friendship and politics

Last week, one session of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies was devoted to friendship, and the assignments were:

  • Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy, pp. 3-35, pp. 163-82, 290-8
  • Danielle E. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown, v. Board of Education, pp 140-186

When people treat one another as friends, interactions have a special quality. This is not a naive point, for people want to have friendships and will sometimes put the development and maintenance of their friendships above other goals. Aristotle observed as much.*

One might suspect that only some cultures cultivate friendships that are strong enough to make people check their conflicting self-interests. We might find people acting as friends among the ruling classes of classical city-states, but surely not in atomized and materialistic America.

Based in part on the great book by Mansbridge assigned for this session, I would propose instead that whether people act as friends depends on the immediate situation. When interactions are sustained and face-to-face (or possibly online, given sufficient bandwidth); when interests are not too starkly opposed or the stakes are reasonably low; and when groups are tolerably small, modern Americans will put friendship ahead of narrow interests and will work hard and skillfully to preserve friendship.

For instance, I hypothesize that a group like the Summer Institute itself (22 activists and scholars from six countries, gathered for 63 hours of seminar time), if asked to plan a recreational activity for themselves, would be primarily concerned with preserving their friendship. They would, for instance, be reluctant to put options for activities to a vote. If time pressures forced them to vote, they would be highly uncomfortable to see a minority disappointed and would–at a minimum–seek to acknowledge and regret their sacrifice. (Allen’s book is focused on sacrifice and how to repair it). If even one person said that he could not participate in a given activity (for instance, he couldn’t go on boat ride because of sea-sickness), that idea would instantly be retracted. On the other hand, if an individual simply didn’t like a given activity, he would be unlikely to say so because expressions of self-interest would make him look like a bad friend.

We didn’t actually assign the exercise of choosing a recreational activity, because it seems better for members of the Institute to make individual choices about how to spend their weekends. But we talked about how such a conversation would likely go, and the predictions seemed insightful to me.

Two big questions are:

  1. How can we create a degree of friendship in larger and less stable communities than the Summer Institute, or when the stakes are higher? Allen advocates “talking to strangers” in the US, to build sufficient friendship that we can govern ourselves justly. That requires, among other things, changes in the ways our cities are planned and our children assigned to schools. I doubt that Mansbridge would disagree, but her argument is that politics-as-friendship only works under certain objective circumstances, and when it is impractical, it is better to govern through explicitly adversarial politics.
  2. To what extent should friendship be a normative ideal? Philia may be a virtue, as Aristotle said, but it trades off against other virtues, such as freedom and equality. For instance, when trying to be friends, people may hide genuine interests that they should be free to express and act on. And that suppression may not play out equally.

Background on the two assigned books

Mansbridge emerged from the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, where she observed small groups , “appear[ing] everywhere like fragile bubbles” that had certain features in common. Decisions were made in face-to-face meetings, after much discussion, when someone expressed the consensus of the group. There were no formal distinctions among participants or offices. And there was a strong norm against making self-interested statements.

These forms seemed naïve from the perspective of what Mansbridge calls “adversary democracy,” which presumes that interests conflict and there must be winners and losers in decisions. Yet they seemed to work somewhat well and to have certain advantages.

She studied two examples. Helpline is a commune of the New Left: urban, somewhat racially diverse, aimed at social change. The other case is a Vermont Town Meeting in a rural, socially conservative white community. They differ, too, in that Helpline codifies the principles of “unitary democracy,” whereas Selby has official votes and office-holders and exercises powers granted by the state. And yet Mansbridge finds many similar practices.

This leads her to generalizations about where and when “unitary democracy” can work. She also finds convergence between the two examples.

Allen begins with the observation that democracy requires sacrifice. Some lose when others gain, and the losses are not fairly distributed. Her question is how you can build some kind of “friendship” when some must sacrifice?

Her friendly critique of Habermas: He explains why people will speak with reciprocity if they are in a setting where they are aiming for consensus, but not why they would enter such a space in the first place. She writes,“Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration. Friendship is not easy, nor is democracy. Friendship begins in the recognition that friends have a shared life—not a ‘common’ nor an identical life—only one with common events, climates, built-environments, fixations of the imagination, and social structures. Each friend will view all these phenomena differently, but they are not the less shared for that” (pp. xxi-xxii).

*Our next business after this will be to discuss Friendship. For friendship is a virtue, or involves virtue; and also it is one of the most indispensable requirements of life. For no one would choose to live without friends, but possessing all other good things. … Moreover, …  friendship appears to be the bond of the state; and lawgivers seem to set more store by it than they do by justice, for to promote concord, which seems akin to friendship, is their chief aim, while faction, which is enmity, is what they are most anxious to banish. And if men are friends, there is no need of justice between them; whereas merely to be just is not enough—a feeling of friendship also is necessary. Indeed the highest form of justice seems to have an element of friendly feeling in it. And friendship is not only indispensable as a means, it is also noble in itself. We praise those who love their friends, and it is counted a noble thing to have many friends; and some people think that a true friend must be a good man (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1155a3, 20)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.