A dear friend has said something that is causing me to re-evaluate our friendship. I recently hosted a few women at a small get-together to celebrate a birthday. All four of us have been close for many years. In the course of conversation, we began to discuss current events, including the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. This friend said that she couldn’t see why Black lives should matter to us (we are all white) when Black lives don’t even seem to matter to other Blacks. She cited Black-on-Black crime and, in particular, the recent death of a young African-American girl who was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting. (I should mention that all of us live in an affluent, predominantly white suburb of a major metropolitan city that is predominantly Black and poor. Prior to the pandemic, this city was experiencing something of a renaissance but still had a long way to go.) Our friend also noted that she was disgusted by the outpouring of attention and love at George Floyd’s funeral. After all, she said, he did not live a very virtuous life and did not deserve to be “treated like a saint.”
The rest of us spoke up immediately. We tried to explain that George Floyd was the last straw after hundreds of years of discrimination. We acknowledged that Black-on-Black crime exists, but so does white-on-white and white-on-Black crime. And discrimination and poverty create many difficult socioeconomic conditions. We also emphasized that the police should be held to a higher standard than the average citizen and the officers’ actions in the Floyd case point to outright murder. We told her that Floyd’s past was not pertinent to anything at this point. For one thing, it was unclear whether the officers called to the scene all knew of his past — not that it would justify killing him anyway. And we told her that George Floyd is representative of all the other African-Americans who have been unjustly arrested, and often killed, for no reason other than the color of their skin.
This went on for a while, but she was unmoved and held firmly to her position, which I believe was shockingly racist. We eventually changed the subject and remained friendly for the rest of the evening. However, I cannot get this event out of my mind. I find it very disturbing that a close friend of mine would express such racist views. Can I remain friends with someone whose personal belief system is so contrary to my own? Name Withheld
“Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue,” Aristotle said in the “Nicomachean Ethics.” That is, and was meant to be, a pretty demanding standard. Given that your friend’s racist views, by contrast to your antiracist views, represent a vice, you are not alike in virtue. I find Aristotle’s standard too demanding, though. For one thing, perhaps because I was raised with a Christian consciousness of original sin, I am aware that no one is wholly virtuous.
Furthermore, friendship, once it is established, involves a kind of commitment that means (in the Faulknerian formula) you care about your friends in spite of their faults as much as because of their virtues. Indeed, in certain advanced circles, the approved line is that we should all consider ourselves recovering racists, sexists, homophobes and so forth.
There are other complications. You may have a Mormon friend whose personal generosity toward homeless people, say, awes and humbles you, but who, respectful of the church’s position, isn’t on board with same-sex marriage. There are people I know and love from West Africa whose views on gender and sexuality are far from what I think are the right ones. Maybe because we no longer live in the same community, it’s easier to overlook one another’s heresies.
You might feel less bad about your friend’s failings if they were not really her fault. She grew up in a racist society, where the sort of thinking she is engaged in was routine. She picked it up the same way she picked up many of her good habits, through normal socialization. Yet that’s surely true of you and your other friends too, so it’s possible to escape these errors. It’s not simply that she has these blinkered views, then; it’s that she won’t reconsider them.
Friendship can and should err on the side of tolerance, but big-enough vices — beams rather than motes — can be an obstacle to it. The key point that Aristotle got right is that friendship is a morally freighted relationship; a friend’s character matters to a friendship. And what’s most disquieting is your friend’s view that our moral responsibilities to our fellow humans and to our fellow citizens are ones we have as whites and as Blacks, and not as human beings.
To be sure, our racial identities can be relevant to what we do in a society like ours. A white person, noting that she has been served first at a counter points out that a Black person was there first, thereby putting her race to antiracist uses. But the treatment owed to George Floyd as a citizen didn’t depend, as your friend apparently believes, on how some other Black people behaved or how he behaved in the past. Your friend presumably doesn’t feel accountable for the racist misdeeds of other white people and would balk at being mistreated for this reason.
Let’s grant that, in Aristotle’s sense, you can’t be the best kind of friend with this woman. Is it worth being any kind of friend at all? You might want to stick it out longer to see if you can bring her around. That’s the sort of thing an established friend might feel she ought to try to do. Still, when it comes to someone who, in this day and age, has remained attached to such views, I am not hopeful. If you withdraw from this friendship, it’s clear you won’t be doing so for a programmatic reason; you’ll be doing so for reasons of the heart. At the same time, what most effectively discourages the expression of backward views isn’t rational argument but social sanction. A loss to you could ultimately be a gain for others.
My friend called ICE on her former child-care employee. She feels angry that this woman quit on her midpandemic and is presumably illegally staying in America, and she feels as if this woman used her to get into this country and is now disregarding the fact that her work visa is revoked because she no longer has a job with my friend. I am having a difficult time reconciling with my friend given her decision. I don’t feel that there is any circumstance in which ICE should be utilized, and I am very upset that she would abuse her privilege and her power. I have spoken to her in regard to this, and she continues to stand firm in her decision.
How do I forgive and forget? And is that even a forgivable offense? Name Withheld
I won’t recap the points I’ve just made. But yes, it does sound as if your friend is vengefully enlisting government power against an employee who — perhaps owing to health concerns — has disappointed her. The loyalty that friendship entails doesn’t compel you to abandon values you hold dear. You’re under no obligation to forgive and forget conduct that you justly find appalling.