Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The True Meaning of Friendship

I like a good theoretical abstraction as much as the next guy, but ethical principles are best taught through parables. You cannot fully grasp the principle without seeing it in action.

The situation described in a letter to DoubleX columnist Lucinda Rosenfeld is pretty close to being self-evident. I am not writing about it because you are going to find it puzzling. A minimal knowledge of the duties friends bear to their friends will give you the answer. As many of Rosenfeld's readers have testified, any time you find yourself in such a situation you know what to do.

And yet, however obvious the ethical precepts involved, Rosenfeld completely missed them. For which she was greeted by an avalanche of furious replies, all of which expressed outrage at her failure to understand the issues involved. and recommended that she be fired. To these replies Rosenfeld answered that she was happy to have agitated everyone, because that meant that was doing her job.

How often do you see dozens of impassioned replies to an advice columnist, all of which agree on the single point that the columnist is completely wrong and ought to be fired. The women who wrote in did not consider her advice to be wrong. They thought it was dangerous.

Dangerous to our friendships. If people start taking Rosenfeld's advice seriously there will be fewer and worse friendships in the world. For young people who have left home and taken jobs in big cities, friendship provides a sense of community and connection. If you have moved away from your family and cannot count on your friends, you are in serious trouble.

As nearly all of the commenters remarked, Rosenfeld does not have any idea of what is involved in friendship. Apparently, she was chosen as columnist because she wrote a novel about friendship. That should really tell you all you need to know.

Anyway, the first column, with Rosenfeld's reply is linked here. Her reply to her detractors is linked here.

Let's call this the parable of the bad Samaritan, or else, the parable of the ethically-challenged advice columnist.

A woman goes to a concert at a small venue with her two closest friends. At some point she is drugged. When she goes to the ladies room and does not come back her friends do not look for her and do not call her. They leave without her.

She has no recollection of what happened between the moment she left for the ladies room and the moment she woke up in the ER. Apparently, a policeman had found her lying along on the sidewalk and had her sent to the hospital.

Though she does not remember it, she was told that she also called her two closest friends from the street. She was sobbing hysterically, asking them for help. They were already at home so they told her to go back to the club. They offered to call an ambulance.

The woman was taken to the hospital. There she called her mother who lived 2000 miles away. Distraught at what she was hearing the mother also called the two friends and begged them to comfort their daughter at the hospital. They refused.

After the hospital told the woman and her mother that she could not be released unless someone came by to pick her up, she called her two closest friends again and asked if they would help her get discharged from the hospital. Under duress, and angrily, they managed to come to the hospital the next morning and drove the woman to her car. Then they left her to drive herself home.

The woman tells Rosenfeld that she cannot help feeling abandoned by her friends. And she asks whether she is expecting too much from them.

Let us posit a touching naivete in this woman. Apparently, she had not noticed that these two women were anything but friends. Perhaps she has very few friends. Perhaps the two of them tolerate her out of pity.

None of that really matters. What matters here is that Rosenfeld dismissed the situation glibly. She replied that when it comes right down to it you can never count on your friends, only your family and lovers. She adds that if she were roused from her bed by a 4:00 a.m. phone call she would not bother to get dressed and go to the hospital.

Thus, the outrage of her readers. Reasonably so. After all, it does not matter whether you are dealing with a close friend or a not-so-close friend, and it doesn't even matter if she had gotten drunk at some point in the past, friends look after friends, friends care for friends, friends have duties to friends.

Since you choose your friends, but not your family, your duties are in many ways stronger. However naive this young woman is, what can we say about her two supposedly closest friends who have been pretending to be her friend for ten years.

At the very least these two women should be seriously ashamed of their behavior. As should Lucinda Rosenfeld.

[Additional comments on Rosenfeld by Ann Althouse here, and Lindsay Beyerstein here.]

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