Friends vs. Allies
I have, over the course of nearly a decade and a half in pastoral ministry, encountered people who have quite specific plans about what should happen in the event of their death. Some plan out their own funerals to the letter. Some ensure that their organs will donated to science. Some write letters to remain unopened until after they are gone. It’s interesting to see what people prioritize as they think about their impending death. In today’s New York Times, Agnes Callard did something like this. Only, it wasn’t her physical death she was planning ahead for. It was her cancellation.
Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, admits that she is not under any immediate or obvious threat of cancellation. She’s written a few things in the past that have generated a bit of heat, but nothing too crazy or controversial. Things feel different these days, though, and she expresses a fairly common anxiety:
But things have changed. These days, anyone with a public facing persona must contemplate the prospect of having her reputation savagely destroyed…
There are symbolic traps all over the cultural landscape; I do my best to avoid them, but they have a tendency to cluster near some interesting topics. Anyone who writes for the public, and who maintains a social media presence, must accept some measure of risk.
Indeed. I don’t know many people with “public facing personas” who don’t feel this, myself included. There are minefields everywhere in our ugly cultural moment. Dave Eggers puts it like this in the mouth of one of his characters in his recent novel, The Every:
Each year, we spend more time examining each other, judging each other, mentally murdering each other. And we wonder why the pills continue to get stronger. We are numb and we want to be number…
A species that sits still, in a circle, staring at each other, cannot survive. We sit in constant judgment of each other, and thus we are a species in decline. Nothing great can be created in such a climate. An authentic human life cannot be lived this way. We become more tame and fearful every year, every day, and every hour brings another thing we cannot do or cannot say, and in all cases, the penalty for violators is that they are thrown away—a kind of digital capital punishment.
Every new generation purports to be more empathetic, and yet every new generation is less forgiving. And of course, with every coming year, technology ensures that no errors go unrecorded.
This is our world. All around there are examples of those who are punished, whether it’s just plain old social opprobrium or more serious things like the loss of reputation and employment, for departing from the script of the cultural moment. To even ask questions about certain orthodoxies is to out oneself as a hater or a “phobe” of some description or other. It’s not a great time to try to say something provocative or interesting.
Well, speaking of scripts, Callard sort of departs from it in her pre-cancellation instructions. We might expect her to lay out a battle plan of sorts, a defensive strategy of some kind or other. Instead, she essentially says that she doesn’t want anyone rushing to her defense. She doesn’t want to add to the noise of a bitterly divisive and polarized culture where people are constantly screaming down their adversaries and roaring to the defense of those they admire or wish to curry favour with. That’s a game with no winners, she says. Instead, she just wants people to remain silent.
Now, we might be forgiven for wondering if she would feel the same in the event of an actual cancellation. This response might seem well and good in hypothetical land, but when your reputation is actually being dragged through the mud, you might want a defender or two. The human need for vindication and validation is not so easily extinguished. But I found myself resonating strongly with her distinction between “friends” and “allies.”
Here is how it goes: a few of the cancelee’s friends meet the expectation to speak up in support, but those who remain silent — which is most of them — become suspect. New, publicly aligned friends are acquired to take their place. The beleaguered cancelee now feels she sees who her “real friends” are, but in fact she has no friends anymore. All she has are allies. First she turned her friends, and perhaps even her family members, into allies; and then she acquired more allies to fill the ranks of the purged friends. The end result is a united front, but what I would call real friendship has gone missing in the bargain.
I do not want any of that. I want friends who feel free to disagree with me both publicly and privately; friends who will admonish me, gently but firmly, with whatever grain of truth there is in any accusations against me. I want friends whose minds are not tethered to my own in bonds of allegiance, but spin freely of their own accord. I love my contrarian friends, and the way their thinking traces wonderful and mysterious paths, following a logic all their own; and I cherish my conformist friends, who keep me in touch with the wisdom of most people. I want friends who ask the right questions, friends who bring me cookies, friends who help me up when I stumble, friends who expend so much attention on the inner me that they have little to spare for how I am perceived by others. I want friends, not allies. I value my public persona, but not enough to sacrifice the liberty of my friendships at its altar.
After reading those two paragraphs, I found myself wanting the same. In the event of my cancellation I, too, would hope to want a friend, not an ally. I would hope to be able to refuse the terms of the game. The words we use matter. “Allies” assumes and perpetuates an adversarial context; “friends” belongs more in a context of mutuality, trust, generosity, even forgiveness. I’d take a friend, even one I disagree with, over an ally any day.