know a lot of people share what they think is "neat" without necessarily thinking about how it will come across to others. It can create a world-class echo chamber - often from both sides at once!

Sometimes these memes start good conversations. If it's a friend who seems genuinely interesting in discussing these issues, I'll a lot of times comment and explain how and why I reacted. But with some people I get the impression that they're sharing this stuff to create a sense that *everyone* agrees with them (certainly every reasonable person). And it goes beyond that. Just in the last week I've seen three separate "friends" (the label works pretty much the same way on FB and LJ) say that if "you don't agree with me on _______, maybe we shouldn't be friends any more. Where _______ is usually a cause of some kind or a cherished belief, like the idea that gun control was important or that homophobia shouldn't be tolerated.

I've always been bothered by the way FB and LJ use the word friends to mean someone following my blog or updates. I love interacting with people on that level but that isn't what friendship is about. I mean no disrespect to people who choose to end an acquaintance because the person disagrees with you on some issue. That's certainly your right and I don't have any particular bone to pick with people who choose to do that. But when you call people in this relationship friends, I think that just muddles things up in the worst kind of way.

Lots of philosophers discussed friendship, but I think one of my favorite depictions has to be Aristotle's. For the non-philosophers in the house, Harald Thorsrud provides a decent introduction to Aristotle on friendship using Harry Potter examples. The gist is that Aristotle recognizes three kinds of friendships, from friends of convenience up through true friendships built around virtue. The true friendship is one that lasts, but more than that it's one that's built on improvement. I love you and want to become more like you so those virtues that you have and I lack, I try to develop. And vice versa.

When you say a friendship can and should be ended over an "issue," what I hear is that you think I can be dismissed over an issue. That's a pretty pale version of friendship, to my mind. And I realize that on the internet "friend" doesn't mean what it does off the internet, but that's sad to me. I've known lots of people online longer than I have hear in New York. We've probably seen each other through more situations and spent more time chatting, too. Fandom does that, but I think the internet in general does it, too. These are true friendships in the Aristotelian sense, or at least as close as us moderns ever get. I know I can count on them not to run for cover when the going gets rough.

All of which makes me sad to see such an awesome concept and reality used in such a casual way. Because I am much, much more than my stance on gun control, and if our friendship is anywhere close to the authentic ideal Aristotle requires, I need my friends to see that about me. Is this just semantics, a convenient name? Maybe. But even that seems wrong somehow. Because I think that when many people think of and use that word "friends" they really do just mean people whose blogs they follow. I try not to say that, because the word is worth holding on to. Doubly so for the truth behind the word.

Btw, this whole thing reminded me of an old Seinfeld clip; hilarious, but also a nice take on just what's bothering me so much about this use of friendship.  

(Originally posted at LJ.)

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