Valuing Friendship over Principle

Lately, I’ve been spotting more and more cases of people valuing friendships over principle. Here’s what Quinn Norton, who was hired and then swiftly fired from the New York Times Opinion section for her offensive comments in the past, along with her friendship with neo-Nazi Andrew Auernheimer, said:

I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it’d be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I’ve cared for in my life. I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself.

This is obviously an extreme case. I imagine – or at least, hope – that most people would end friendships with those who become neo-Nazis. And note that I am deliberately talking about friendships, not familial relationships. You can’t choose your family.

But I’ve seen many more cases where people will refrain from criticising friends (often not very close friends) who say or do things that conflict with their principles. I’m not talking about ending friendships with people who say racist or sexist things, because to be frank, most people know better than to do that. I’m talking about expressing political, professional, intellectual, and philosophical differences with friends.

Let me give a slightly painful, personal example. In 2010, I wrote a post entitled Can a Game Save the World, where I criticised comments by Jane McGonigal about the power of games. I’m not in the habit of criticising friends, especially in public, but: given her very public profile; the resounding silence from anyone in the games or tech industry at the time; and the degree to which I disagreed with her, I felt a responsibility to say something, if only to show that disagreement existed within the games community. I certainly wouldn’t bother in most cases.

My post led to arguments. Many mutual friends privately told me they agreed with everything I had written, but for the most part they said nothing because I assume they didn’t want to affect their friendship with Jane, or possibly their professional lives, given her influence.

What’s the lesson? We all draw our own lines, and in our comparatively new online world of having hundreds of friends and kind-of-friends and acquaintances, maybe we aren’t sure how to express differences and disagreements, especially when it seems the only way to do so in public is via a megaphone to the entire world that can only broadcast 280 characters at a time (another reason for blogs to come back!).

But we should remember that adults can have disagreements and yet remain friends. I’m no Chidi Anagonye, I don’t believe in radical truth-telling, but I do think it’s essential for us to practice how to disagree with each other publicly, politely, and firmly, because that’s how we learn what we really believe, and what we’re prepared to do to to defend those beliefs.

After all, “if you won’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

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