24 October, 2011

On Friendship

This article, another from the Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy, is worth a read. Friendship is one of those things that Americans seem to have a terrible time understanding. The media portrayal of friendships is weak, to state matters kindly. (I'm about to generalize unabashedly, but here goes.) If friendship is portrayed at all in the movies, you can count on its being: 1.) in a comedy--how many times do close friendships actually matter, if they appear at all, in drama? 2.) of the following varieties:
  1. the female "best friend" who either exists only to support the main character (friendship of utility? usually seems so)
  2. the female "best friend who suddenly becomes worst enemy"-again, one suspects that the "friendship" the two characters had was only ever a friendship of utility, given how quickly it dissolves and how reluctant each one is to make any compromises that would affect her own self-interest
  3. the male "best friend" who is almost universally a bumbling idiot, and who seems to exist only to spur the main character on to ever more extreme acts of bumbling idiocy.
  4. the sidekick: sometimes a comedy figure, sometimes an action movie character: occurs in three major types: yes-man, comic relief, or slightly-inferior-to-the-main-character fighter.
 In all four types, whatever sappy message may be stuck on the end of some of the comedies about "the real meaning of friendship", the message of the story (so often different from that sappy closing message, which is probably why that latter seems so very sappy) is that friendship is a combination of Aristotle's friendship-for-pleasure (I have fun with them) and friendship-of-utility (I can use this person to get something for myself). Both are deficient forms of friendship in which the self comes before the other. The difficulty is that in a culture of instant gratification, it's hard to comprehend of an attachment to another that is based upon concern for that other's well being, and their similarly unselfish concern for yours. (The degree to which a more long-term type of "wise" self-interest comes into that sort of friendship is one that philosophers may well debate, but which I am inclined to believe will vary depending of the characters of the people involved.)

Which, then, leads right into the observation that friendship, as well as all other types of human relationships (parent-child, husband-wife, sibling-sibling, etc) are "hot topics" in popular media to the extent that they provide the filmmakers/songwriters/etc to talk about sex. Human sexuality is the very opposite of a bad thing (see Pope John Paul, in case you're one of the very few people reading this blog who might be unaware of the Theology of the Body). But a culture that singles that out as the only real indicator of the value of human relationships is missing not only a huge range of human emotion, but the crux of what makes sexuality itself important.

Sex is something you can "get," as is more than obvious from contemporary slang. And in an obsessively consumerist culture, everything revolves around this notion of "getting"--whether it be things, "likes" on facebook, "views" of profiles, or sex. But that obsession in turn makes it very difficult, if not eventually impossible--and again, this is no matter how many times we've heard the unconvincing platitudes at the ends of movies--to conceive of a relationship based on giving. Look again at that list of "friend-types" above. What do they all have in common? They all get the main character something:  the trusty side-kick who helps the action hero win again (and who makes him look good by virtue of those slightly inferior skills); the comic side-kick, who again, makes the hero look good in comparison--usually for the benefit of the romantic interest; the female best friend is usually "best" insofar as she helps the lead to "get" the guy; the "worst enemy" usually becomes such because the two have become rivals for the same guy. You get the picture.

The ability to direct one's attention outwards, toward others and their interests, is crucial to maintaining friendships, family relationships, and, yes, even marriage--because it doesn't stop at the wedding, whatever the traditional rom-com story arc would make us think. And until you have a culture that recognizes that, it's likely that deep friendship in media will be confined to the margins of Indie films. The disturbing thing is that our culture is to such a large extent formed by the media that even in the most counter-cultural of venues (my undergraduate institution, and others about which I've heard stories) it is perhaps a rarer thing and more vulnerable to the ups and downs of self-interested "drama" than could be hoped.

I do have one last comment that is unrelated to the rest of the post: the discussion of the "Shared activity" criterion for friendship is particularly interesting now, when the internet is making communication over long distances increasingly easy. One wonders about the possibility of sustaining old friendships via email, facebook, even (still) letter writing. What is the sort of "shared activity" that would allow this to be the case? Talking is obviously the primary one, but when looking at the origins of friendships, they tend to come about through a much more concrete shared experience--of going to similar classes or spending free time together, or even sharing a rather unpleasant experience (like, oh, maybe getting stuck without a flight in Barcelona and needing to be in Rome by the next day). And they are strengthened by further experiences like these more than they are by, say, just sitting around and talking. Is the ability share pictures, reminisce, chat, skype, even--via status updates and such--share vicariously in a friend's day, enough to sustain a deep friendship over thousands of miles and several years? Not really sure about that one. Probably depends largely, as so many things do, on individual determination.

Update:  Here's a quote that actually addresses my above question, though it doesn't answer it, of course. It's helpful to include "moral and intellectual activities" in the "shared activities" category. They certainly continue to be valid over a distance, though there's still the question of to what extent the absent friend can continue to be as influential in encouraging these--one of the many, many possible pitfalls of social media's facilitation of the temptation to create a fictional, "better" self.

"Cooper's Aristotle claims that the sort of shared activity characteristic of friendship is essential to one's being able engage in the sort of activities characteristic of living well “continuously” and “with pleasure and interest” (310). Such activities include moral and intellectual activities, activities in which it is often difficult to sustain interest without being tempted to act otherwise. Friendship, and the shared values and shared activities it essentially involves, is needed to reinforce our intellectual and practical understanding of such activities as worthwhile in spite of their difficulty and the ever present possibility that our interest in pursuing them will flag. Consequently, the shared activity of friendship is partly constitutive of human flourishing."


Deniz Bevan said...

With this line "Friendship is one of those things that Americans seem to have a terrible time understanding" and the rest of your essay, my thoughts kept returning to how they ended up portraying Sam in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings - Peter Jackson's from New Zealand, of course, but he was appealing to an American audience. I'm not sure why they couldn't quite capture the nuances of Frodo and Sam's friendship or even of Legolas and Gimli's.
Found you through Turin's blog!

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Therese said...

You know, Deniz, that's precisely what was running through the back of my mind when I wrote the post! Legolas and Gimli became more just "pals"--the sort of friends who joke together and have drinking contests. Not bad, but definitely not the deep friendship portrayed in the books.

And Peter Jackson is hardly the first to have trouble understanding Frodo and Sam's friendship. I don't know if you recall some of the media hullabaloo surrounding the release of the first film, but one of the assumptions that many critics and journalists kept making really annoyed me. Namely that their friendship was actually closeted homosexual attraction. Now, whatever one believes about homosexuality, I think it's pretty obvious that that wasn't what was going on with those two. The media reaction was just another example of how it's almost inconceivable that there can be any sort of deep human relationship that is non-sexual in nature. Again, it's an attitude that does nothing but help to reduce the range of human relationships to one thing. I was very grateful to Jackson for not making that mistake, even if the portrayal was otherwise imperfect.

Deniz Bevan said...

Yes that's it - that's what was bothering me too; the fact that everyone naturally assumed they were gay. "Again, it's an attitude that does nothing but help to reduce the range of human relationships to one thing." Exactly!
(oh my! look at my word verification word: unwin. !)