A common trope when someone defends themselves against charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, or any of the other legion of sins we are all (unless we are non-white, female, and or gay) assumed to embody is to point out our circle of friends. Of course, the attack on this is so old I remember it from being a kid. While lack of said black friend is proof of racism citing them as a defense is also proof of racism. Merely sneer, “Oh, you have a black (or female or gay) friend.”
This is not entirely unreasonable. Befriending one person of a group certainly does not stop bigotry in general. A deep seated bigot will have a much easier time convincing himself a friend is the except to all those lousy so-and-sos. However, it is not completely reasonable. A person may hold a position about something while not axiomatically hating people to whom that position is relevant.
Opposition to gay marriage, for example, may not indicate any thoughts about homosexuals but about the purpose of the social institution of marriage. Perhaps they argue anything that gives you the force of law to compel the behavior of others is not a simple, private thing but a power that should be restricted for certain social benefits. Such a person could know, respect, hire, work for, or even have a great deal of affection for a gay person despite such a conclusion.
He could, in fact, have gay friends. Those gay friends probably tell us more about what animates that person’s feeling than their position about limiting marriage.
However, I am more interested in the flip side of this and how we have allowed it to poison us. Specifically, I want to look at the idea of “the personal is the political” and how it might allow us to be blinded to personal behavior by political opinion.
We are currently awash in a large number of sexual abuse scandals. Most, but not all, of the men accused of everything from inappropriate comments to lewd behavior to outright assault are to some degree or another open male feminists. Plenty of evidence of their vocal support for women’s rights from abortion to support for sexual harassment laws is easily found. In some cases it includes pursuit of others for the acts they themselves committed.
I would suggest we allowed ourselves to be binded to their actions because we believed their words. Mouthing the right pieties has a power that “having a black friend” does not. Humans are pattern matching machines that use shortcuts, need shortcuts, to make sense of the world. That’s what stereotypes are, shortcuts.
We need to work on our short cuts. Just as having “a friend” does not cancel or prevent bigotry neither does mouthing the right pieties. Virtual signalling is signalling not virtue. Sometimes they align but often they do not. We can say the same things about friends.
While we work on better shortcuts I think we should rehabilitate the friend a bit. It shouldn’t be restored to the level virtue signalling has now but it should be restored to a level of “at least there is hope” which is the level I think we should give virtue signalling.
There is hope for different reasons. Virtue signalling can be, for those who don’t practice what they preach, the compliment virtue pays to vice. It can also be the first step of “fake it until you make it.” Similarly, “the friend” can be a curb. If you have to guard your tongue around him at some point you might ask why it is okay to say elsewhere. That’s the first step to realizing it isn’t okay at all.
A friend is a connection and a connection is the first step to knowledge.