Social Networking and the Ethics of “Friendship”

Social networking is a powerful medium. It has allowed me to reconnect with old friends with whom I had lost touch, even though we would never, or would rarely, have the opportunity to encounter each other in “real life.” It has also allowed me to connect with people whom I have never met but who, through the networks of friendship and acquaintance, I have found both delightful and interesting.

However, social networking friendships can be quite unlike off-line friendships in many ways and I am always a little uneasy about calling my Facebook contacts “friends.” Our affinities are sometimes somewhat superficial, and even if they go deeper I find that the modalities of social networking are such that we are sometimes willing to tolerate differences that would seriously strain what most of us would consider “friendship.”

I’m sure that most of us have, at some point in our lives, discovered that someone for whom we have great affection and respect holds opinions and convictions that we consider repulsive and reprehensible; not disagreements on religion, philosophy, politics or taste that we recognize as reasonable opinions, but serious differences. For example: think of the coworker who has always been kind and friendly, but who has deep homophobic views, or the relative who lets slip a bigoted comment at Thanksgiving, which you later learn is only the tip of a racist iceberg.

This is a profound ethical problem. Is it possible to call someone who holds repulsive beliefs a friend?  Even if that person is otherwise a decent, caring person? What is our responsibility; does our personal relationship legitimize our friends’ beliefs?

Like all ethical questions, these ones are not easy to solve and, for the most part, it’s common enough to find ways to simply not solve them by avoiding the issue: You don’t invite your racist friend to a dinner party where there will be Black or Asian guests. You don’t watch a John Waters movie with your homophobic cousin. You don’t talk politics with your reactionary uncle. Everyone I know has done this at some point. There might be an initial moment in which you assume your friend was just “kidding” or mistaken. Then, confident that reason will work, you try to engage with your friend to convince him that he’s wrong.

Hell, sometimes it even works. But not always – in fact, rarely. And then you are confronted with a choice: do you find a way to tolerate your friend’s intolerable opinions, making excuses along the way, do you minimize contact with your friend so you don’t have to think about it, or do you end the friendship? This can be an extremely thorny situation in “real life” because our connections are usually more than superficial. Your coworker is not going to go away, and your cousin will still turn up at Thanksgiving. Moreover, because of the complexity of our (real) social networks, how you answer the question will inevitably have consequences in your relationships with mutual friends.

On the other hand, we are ethically responsible for our friends’ beliefs. Our endorsement of our friends legitimizes them in the social gaze: “If Fred is a staunch anti-racist, but he’s friends with Bob, who always makes those comments about ‘kikes,’ then maybe Bob isn’t so bad.” We add our social capital not only to our friends, but also to their beliefs.

Moreover, by failing to confront or denounce repulsive beliefs we legitimize the false notion that everything is equal in the marketplace of ideas and that it all comes down to a question of personal preference. I’m not comfortable with that. While I can accept that which sports team you support or which political candidate you endorse might be a question of personal preference, I’m not willing to extend that to all other ideas.

At the end of the day, no one is hurt if you prefer the Yankees over the Mets and I won’t be offended if you take a little dig at me if I’m a Mets fan. (After all, Mets fans are used to it.) But that is not the case if you think that people with dark skin are inferior, that people who love differently are abominations who do not deserve rights, that women need to keep in their place, or that it is ever, ever okay to inflict violence on another human being. These are beliefs with very real human consequences and we are responsible for them through our relationships.

Social networking simultaneously diminishes and amplifies the ethical problem. On one hand, most of us recognize that our online “friends” are somehow not quite the same kind of friends as those we have offline. I have something like 300 “friends” on Facebook; I am fairly sure that I could not list 300 friends that I have in real life, even if the majority of them are on Facebook. And of those Facebook “friends,” I only ever pay attention to what a couple of dozen of them are doing and saying. Every now and then I look at my “friends” list and marvel at how many of them are people I don’t really know that well at all.

Yet, they are “friends” on Facebook, with my explicit endorsement. Their “friends” – particularly ones that we do not share – can connect them to me simply by paging through their “friends” lists or reading my occasional comments on the Timelines, or theirs on mine. Sometimes, this leads to serendipitous connections, like when a “friend” of a “friend” discovers that we have certain affinities.

However, there is also peril because a billion Facebook users can see that I have a “friend” who believes that Barack Obama is a communist, or that Global Warming is a conspiracy and its okay to foul the environment, or that it is perfectly legitimate to inflict violence on people you don’t like… and then conclude that I’m okay with it.

But I’m not. And if I’m not okay with it I have an ethical responsibility to communicate that and refuse to legitimize ideas that I find abhorrent. So I have pruned my “friends” list. This is an awful lot more difficult than it sounds because I do have considerable affection for some of the people I am thus shutting off. I also know that there will be consequences – hurt feelings and insult – and I do feel great regret for hurting my erstwhile Facebook “friends'” feelings – particularly because some of them are also friends in the real world.

And I don’t doubt that some “friends” will return the favour because they find my atheist, socialist, pacifist, postmodernist, postcolonialist, queer beliefs just as offensive. They are entitled to do so, because they should not have to call someone who has beliefs they find repulsive a friend.