I Don’t Wanna Be Nice! … Learning How To Be A Critical Friend
A couple of weeks ago a friend had breast implant surgery. No idea about the details – bra sizes are as big a mystery to me as tennis scores – but the operation was a great success and recovery is going well.
He’s thrilled with the result. Or should that be, results? Should I be even considering that question?
When we meet again he’s bound to be curious what I think. In fact, I’m curious what to think, or at least what to say. He’ll want me to be honest – though how far is uncertain. He’ll expect me not to lie – though how much truth am I expected to offer? And he’ll naturally be looking forward to a friendly answer – though what the hell friendly entails precisely in any circumstance is not always easy to discover. The situation demands that I bring to it the best of whatever character, qualities, virtues and values I possess, and not hide behind evasion, flippancy or diversion. What he wants from me is to be a genuine critical friend.
Of course I could do what most of us do in similar situations and prevaricate. Like most men I’m well practised in this tactic (“does my bum look big in this?” “Hmm, how do you feel …?”) and like most men I’ve learned that the ploy has diminishing returns, unless you enjoy serial, short relationships with insignificant others that is. Friends deserve better.
I could do the next likeliest thing and simply be nice. Everything is marvellous and wonderful and what a fabulous person you are and how terrific to know you … But we all know deep down inside that nice is usually just a fob off. At best it’s what the academics call “phatic expression”, using words to soothe and reassure rather than for communicating any conceptual information. Which is nice. But it’s only pretend friendship.
I might try and be philosophical about it and search for a rule or a maxim to apply. There are at least three relevant moral rules: 1 Tell the truth; 2 Do no harm; 3 Do unto others as you would be done to. It’s easy to see where rule 1 and rule 2 could conflict even if my intentions were honourable – we all can have egos as flimsy as soap bubbles and self-esteem as precarious as a ping-pong ball on a paper straw sometimes, so who knows the damage you might do if the truth was delivered with a misjudged word or an inappropriate image? And rule 3 is hopeless – I know myself well enough to know that my own needs, desires and tastes are not generalisable, and I’m blinkered by my individual inclinations. How do I know how I’d want to be treated if I were driven by different priorities and put in a situation I’d never even considered before?
So, when my friend next comes for a pint with me and asks, “so Phil, what do you think of these little beauties?” (and before anyone gets the impression I’m trying to be jokey or derogatory, that’s exactly the kind of thing he’d say, and I can even hear the exact tone of voice in my head) how am I meant to respond? If I can’t rely on blokiness, or politeness or a prior sense of the correct political-ethical regulation to get me through, how am I going to be his critical friend and answer how he deserves?
Of course I’m thinking about this in the context of the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill/transgender social media brawl this week. Very little friendliness shown on either side, just a heck of a lot of critique – mud slinging and rule-mongering and pointing out of deviations from the narrow path of righteousness – it really did make me wonder … it made me wonder if social media can sometimes extinguish our moral imaginations, or at least stunt them enough to make all that terrible public behaviour possible. Because in the end it is about imagination – the imagination to step out of our skins, let go of our need to be right, and loosen the grip of what we know to be absolutely, fundamentally, incontrovertibly true – and social media often seems to subvert imagination by being a place that magnifies the moral spot you were born with.
Funny thing is I can quite understand the urge to be mean online, to give into the temptation to spout a party line or indulge in clever put downs. I often say things from behind the safety of my laptop that I’d never say out loud in company. So, perhaps it’s face to face, individual encounters that are where we learn and practise genuine critical friendship and our social media presence is entirely derivative – it can subvert as much as support our attempts to be kinder, more decent, considerate human beings.
Anyway, I can’t see much in the previously mentioned debate that will help me answer the question I began with. So instead, as always, I turn to a book, and one that’s over a hundred and fifty years old, thus predating the possibility of the practical occurrence of the question of how to answer a man who has acquired a new set of secondary sexual characteristics by well over a century. But then, George Eliot wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, and is a much better read than Moore or Burchill …
All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims: because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgement solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality – without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly-earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.
Oh, and anyone who quibbles with George Eliot’s use of “man” in that passage really needs to grow some irony. She actually was serious about the “all” in creating that “wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.” Unlike many of her more linguistically pernickety contemporaries.