Can any river possibly flow
beyond the love of friends?
– Li Po
I enjoy reading meditations on the nature of online relationships and the ways in which our very ideas of relationships are changing as a result of the Internet, but it is a bit of a predictable trope for writers to contrast online interaction at its shallowest with traditional interaction at its deepest, and Roger Scruton provides yet another example:
Yet already something new is entering the world of human relations with these innocent-seeming sites. There is a novel ease with which people can make contact with each other through the screen. No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there, where you wanted to be, on the site that defines your friends. But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action. Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need. It is arguable that the more people satisfy their need for companionship through relationships carried out on the screen, the less will they develop friendships of that other kind, the kind that offers help and comfort in the real trials of human life.
Maybe it’s different for British philosophers, but honestly, among ordinary people, aren’t many of those we call our friends simply companions with whom we pass the time? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with enjoying the company of others for the hell of it, but I don’t imagine I’m alone in thinking that if I were forced to settle for making friends among those in my close proximity, I’d be very lonely indeed. I guess I’m an intellectual, if we define the term as someone who enjoys ideas for their own sake, beyond any practical import; someone who enjoys “thinking about thinking”, as one definition of philosophy has it. (I hasten to add, being intellectual is not at all the same thing as being smart or profound; plenty of intellectuals have subscribed to some of the stupidest ideas ever invented.) And frankly, most people seem to be content to know just enough to get by. To almost everyone I know in real life, evenings and weekends are for leisure and entertainment, not reading and writing. As Dennis Baron said in reference to Nicholas Carr’s own portentous claims of the Internet’s corrosive effects upon our lives, “That position incorrectly assumes that when we’re not online we throw ourselves into high-culture mode, reading Tolstoi spelled with an i and writing sestinas and villanelles instead of shopping lists.” Without the Internet, I’d be stranded in an intellectual wasteland. Hell, communicating with like-minded people online is probably all that preserves what social skills I do have.
Scruton can call personal shyness a “defect” leading to narcissism all he wants, but for people like me, being taciturn and standoffish is neither good nor bad; it’s just the way it is. The things that give me the most enjoyment are largely solitary pursuits. I simply don’t need much companionship. I’m one of those for whom the anonymity and distance of the Internet paradoxically makes me feel freer to express myself openly and honestly, which in turn has led to some of the closest friendships I’ve ever had. His assertion that having a screen between you and your friend, one that you can avoid at will, amounts to “denying the other the power and the freedom to challenge you in your deeper nature”, begs the question of what our “deeper nature” is to begin with. Me, I tend to mostly identify “who I am” with “what I think”, and I’m fortunate enough to have friends who challenge me in that regard all the time. My deeper nature has nothing to do with small talk and sitting around in my underwear scratching myself, and once again, it’s really tiresome that so many people confuse “inchoate” with “authentic”.
Like most things, I suppose, you get out of your online relationships what you put into them. Maybe it is more effort to have to use linear thought and words to fill in the gaps left by an absence of body language and other nonverbal cues, but I don’t see why that can’t be mostly surmounted by honesty and a good faith effort. Li Po and Tu Fu carried on a twenty-year friendship in poetry despite being separated over most of that time by war, drought, and exile. The most significant amount of time they spent together was a three-month span in 744. Was that not a “real” friendship, then? We’re still talking about it almost 1,300 years later, aren’t we? Or what about Montaigne, who only had four years in his late twenties in which to know Etienne de La Boétie, but was haunted by the loss for the rest of his life?
And let’s also consider that for some people, friendship is an opportunity to “share not suffering but joy”, as Nietzsche put it. Cultivating the best of ourselves to share while sweeping away the rest is also a way to provide support in each other’s hour of need. Not everyone needs a shoulder to literally cry on.