Ellen’s coming out about George started something worth wrestling with
The word friend has become really fuzzy. Way before Ellen’s video about being friends with George W. Bush. Yet, strangely, all the social media backlash has brought two questions into focus:
- What is a friend versus being friendly?
- Must we be “aligned” with others’ beliefs and actions to be a friend?
The meaning of friend or friendship is about as amorphous as love. Especially since Facebook. Collecting “friends” has never been easier or dicier.
Clear definitions are important because language is about utility. So that we can better understand one another. The term friend has become about as useful as trying to change someone’s opinion with facts.
Initially, the Ellen clip struck me as a funny, timely Hallmark message. But of course, it’s not just any ‘ol conservative she befriended. It’s that guy who, in a different era or political climate, could have been tried as a war criminal.
Bush’s beliefs are irrelevant here; his actions are what matters. He was one of the most destructive presidents in modern American history; a man who has never been held to account for a long litany of crimes, misdeeds, and abuses of power committed during his two bloodstained terms in office. The reason “43” should be treated as a pariah is not because he is a Republican or a conservative, but because he caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people and tortured hundreds of others. — Medhi Hasan, The Intercept
I remember good ol’ George W, whom I’d never imagine referring to as good ‘ol if we didn’t have the current Oval Office occupant as a reference point. I remember where I was March 19, 2003, when the first Tomahawk missiles hit Iraq: Behind the wheel of my parked car in a faculty lot, tuned to WUNC, vaguely aware that I would need to stop crying before walking to class.
My Daughter’s Post
In the immediate wake of the Ellen video, my daughter posted an NPR story about Daryl Davis, an African American who befriended dozens of KKK members for over 30 years. She said she was a fan of speaking her mind to people she doesn’t agree with. (I can attest to that!) But that she also was a fan of surrounding herself with diverse people. “If we stay in our bubble, how can things change?”
Even though she’s in her 30s, it’s hard for me to read harsh comments on her wall. Actually, scratch that. The comments weren’t that harsh. (But my own slip into fragility here will help illustrate another point in a few paragraphs).
Ahem. Some opposing comments her “friends” wrote on her wall felt like something big was starting to rub up against my beliefs or values or ego. Maybe all three. Like a bit of friendly fire in my brain.
Comments went something like this (paraphrasing):
It’s a straw man to dismiss others’ feelings by calling for “kindness” when the root of their upset is forceful use of government to codify unkindness.
The left is always willing to listen. Those that need to listen are the right.
You insinuate that we should forget justified grievances in the name of showing kindness. Those grievances are because he wasn’t kind. He started a revolution in politics of unkindness; he is a symbol.
There are some a-holes on the left. But their anger is usually due to oppression. Your solution advocates appeasement… telling the oppressed to be nice to the oppressor and all will be good. And the oppressor says, Yeah, see, your leader says be nice to us… and then they go on to heighten the oppression.
Not advocating appeasement at all. Personal relationships can be a good foundation for having difficult conversations. That’s not appeasement. That’s healthy conflict.
Having a personal relationship with someone can make tough conversations a lot more fruitful.
The discussion wasn’t between Republicans and Democrats. But it quickly took on a win-lose vibe.
Kind of a Friend
So I’m meeting a kind-of-a-new-friend over coffee two days later. She asked me to meet her a week before, intimating that it had to do with her run for a local office next year. We’ve been Facebook friends for a year or more; we’re in a few local (political and social) groups. I assume she’s going to ask me to help with campaign communications, writing posts, that kind of thing.
The night before the meeting, I wrestle with a couple things:
1. While most of her posts are ones I agree with, and some I’m not sure about but they get me to think, a few are too much for me. The ones that call out white women as responsible for our social and political problems. I KNOW my gender and race are big parts of the problem but it feels like she’s trying to alienate, not educate, white women. Will this be an issue for me?
2. While her more inflammatory posts don’t put me off in terms of being friendly, being in the same book club (it’s called White Ladies Get Your Shit Together), and being a helpful neighbor, could I work for her campaign?
Could I canvas and convince constituents — mostly white in our district — that her comments about white women on social media are meant to hold us responsible, to get us to think about our bubbles, our silence, our privilege and our implicit biases?
Our coffee shop conversation begins with the Ellen/George thing, moves into my daughter’s post and the responses to it. I broach the blurriness of friendship in question form. What is it?
She talks about her senior year in high school when a debate teacher “had the audacity to tell me that I came across uppity. Basically I was a snob and none of my friends could tell me that.”
So we talked about what friendship means — especially within the white girl lanes that we knew so well: validating everything about the other; being on guard not to hurt one another’s feelings, even when you knew they were wrong; putting yourself down to praise someone else; “protecting” fragile feelings.
We mused about the kind(s) of women we’d be if we’d been taught to be an honest friend to others and expected nothing less in return.
We talked about pathologies that stem from patriarchal culture, centuries of reinforced white fragility, fear of “other,” and the privilege of turning away from racial and poverty issues.
This new friend or person I’m friendly with doesn’t turn away. At all. We are in a town that is purple in a sea of red (major districts of Atlanta, withstanding).
For example, State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Cobb Co. Republican, was quoted this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Most of my neighbors want to be left alone and raise their kids. They’re not at the Capitol waving signs,” said Kirkpatrick, a surgeon. “Our party sometimes gets a little off when we let a few people make loud noises and hijack the whole thing.
It takes the constitution and commitment of the person I’m now friendly with to make the loud noises and say the things that are uncomfortable. Even when she paints white women with such a broad brush (sigh).
At the end of our exciting and extended meeting, she asked (surprisingly tentatively) if I’d be willing to host a neighborhood meet and greet for her next month.
I think she saw my half-second pause before I said “sure” as being less than sure. But I was simply surprised she didn’t ask me to do more.
She and I may never have a closer encounter than our two-hour meeting at the coffee shop, but the cool thing is I don’t have to put her into one of two categories: friendly or friends.
And as for the DeGeneres/Bush thing? I asked my kind-of-a-friend what she thought about people being capable of real change, “Yeah. Of course people change. We don’t do a good job taking that into account.”
I was glad to hear her say that. Not that I was seeking her approval or anything.