The kindness of strangers

There’s a bumper sticker that says “yes, this is my truck; no, I won’t help you move”. Inadvertently, this little quip contains a little wisdom.

Among the criteria of friendship according to popular opinion, a friend is someone who is “there for you when you need them” or, conversely, that “I’m there for you if you’re there for me”. If I help a friend move, a “real” friend will return the favor; otherwise that person is not my friend and my good nature has been taken advantage of. I then have the right to be offended or to feel betrayed in my trust.

Any number of situations can be substituted here (such as the mooch, the hangout buddy who is emotionally unavailable, and so on—“I do a lot for you and get nothing in return! What kind of friend are you?”). But it is just this ideology of reciprocity that precludes the existence of real friendship insofar as it reduces friendship into reciprocity and, therefore, into economy or a relation of mutual exploitation.

Reciprocity is something that can be measured and, consequently, institutionalized. We do it in exchange by assigning value; we do it in justice through contracts, obligations, and law; we do it ethically in norms (for example, if I extend you a ‘common courtesy’, then I can expect you do return it). If, however, friendships work in this way, friendships are reduced to the same level of business partners and working clients. To borrow an example from Sartre, if a lover stays with me because s/he promised to stay with me (say in a marriage vow), but doesn’t love me anymore, would I still call that person a lover? Obligation is insufficient to constitute a loving relationship (including friendship). A lover (or a friend) gives to his/her beloved not because of an obligation or an expectation of reciprocity. A “real” friend helps me move regardless of any obligation to do so and doesn’t do a favor with the expectation of being able to “call it in” later. (While I was once helping my friend M… move, on the street we were approached by a pair of Mormon missionaries who offered to help us. Although we declined their offer, in the kindness of these strangers, they were better friends to us than I would have been had I, two months later, asked M… to return the favor.)

The mark of “real” friendship is, rather, generosity. It is true that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. I can freely love my spouse and also, on the basis of that love, commit to a vow that obligates me to stay with her. But only to the extent that the proximate cause of any of my actions is my love and not my vow am I a lover. This is why real love (and friendship) is so difficult: it requires a certain amount of strength and courage to love without reciprocity. This is also why so many social relations are those of mutual exploitation and, as long as friendship is conceived in these terms, they will always result in injustice, dissymmetry, disappointment, failures, and betrayals for the same reason that economic or legal relations always result in inequalities that require adjudication (by courts, market regulations, etc).

Two consequences: (1) Another way of stating the point is to say that a friendship cannot be a relation of co-dependence (in the quasi-technical sense of the term) insofar as these relations devolve into non-productive, reactive cycles of mutually reinforcing ressentiment. It can become necessary to break the cycle of mutual co-dependence, e.g., by not calling a friend in a moment of distress, because (2) what is at stake is neither my need (which would turn the other into a resource) nor “our” friendship insofar as “we’re in things together”. As in love, so too in friendship the relation is not that of a fusion of two into one but, to adapt some terms from Badiou, the “continuous operation of the double function”, i.e., of the Two. The relation, properly speaking is not between one and one, but between each to a world. It is this operation of the Two that structurally debars love/friendship from becoming merely a cycle of ressentiment (whether or not this solution requires a Leibnizian harmony is an open question, however).

Addendum (27 May): It is worth repeating that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. What is at issue is whether reciprocity happens, as a matter of fact, or whether it is the motivation. This is why the condition of generosity is “strength” and not “trust”. A generous person cannot be betrayed because s/he does not expect that his/her actions will be returned. This is why generosity requires the strength to acknowledge this fact. A generous lover is the one who loves and continues to love while acknowledging the possibility that the love might end–that might no longer be for some reason (that feelings can change, the other person might die, etc). It is the attempt to love only on the condition of being loved that leads to exploitation, abuse, manipulation, and so on. A real relationship of love (whether amorous or friendly) is only possible between two generous people. A relationship where A is generous and B is not is obviously exploitative. A relationship where both are generous is one wherein “reciprocity” happens as a matter of fact and not as a matter of motivation (viz., under the name of ‘trust’).

On the other hand, a relationship between two non-generous but reciprocal people is mutually exploitative and precisely defines the political situation. This can be approached in various ways. Despite everything else, no one has described the problem better than Hobbes–in a situation of radical equality, trust and covenant between people is impossible without the institution of law, i.e., the mediation of a third party between two people. This is why reciprocity is the foundation of law and why it defines legal and economic relations. The attempt to found friendship on reciprocity sutures friendship to these same structural determinations of measure.

What makes relations exploitative (mutually or not) is the persistence of the question “what do I get out of it?” This is more obvious in the case of the exploitation of one by another (e.g., Scott has a car and can give me rides places). In the case of mutual exploitation, the persistence of the “I” goes under the ideology of “trust”. A betrayal of trust indicates the absence of generosity. If I give because I (generously) care for someone, then I forfeit the right to be offended if I get nothing out of it (not even acknowledgment of my gift). If I am so offended by not getting anything out of it, then my action was not motivated by (generous) care for the other person, for if it were the case, I would have nothing to lose. It is the persistence of the interest of the “I” in trust that makes reciprocity a relation of mutual exploitation: e.g., I’m there for you because I want you to be there for me. If I’m truly there for you because I want to be there for you, then I cannot expect that you will be there for me, i.e., I cannot “trust” that you will return my gift (in reciprocity).


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