A response to The Harper Review’s autumn 2023 proposition, “Friends should share your values.”
What could be more obvious to someone with loving, robust friendships? What could be less obvious to someone misguided and alone, forced to alienate their head from their heart? A friend doesn’t have to look the same or sound the same as you. But a friend should share your values, and more—he should share your taste, your sense of humor, your politics.
That, or he shouldn’t be your friend. Which is okay! You can still treat him generously, kindly, courteously, affectionately, and lovingly. Or coldly, spitefully, cruelly, scornfully, and vengefully, as the occasion requires.
The question isn’t whether you have license to be an unreasonable jerk to your fellow man. All humans deserve the attention befitting the owner of an immortal soul, or at least a very powerful neural network, which is to say, they deserve your attention. They deserve your energetic, good-faith attempt at understanding. They could be right. You could be wrong.
But let’s say you have fulfilled the obligation to pay attention to your fellow man. You’ve debated him in circles. You have thought carefully about what he’s said and imagined its consequences. And the light of your understanding has uncovered an unbridgeable abyss of darkness between you and him. He does not “secretly” believe the same things as you. He is not confused or deluded. He is acting as an irresponsible custodian of the divine spark. Well, then what should you do?
Past a certain point, we all know the answer. Is your fellow man preparing to douse your pet rabbit in gasoline and burn it alive? Does he believe that his god requires daily sacrifice of household critters to be appeased? Then his beliefs are wrong! He possesses a worldview so foreign from yours that you and he can have no understanding. It is morally repulsive that you should be his friend.
Or say that the offense is a little smaller. You are an atheist. You believe, with the authentic force of your being, that religion is responsible for social and personal suffering. Should you befriend a religious person? Of course not. That would mean you’ve adopted your beliefs because they’re fashionable, not because they harmonize with your immortal soul. That would mean you’ve drawn a line between your personal happiness and trivial, academic thought experiments about what you “believe.”
Say that the offense is even smaller. You are a very, very moderate Republican. You believe that Democrats are responsible for a small dent in the country’s economic growth. You’ve tried your best to convince your Democratic neighbor of his error. Yet he will not budge, because in this very, very small way, his worldview is poisoned. You may invite him to dinner. You may go to his wedding. But should you be his friend? Should you, in the way that you should back slowly away from a black bear and you should not punch it on the nose?
No. You shouldn’t punch the bear. And you shouldn’t be its friend, either.