Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The only song you might recognize by War, other than “low rider”

One thing I’m always very curious about is why I can’t be friends with someone, which of course, being a philosopher, I universalize and generalize to the question: why are there are certain people we just aren’t friends with, and perhaps can’t be friends with?

I’ve taken some shots at this question before (here and here) and today I was thinking of a new way to get at it.

The way is this. I don’t have a lot of friends who are black (some though!) and I don’t have a lot of friends who are economically struggling (again, some). I also don’t have a lot of friends who aren’t at least intellectually curious and I don’t have a lot of friends who aren’t pretty type A, personality wise. I suspect that some of these things have to do with my economic / social milieu and the others have to do with my personality. But how much, and in what way? How do our commitments and life history change who we are friends with and in fact, end up perhaps PREVENTING us from being friends with certain people who are not, in any way, unworthy of our friendship.

The least sinister explanation for why we are friends with some people and not others is simply a selection effect. By living my life the way I have, I’ve encountered many type A people who think a lot, and also many people who have a very advantageous economic position. In a way, it kind of sheds an incriminating light on my life (why didn’t you get out more and why weren’t you open to more new experiences?). But in another way, it’s to be expected. It’s a tautology to say that you can only encounter people who you encounter, and living one type of life rather than another brings you into contact with only those people that cross into your life. And maybe it’s partially that I’m young and so are limited by a relatively short time here on earth. Perhaps with time I will get to know more people and I will take on a more impressive cross section of friendships and empathic commitments.

One thing that continually boggles my mind though is how many types of people there are. That sounds so dumb for me to write though, but let me clarify it in a way that pushes it a little further. I’m totally blown away by the startling regularity with which a person-type that I thought COULD NOT POSSIBLY EXIST, comes right into my life, usually in the form of some lunatic. I say to myself “I really didn’t know they made people like that.” I have a feeling this will be a continual theme as I grow older — that I will discover the existence of people that I had hitherto thought could not exist. In that way, just leaving your house is like going to another planet: you never know what you’re going to find.

But back to the original question I was pursuing, which is, why aren’t I friends with certain types of people.

The next least sinister explanation is that it’s not just that living a certain way makes you encounter certain people, but that living certain way gives you certain ideas, and those ideas will not match the ideas of many other people. This seems plausible, but it really doesn’t go very far for a few reasons.

1) First of all, it doesn’t explain the regularities necessarily. Couldn’t people with very little ambition have the same ideas as me?

2) People with very different ideas on things can still be friends. Politics is the best example. My dad is friends with people from all over the political spectrum and many politicians have deep friendships across party lines. If you’re tolerant, than ideas won’t really matter.

3) More intuitively, almost no one is not friends with someone due to their intellectual position or due to the EXPLICIT reasoning they engage in on certain topics.

So again, I ask myself why I don’t feel a firm attraction to people who are unlike me in some of the predictable ways I’ve highlighted? I think the answer is something that I’ve spoken about before is that our ways of living are much stronger than we think and can’t simply be neutralized by our explicit thoughts. What I mean is that perhaps our commitments to our own type of life kind of “drip out” and “contaminate” or “color” our views of other people, and alter how we interact with them in subtle but powerful ways.

For me, a powerful example is drug users. I don’t mind drugs. I think drugs should be legalized and I think outside of certain extremely pathological or exploitative situations, they are a lot like other things that humans can abuse. HOWEVER, I have almost no friends who use drugs EVEN A LITTLE. I just don’t like them myself, and so I think this spills out in my interactions with people who I know to be a drug user and makes me more guarded, awkward, less intuitive. When I’m interacting with some people, I’m a smoothly flowing river, but the knowledge that someone is a drug user is like adding small like breaks of consciousness into an otherwise “below the surface” practice of interaction I have. All sorts of eddies and currents take hold, and next think you know, I’m not as funny, or friendly, and the other person APPEARS to me to be less interesting, less funny, less worthy of my attention.

This not far off from studies about “implicit” or “unconscious” racism. In these studies, people who profess no racist beliefs or attitudes can nonetheless be shown to react differently to subtle changes in the racial environment that is presented to them. This is of course, the most sinister explanation for why I’m not friends with that many black people.

Of course, most of the studies, I believe, show that such reactions can be consciously compensated for, and a) I don’t think I have any conscious discriminatory tendencies and b) I think I even do a good job of compensating for, and being alert for, subtle forms of bias that can creep into my mind.

Besides, I don’t think the reason that I’m not friends with, for example, that many black people, has nothing to do with animus or bias, conscious or unconscious. I do think though it has to do a REVERBERATION or an AFTERSHOCK of privilege and discrimination that does exist in society.

What I mean is that my experience of certain institutions — police, school, job market — has been one way as a result of my privileges, and other people have had such different experiences that even though I am firmly in favor of combating these types of inequality, my INEXPERIENCE WITH THEM prevents me from latching on to people who have labored under these difficulties. It’s really a shame, and I think it’s another insidious consequence of differential treatment in society. The same goes for differences based on personality or economic class.

When I meet shy or quiet people, I feel very protective of them. I think most people will tell you that I’m fairly careful in trying to include soft-spoken or quiet people in conversations, especially in situations where I feel very comfortable and talkative (maybe I’m fooling myself and that I’m a bastard deep down inside — it’s definitely possible, the ability to fool oneself is one of humanity’s strongest power). Nonetheless, I don’t find myself being able to be friends with such people as in wanting to hang out with them or get to know them. I often feel like they deserve my help and my respect, but not necessarily my precious leisure time, which I try to direct as much as possible towards those I have a good time with (after all, life can’t be just one big responsibility, that’s too exhausting and alienating).

But here the big point is just that I think that we have certain friends and not others NOT because we specifically disagree with the life choices of others — though of course someone who attends abstinence rallies will have trouble hanging out with someone who has pre-marital sex. Also, a raging liberal may have trouble hanging out with a member of the NRA.

Rather, we grow in a way that moves us slowly and inexorably apart from the concerns of others even if CONSCIOUSLY, and EXPLICITLY, we know those concerns. For example, I know, from having a buddy from big brothers big sisters, what some of the hardships of being poor are. However, I don’t LIVE those difficulties, and so I have trouble being friends with poorer people. I have no trouble respecting them, empathizing with them, and wanting to help them (that’s why I joined the charity after all), but when it comes to that magical connection that makes you want to be friends with someone, it’s hard for it to be there.

This is why things like travel, charity, and just spontaneity are absolutely crucial to a good life, because they represent the AGENTIAL EXPRESSION of imagination. We are different people when we travel, when we’re threatened, when we’re helping a stranger, or trying struggle with a new idea. At these moments of flux, we can join up with other people and combine with them in ways that were not possible before.

Sometimes I think about living in Africa, and I think it must be horrible. I react sadly toward that horribleness, and then I become even more sad because the situation seems to be so bad that I can’t even relate to a person living in such dire circumstances (as this entire post has been about). But I don’t feel bad about not being able to relate to people in Africa anymore (I still feel bad for their objection situation, but I don’t think it’s extra-bad because I can’t even relate to their lives), because I realized that it’s just as possible that I can’t relate (without some serious counterfactual changes) to the person down the street. Nothing is for certain, we can always go beyond the limitations set on us, but it takes courage and perspicacity to see where those moments are and seize them.




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