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Monday, February 05, 2018

Thoughts on Friendship

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism'; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers....Friendship is like Brother [Theodore] Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.

Or so Joseph Smith, the founder of my religious tradition, was recorded as saying on July 23, 1843. To my mind, it's heavy doctrine--and the fact that I take his claims about friendship so seriously has been on my mind lately, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, I would bet that just about everyone who happens to read this is likely connected to a particular web of online associations which, thanks to the power of capitalist branding, has gotten away with labeling everyone involved in its operations as "friends" (and we keep using that term, even though some research shows that most of your Facebook friends are anything but). The influence of this technologically enabled shift in our social perspective is so great that the Powers That Be behind it can just make up "Friend Day" holidays, one of which probably popped up on your FB page just yesterday, like it did mine--and based on clicks, people appear willing to go along with it.

Of course, some of you have escaped the tentacles of Facebook. If so, you have my admiration. But Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and so much more (blogs included!) inundate us nonetheless. And all of it, no matter what the honest exchange of information or entertainment or empathy or interest they enable, nonetheless depending upon a virtual simulacrum of friendship, as a substitute (and, sometimes, a replacement) of the real thing.

This semester, I'm teaching an honors seminar focusing on technology, and I started out the class by giving my students three open-ended questions that relate to various technology-related issues, one having to do with jobs, one having to do with teaching, and one having to do with social media. Nearly every student chose the social media topic, and nearly every one of them said the same thing--that while they'd never give up their phones, they were pretty certain technology had made them more frustrated, more lonely, and more isolated. (A couple of students went so far as to describe themselves as "trapped" by their phones and all the attendant expectations and norms that come with them.)

As it happened, a cool, off-beat, local Christian organization here in Wichita, the Eighth Day Institute, hosted just this past weekend a symposium titled "Friendship in a Fractured Age"; the keynote speaker was Ken Myers, of Mars Hill Audio, and the main theme of his address was  "Social Media and the Commodification of Friendship." I shared with him the anecdote from my class, and in response he shared some other research and surveys he had access to which showed such attitudes aren't rare. The kids aren't dumb, my fellow Gen Xers and Baby-Boomers and even older folks; they know that, at least in some ways, at least some of the time, they are relying upon social media platforms and tech companies and buzz phrases to create the sort of memorable, personal, intimate, tactile connections and friendships which they've learned all about from us, from their parents, from television programs and movies and books, all of which celebrated friendships...and are often finding, unfortunately, that the commodified substitutes of the day just don't do the trick.

Don't believe these weird, Wendell-Berry-reading conservative Christians? Well, then how about former president Barack Obama? In the first episode of David Letterman's new Netflix show, Obama talked for a while about social media, which his 2008 campaign for the White House depended heavily upon, but which has now shown us not only how the increasingly sophisticated algorithms those social media platforms employ can easily generate and entrench "completely different information universes," but also how "people in power, special interests, foreign governments, etc." can essentially set the terms for how so many of us judge what to believe and whom to trust. I suppose one could argue that this sort of prostitution and manipulation of the human desire for knowledge and belonging and friendship has been going on as long as any kind of print or electronic media has existed; it's not like fake news or the pre-internet versions of catfishing and bullying and all the rest didn't exist before the invention of phones that we can carry around in our pockets. But all the same, to assume that if one can point out antecedents to contemporary distrust, tribalism, and alienation, that therefore there is no reason to think contemporary complaints about such can possibly represent something genuinely new and threatening to what Joseph Smith was talking about is, I suspect, profoundly wrong.

At the very least, the fact that friendship, its range or quality or absence, is something much talked about today is undeniable. (Within my own Mormon tribe, the discussion has been near constant for a while now.) Ken Myers, at the conclusion to his presentation, reminded us all of the promise of scripture that someday we would see God and one another "face to face," and that the friendship Jesus Himself offers all His disciples is tied to "speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech"--which, I would warrant, doesn't include emojis. Myers expressed his fear that our overwhelmingly--and, increasingly, our economically mandated--networked and wired world would lead those who move through it (namely, all of us) to form their hopes, their expectations, and their faith completely separate from that beautiful vision. In a small way, I suspect that endless the social media-driven arguments I mentioned above over who can be a friend to whom are at least partly shaped by this loss of the face-to-face.

