For exclusive friendships

If friendships and communities didn't exclude people, would they even exist?

Piers Benn

Topics Politics

During Winston’ s interrogation in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien informs his prisoner that:

‘Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives, and no friends. Children will become an annual formality, like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now….’ (1)

Thus the Party will abolish friendship. But as with the Welsh, it is not altogether clear what friends are for.

The question is made even harder to answer by the difficulties of identifying our real friends and distinguishing them from the friendly acquaintances or phoney mates we encounter through work, briefly shared projects, or networking. Compulsory first-name calling is the order of the day (‘Good morning, Karen speaking, how may I help you?’), and fake intimacy is easy to achieve.

These days it is often necessary to know somebody pretty well before you discover their second name, and even then it would be curiously anachronistic to use it. The art of networking, too, is largely that of cultivating an apparently intense – but in fact, transient – interest in the people we are introduced to. Its real purpose is to cultivate people because they can introduce us to other people who can introduce us to…by which time the early ‘friends’ found by this method will have been either forgotten or unceremoniously dumped.

Could it be, however, that friends are not for anything at all? Aristotle made a distinction between friendships based in utility and those based in virtue. Some friendships are driven by a common purpose, such as a shared business venture, and may disappear when the goal is achieved. But the deepest kind of friendship is not founded in accidentally shared purposes whose achievement or abandonment would bring an end to the friendship. It is founded in a shared conception of the good life and a sense of the moral probity of the friend.

Though friendship has a rational foundation, it lacks a purpose external to itself. In that sense, it is not for anything. The friend is valued for the person he or she is, not because that person can bring you something you want, and not because the friends share a common goal.

However, some people find such friendships to be problematic, rather in the way that community allegiances may be. In fact, both friendships and community allegiances, though very different, may be seen as an obstacle to fair and impartial dealings with others. Friendship is a free association between consenting individuals, and excludes outsiders for no obviously good reason.

Orwell’s Ingsoc Party, exemplified by O’Brien, wishes to abolish friendship and even the orgasm precisely because these involve associations that threaten the Party’s control. Community allegiances would also threaten the Party, just as they can threaten liberal conceptions of fairness, justice and non-discrimination. At their worst, community values lead to tribalism, and this is a major obstacle to justice and mutual understanding between different groups.

At the same time, we should recognise that these things do embody something of intrinsic (though not necessarily overriding) value, and that trying to suppress them would probably involve attacking something that contributes to the human good.

Take an example. Several years ago, when I was a philosophy lecturer at St Andrews University, a row broke out concerning a student club. The ‘Kate Kennedy Club’ was an organisation whose purpose was ostensibly (and perhaps genuinely) charitable, and provided English ‘yahs’ and Oxbridge rejects with an excuse to dress up in dinner jackets and commit minor acts of vandalism.

The problem was that the club excluded women. There was a staff-led motion to prevent this organisation from using university facilities until they changed this policy. I wrote in the undergraduate newspaper opposing this motion, not because I had any particular sympathy with men-only institutions (I would have had no particular interest in joining such a club, anyway), but because it seemed that this was an autonomous institution with a right to exclude whom it wanted, even if for no reasons worthy of the name.

There was clearly no good reason to exclude women, yet this itself was not a good reason to curtail its activities or even ban the club. And needless to say, I would have said the same of any all-women institution.

Friendships, communities and free institutions are bound to exclude people. This can happen directly and overtly, or more subtly. Worries about the ‘canteen culture’ at workplaces, or even about schoolchildren feeling hurt because their peers do not want them as friends, are about subtle exclusion and victimisation.

Asian employees do not like racist banter among colleagues, and children may feel bullied by being ignored. In the same way, strong communities with tribal tendencies are very supportive of their members, but highly intolerant if those same members step out of line – say by turning to the wrong religion or being gay.

In defending the right of certain groups to exclude others, in some circumstances, I do not deny that they can show some highly nasty tendencies. The great problem is that of balance. Justice dictates a certain impartiality and lack of favouritism in our dealings with outsiders, but a large part of our morality is to do with special obligations towards our ‘in-group’.

There are no doubt times when we ought to clamp down on exclusionary practices if their effects on outsiders are sufficiently bad. But we should not forget that such exclusive associations, even if they lead to office banter that some find upsetting, can have some intrinsic value. To replace friends and communities with advisers, role models and support groups can be as phoney as replacing friendships with networks.

Dr Piers Benn is a lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College, London.

(1) Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, first edition Penguin Books & Martin Secker and Warburg 1949, p 212. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today