The Adbusters piece I shared earlier, with its description of relationships as “transitory counterpoints to the anomie induced by a culture of individualism”, was neatly timed. The nature of ‘friendship’ is something that has occupied my mind for a while and I’d had a few conversations about it this weekend. What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? Looking around, there is much anecdotal evidence that many modern friendships are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us. Of course the observation that we tend to gravitate towards people with similar opinions and attitudes is nothing new; what is perhaps novel is the effect of social media which has undoubtedly increased the speed of social interactions. Arguably, it has lessened the depth of emotion and empathy involved. For all the wonder of social media and the opportunities it affords, it seems very easy for it to become a giant echo chamber. Contemplation and dialogue are not encouraged in the race to quickly express an opinion. Interestingly, however, we seem less and less willing to a) have our opinions or, more, our conceptual identity challenged or b) challenge the same in others.
A huge part of this is a modern emphasis on an insipid individualist ‘positivity’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘support’ others. This typically means supporting their own concept of self rather than critically engaging with them. Banal praise is the order of the day. Criticism is seen as negative and there are few worse crimes than to be viewed as such. Indeed, the only criticism which even begins to be acceptable is ‘constructive’ – it must not be too forceful, too disruptive or fail to demonstrate respect for aforementioned ‘self’. Online, those engaging in this increasingly lumped in with ‘trolls’ who hurl mindless abuse. In the ‘real world’, we bristle with indignation when our friends strongly disagree with us – it almost feels like they are moving their tanks onto our lawn. We all want to ‘belong’ and as we all grow less tolerant of being challenged, social groups can be in danger of becoming metaphorical circle jerks. This pervades much of our society, from our politics to our media. Indeed, it often manifests itself in avoiding sincerity altogether and instead communicating in dripping irony and sarcasm.
Morrissey famously sang that we “hate it when our friends become successful”. A negativity regarding the personal achievements of those close to us can come easily and lazily. Yet it comes from the same place as the counterpoint empty positivity – a desire to protect our ego and our core sense of who we are. It seems that there is so much to be lost in this mindset. So many opportunities to see ourselves in different ways, examine our beliefs and our actions, subtly alter who we think we are. In attempting to move beyond an individualism which values nothing higher than our own self-belief and self-worth, we can find enduring relationships based in a mutual respect and a deep understanding that being ‘wrong’ is not a terrible thing, not a personal attack and is even something to celebrate. Those relationships are the ones which endure. It’s a lesson I am learning, I hope.