Count yourself lucky if you don't know what I'm talking about. The FB friend, the Tweet responder, the anonymous e-mailer, all of whom wonder how you could possibly support that cause, or forward that article, or agree with that comment, when this other perspective on that cause, or this other reading of that article, or this other context for that comment, clearly shows its ugliness, its violence, its self-loathing, its incoherence, its immorality, its Trump-supporting awfulness. Can't you see this is anti-Christian? Can't you see this is racist? Can't you see this targets that group, this undermines that principle, this excludes that obvious and necessary truth? How can you call yourself a Mormon/an American/a leftist/a decent human being while you tolerate such nonsense? What kind of monster are you anyway?

In my experience, in the midst of such faceless back-and-forths (which, I state for the record, I actually kind of like, because I dig arguments, and because I usually fail to recognize if something has become poisonous until long after it became such), saying that you know the author or the situation personally, that you've talked with them face-to-face, that you've spent time and sweat into engaging with these issues, that you've broken bread and been silly and personal and private with all of the above, and thus can't quite accept the reductive accusations about these individuals and movements being tossed around, rarely makes much difference. And, of course, maybe it shouldn't (the curt "so what if they're nice people? Hitler liked puppies too"-style of response is kind of silly, but not without a point). But more than I fear for the loneliness of my students, or for the stress of juggling multiple Facebook friends groups, I fear that the absence of the personal, the intimate, the tactile, the face-to-face in our friendships is resulting in a shrinking and contorting of our ability to feel love for our fellow human beings. When the first thing we learn about a person, or the thing about them which most consistently comes through our algorithms and screens, is that they participated in the Women's March (and therefore are pink-hat-wearing, religion-hating, exclusionary SJWs) or that they like some Republican candidate (and therefore are gay-bashing, theocracy-building, white supremacist Trump supporters), the narrowing and maximizing and personal-difference-and-nuance-crushing logic of our electronic tribes is only strengthens.

It isn't uncommon, I think, for people who hold to Christian teachings to insist that you can keep these different tracks separate, and hence that our ability to exercise love--meaning charity or agape--towards all our fellow human beings isn't undermined when we also willingly cultivate (or passively allow our commodified arts of "friendship" to cultivate for us) a complete loathing of everything this particular segment (or segments) of our fellow human beings say or do or affirm. Call it just the latest iteration of the whole deceptively simple "hate the sin, love the sinner" nonsense. It is nonsense with a long pedigree in Christian thinking. Kierkegaard, among others, said Christians shouldn't be bothered by mere friendship, or presumably or the lack of it; in his view philia, that form of love which is fundamentally characterized by freedom and partiality (we choose to be friends with this person, but not that one; we choose to be loyal to our friend; if the friendship comes to an end, it's because we choose it), was essentially pagan, and an unworthy companion to the rigorous (and admittedly, sometimes de-humanizing) universality of Christian charity.

At the Eighth Day symposium, there was also a presentation given by Protopresbyter Paul D. O'Callaghan, from St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral here in Wichita. He's written a short, fine little book, The Feast of Friendship, which makes a solid case--drawing upon Bible stories, the Patristic tradition, personal observations, and a great deal of philosophy and psychology--for seeing in our human ability to choose to make and maintain particular, partial friendships, even (perhaps even especially) in the midst of great differences, something holy. He writes:

Fundamentally, genuine friends grant us access to the most creative dimensions of our souls by receiving us and reflecting us back to ourselves. In this way, we are able to see what could not be seen before. We encounter our own identity and possibilities in fresh and dynamic ways. We can act in a manner previously unthinkable to us. Friends liberate our own inner resources for God's disposal, and thus are channels for the mediation of his grace to us (p. 96).

And also:

To answer Kierkegaard: yes, in this world, the practice of unrequited agape is essential to the Christian life. But one cannot survive on agape alone. We share vital loves within our families, and in addition to that, the philia between friends deepens and enriches love's place in our lives. It does not matter if it is experienced within the confines of the fixed social hierarchies of traditional societies or in the fluid and free associations characteristic of modern Western culture. Friendships realize the vital communion of love given and received (p. 125).

O'Callaghan's modified defense of modernity in that last passage should indicate that it's not as though the only sort of friendship which he thinks ought to be considered acceptable to concerned Christians is one untouched by technological tools of connection. (Both he and Ken Myers, when I saw them at the conference, both had smartphones, for whatever that's worth.) The more important point, I think, is that the freedom which characterizes real--not fake--friendship, can withstand all sorts of diversions and differences. (Even, I should note, gender differences; while O'Callaghan is quite traditional in his thinking about sexuality and sexual morality, and appropriately so, he has little sympathy for the "fundamentalist" notion that women and men can't choose to be friends; he writes that such rigidity denies "the essential primacy of the person, created in the image and likeness of God"--p. 109.) To confront those differences, to see and know and come to enjoy the association with the actual human being or the actual living organization that generates those perspectives from which we differ or experience challenges or even suffer embarrassment is part, I think, of the process by which God opens up ourselves to ourselves, thus teaching us better just what our capacity to feel charity both towards our friends and our enemies (and, I suppose, our frenemies in between) really is. But it must be a real friendship, I think, one grounded in, or at the very least characterized by, our lived-in, and not wholly mediated, materiality.

Like every good Generation Xer, I was taught by They Might Be Giants that, at some point, the racism--or the anti-Mormonism, or the homophobia, or the classicism, or the Trump-defending, or the insistence upon any number of other perceived slights and/or genuine evils--might become so explicit, so indicting, that you need to rethink the partiality by which you choose to view the person or cause or idea that you feel affection for. "Can't shake the devil's hand and say you're only kidding" isn't wrong. But note, in closing, that the context of that song, and the point of decision it describes, the realization that one's friend really is a devil, is an actual, bodily experienced party. Not a chat room, not an FB group, not an e-mail chain, not a Tweetstorm, but an actual, face-to-face encounter, with actual "bobbing and pretending," hearing words actually spoken complete with their whole history and their body language and their social cues along with them. The friendship Smith praises was liked to welding iron to iron--which means a real physical unity, a real handling of the different shapes of iron in hand, with real heat applied to see if their edges can come together. Nothing virtual there. Maybe if we kept ideal as our rule of thumb, and sought for such whenever and however we can, if only as a necessary supplement to all the other wired connections in our lives, then perhaps the twin poles of alienation and extremism might lessen in force, and our confusion over the holiness of simple friendships could be a little lessened as well.


Paul said...

First, I may be a bit confused as to how you are using your terms. Prior to the social media that you mention, we had various sorts of friends: school friends, church friends, neighborhood friends etc. I don’t think that ever entailed, or even necessitated a meaningful friendship i.e. close friend or best friend and most likely not a philosophical friendship. Presumably an acquaintance who wants to friend another on FB has some commonality that wouldn’t preclude them being friends in the simplest sense. Your “capitalist branding” is a slight, as if socialist don’t brand brotherhood and camaraderie to obtain their goals. When you mention a “simulacrum of friendship” how is a school friend not potentially a simulacrum of say your religious friend (or philosophical friendship)? Can you tell me you treated or perceived the two the same?

I’ve had a problem with how I perceive your understanding of technology. Maybe here you are simply stating your student’s perceptions, right or wrong; though, for similar reasons I see this in your understanding of Crawford’s errors. Technology in itself doesn’t make anyone do anything. The problem is how the individual relates and interacts with technology, thereby placing responsibility on the individual, who actually has the power to act. Other forms of escapism, which is an aspect of social media, produce the same symptoms, so how is technology, as you see it, profoundly an exception? (are you familiar with Walter Ong’s theories?)

Commodifying friends precedes social media. We networked friends (simplest term), we had expectations in our groups with the reciprocal benefits and rewards, and you scratch my back, I….has been universal in all groups and types of friends. And you acknowledge this and diminish its strength. Is this because your expectation is that all friends be religious friends i.e. philosophical friendships? Hasn’t this been evolving over vast amounts of time, what defines a friend and my relationship/ conduct towards them?...because of our communities, their sizes, make ups, etc.

I find speech problematic and your paragraph “count yourself... “ to me is an example of that in a practical sense. However, emojis help in social media impart visceral understanding that would take greater explanation when having to be written out, and thereby losing meaning and feel. I see language as a tool to communicate, as an abstraction of the things we perceive and those things that we do. It is susceptible to technology. I do embrace your materiality and given your following paragraph, do you realize then that the primacy of speech, especially when not used carefully, is the main problem that concerns you and not social media per technology. So yes, actions speak louder than words. So why do you post the way you do on FB? It’s a rhetorical question, and ironic. :)

Paul said...

Smith wasn’t talking about friendship in the vernacular, right? Because obviously we are all spiritual brothers and sisters, which would imply in secular terms philosophical friendship. I don’t know about that last paragraph of yours, seems like a rhetorical slight, overkill of your point, unnecessary observation; but please do correct me. I’ll steal a bit from the last sentence and you tell me if that was where your headed. So spiritually we had this ideal, and for some reason it was a given (at that point), but not in a way to fully realize, appreciate, and understand. Then “materiality” and a veil of the ideal are used as a means to expand (work out) comprehension (make “real”) of those ideals. In materiality we are to make our spiritual ideal a reality-- we are morally obliged to act-- it is necessary to see our fellow man as our brothers and sisters. That through the abstractions of speech ( see above speech/technology), specifically poor rhetoric and bad logic (in the sense: how we use our speech, how we interact with technology) we will experience alienation and extremes in point of views/ ideologies. However, knowledge, speech, technology cannot act, it is the individual’s responsibility to act appropriately, to sift the wheat from the chaff-- to make ideals, our relationships towards others, real-- inorder to make us as individuals real... and separate.

I ramble

Russell Arben Fox said...

I like your rambling, Paul! Here's a few random responses:

Your “capitalist branding” is a slight, as if socialists don’t brand brotherhood and camaraderie to obtain their goals.

Strong disagreement. You could say that socialists appropriate terms or labels and attempt to use them in self-descriptive and self-serving ways, in that sense they aren't doing anything else from any other ideologically unified group (e.g., the expectation within my own church of employing "brother" and "sister" to refer to one another). "Branding," though, very explicitly refers to the socio-economic power of the brand--and I would argue that the social power (in the Marxist sense) of Facebook's use of the term "friend," as it has penetrated our conversations, has very much shaped our expectations and attitudes.

When you mention a “simulacrum of friendship” how is a school friend not potentially a simulacrum of say your religious friend (or philosophical friendship)?

Because, again, those other friendships--"school friends, church friends, neighborhood friends etc.," as you put it--were all mediated directly, bodily, with one another. I'm not denying that some of those friendships might well be false or superficial; but deep or casual, they were formed through actual face-to-face associations. The lack of such is what makes for a "simulacrum," in my view.

Russell Arben Fox said...

A few more responses:

Technology in itself doesn’t make anyone do anything. The problem is how the individual relates and interacts with technology, thereby placing responsibility on the individual, who actually has the power to act.

Well, we have a deep philosophical disagreement there; I'm with Crawford, and thousands of others, in finding it to actually be the case that our lived environment structures our choices, and our thinking about our choices, such that "the power to act" has to be recognized as at least partly a socially constructed, or at least socially enabled, phenomenon. I'm a communitarian, not an individualist, at least not usually. I don't deny the reality of responsibility, but I think the more essential responsibility has to do with how one deals with the way technology (and much else) conditions the choices we may be able to make, not with whether or not someone can simply say "no" to this or that device.

We networked friends (simplest term), we had expectations in our groups with the reciprocal benefits and rewards, and you scratch my back....has been universal in all groups and types of friends.

While I would argue that commodification means something very different in the era of social media, I take your point, and agree with it.

So why do you post the way you do on FB? It’s a rhetorical question, and ironic. :)

But worth pondering, nonetheless!

However, knowledge, speech, technology cannot act, it is the individual’s responsibility to act appropriately, to sift the wheat from the chaff--to make ideals, our relationships towards others, real--in order to make us as individuals real...and separate.

But again, I don't regard technology (particularly social media technology, and especially social media technology that employs algorithms and data collections that we cannot control and which shape our interactions with it) as an abstraction or tool in the same way I regard speech. Speech isn't just a tool to communicate the thoughts in our brains; speech is constitutive of the embodied, expressive, historically- and linguistically- and culturally-situated communication by which we, as persons, connect with one another. My philosophy of speech isn't, I think, particularly important to the argument(s) in this post about friendship, but to the extent you see social media technology as simply an extension of our tongues and lips and fingers, I can see yet another yawning gap between us. My understanding of what we do when we communicate draws upon the writings of people like Herder, Hegel, and Heidegger; I think we are in our speech acts, and we become things through our speech acts (and our writing, and all forms of communication), in a way which goes far beyond simply getting thoughts out of our heads.

Paul said...

Thanks for your response.

I see your use of “capitalist branding” now as descriptive use and concede it is not a slight. However, I’m still not convinced this is a technological shift that is so great. I think we can both agree there are degrees of friendships and friends. If we look at those terms like work friend etc., a person can be a friend and one works with them, but it doesn’t mean because we work with them they are a friend. In the later, they are a colleague or co worker. As you see a face to face friendship as superior to a strictly online relationship ( which I agree, I would argue this still a friendship but more abstracted), I see the misuse of the term friend in these types of social instances as being just as problematic. In this scalable sense a lower degree of friend to me could be a simulacrum of the ideal. The more concrete our relationships, the less chances of confusion, misunderstanding, alienation. So in a sense technology can magnify this problem, but it isn’t the problem.

Use of technology Is important. Say one who has over a 1000 FB friends post publicly something maybe only 50 of his friends would understand. Do we blame technology or the poster when things go awry. FB has groups, post in groups. But if this applies to you, I too enjoy the entertainment, so carry on.

Is “Friend’s day” capitalistic branding? Well is nurses week, social workers week, administrative assistants week, teachers week is this capitalistic branding? In light of iron workers week, engineers week, CEOs week, sanitary engineers week? The later don’t exist ( or I have never heard of them, which should be significant enough). Aren’t the former branding, social and political branding?

Well, among those things you, Crawford, and thousands of others believe, I guess you could count me in on those things mentioned. Maybe the way I perceive things and the way I perceive you and Crawford have approached technology, may be like you two seeing the effects of technology as primarily something that acts upon us, versus me seeing us acting upon it. Not that both don’t occur. I think the later point of view sees the world with more potential, things as tools, ways to use tools, object to create, objects to be created. I felt Crawford had his way of thinking, like we all do, and maybe laying this over tradesmanship and craftsmanship and trying to show the relationships he did towards technology, didn’t work for me. Coming from a primarily heavy background in craftsmanship myself, I question his understanding of the “pragmatic” and “logical” ways of craftsmen and his insinuation and correlation with his ideas. Grossly, a craftsman could be liberal or conservative or everything in between. It felt like branding and thereby giving credence to his own ideas. But now I think about this, maybe he was trying to show a pragmatic way of approaching technology. If that was the case, then his philosophical pragmatics (Dewey, James?) if you will, doesn’t match reality (Peirce? I’m really reaching here) or the way I see craftsmanship.

I’m reminded of Dreyfus’s comments in the film, Being in the World, that a car would not be able to drive autonomously. I don’t see another context for saying that and meaning something else (barring a really bad editing job). He was rather cocky in saying this-- in a time that jumbo jets could already take off and land themselves. I guess having the philosophical outlook of Heidegger doesn’t necessarily lend to a knowledge or understanding of technology... and maybe even speech.