What’s Left of Friendship?

by Nina Power

“We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote – teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? we did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another – just as in a lunatic asylum.”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession (1882)

Do we today have an idea of what we mean when we talk about friendship? Is friendship a political question, or does it occupy a place beyond such concerns, a place of the sentimental, of the affectionate, of love, and perhaps indefensible ties? Can, and even should we, be friends with people we vehemently disagree with? What happens when social media encourages an endless spiral of denunciation and competition for righteousness?

A certain hard, anti-friendly logic has, it seems to me, become central to political scenes and social discourse more generally, the ‘rule’ becoming something like: we cannot disagree, we cannot make mistakes, we cannot discuss. There is a correct line, or there is no relationship. We have become rigid and inflexible with each other. We have either forgotten, or we never knew, what it might mean to combine or relate friendship to our shared political affinities. Conversely, organising might mean working with people we otherwise do not have anything in common with, beyond our shared convictions. These latter relations can, on occasion, however, end up being some of the most meaningful. But how much tension can friendship bear today?

Perhaps the kinds of relationships that emerge as a consequence or in the midst of political organising and activism are not, in the end ‘friendships’ in any meaningful sense of the word, but instead an overlapping combination of ‘allyships’ or modes of action involving collaboration and co-conspiracy in which the goal or topic of the group is more important than the individuals involved in it. Or individuals might be important largely because of the subject positions they occupy and because of particular skills they might bring to the group. Similarly, people that come together in the febrile heat of a particular moment – an occupation, a protest – are apt to over-value friendships forged in the heat of the moment too quickly and when things fall apart or become miserable again turn to each other – sometimes in comfort, sometimes in blame.

We lack the resources today for a robust notion of friendship when we are thinking about political relations. Communists used to have the word ‘comrade’, and, at least sometimes, it meant something. What equivalent do we have today, in an age when we can (in the main) only say this word ironically? Alexandra Kollontai in 1921 wrote:

The idea that some members are unequal and must submit to other members of one and the same class is in contradiction with the basic proletarian principle of comradeship. This principle of comradeship is basic to the ideology of the working class. It colours and determines the whole developing proletarian morality, a morality which helps to re-educate the personality of man, allowing him to be capable of feeling, capable of freedom instead of being bound by a sense of property, capable of comradeship rather than inequality and submission.

Kollontai links comradeship not only to class, but also to a proletarian morality that detaches feeling from property and inequality. When today we have endless ‘call outs’ and virtual firing squads lining up to denounce individuals for transgressions ranging from saying the wrong thing to behaving badly, or even for failing to ‘shun’ another person, it is easy to lose sight of this ‘capacity for comradeship’ and submit instead to a new kind of inequality: the righteous over the ‘wrong’, the morally pure over the ‘bad’ (or even the ‘evil’). But have we forgotten that we have all transgressed at points? Said or done the wrong thing? Disagreed on a point of principle? Simply not been able to understand where the other is coming from?

Sarah Schulman, a long-time activist in New York said this in an interview entitled ‘When Trauma Becomes Dominance’, following publication of her extremely important book Conflict is Not Abuse:

One option is, that when you’re at in conflict with a person, before you start bonding with other people to hurt them, to ask them what they think is happening. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked to hurt people. Why did you invite her? Why are you working with them? Why did you go to their party? etc. We’re often asked to shun or socially isolate other people without ever talking to them. And people do this all the time. Your girlfriend broke up with someone, so you’re going to be cruel to that other person for the rest of their life? It’s unethical. Pick up the phone and call the person you’re being asked to hurt, and instead say, “Why is this happening?” The answer to that one question can be so illuminating. A whole series of brutal attacks that could drastically change someone’s life in a negative way can be avoided by actually discussing the conflict.

Social media has made it extremely easy to denounce at a distance, without the human element that meeting face-to-face or even a phone call would involve. No one is obligated to be friends with anyone else, or to speak to someone who they believe has caused them real harm. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that there is social recognition and even status in denunciation, not to mention a short-term thrill, knowing that someone has been wounded and taken down, and that you are safe, this time at least…

One of the problems with this short-term denunciatory tactic is the damage it does, which cannot be controlled. You might wish to call someone out or announce that someone is an ‘abuser’, but this claim might get picked up and circulated on a scale greater than you could possibly imagine, doing untold harm to the person you’ve named, leading to loss of employment (although sometimes this is a deliberate tactic on both the left and the right), loss of other friendships and relationships, and general social isolation. This may be completely disproportionate to the harm announced in the first place: there are undoubtedly situations that could be resolved in ‘real life’, offline, in personal conversations one-on-one or with a small group. The libidinal delight in ruining someone, and the righteous feeling that accompanies such actions is something to be wary of. There is harm everywhere, in initial acts as well as in vengeful retaliation. We learn nothing and lose everything if we cannot see that everyone makes mistakes, and that fear is no way to live, alone or together. After #MeToo and all the other naming and shaming campaigns, we must learn to talk to each other and survive in the aftermath, as victims and victimisers, or as the mixture of both that we all are.

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman.