Strictly Good Advice

Dear Strictly Good Advice,

I have been scrutinized for remaining friends with people who are controversial because they exhibited poor judgment in the past. How do I be proud of and loving to my friends while not feeling embarrassed at the same time?



Hello, Duane, and thanks for the question. I would like to point out that although the number of the year has gone up by one since the last publication of this column, the number of my credentials and formal qualifications has gone up by zero. Given this observation I will make the familiar disclaimer that it is not my intention to advocate for any specific life decision with serious consequences. What I’ve written here is supposed to be fun to read; any insight or motivation to act is incidental and the full responsibility of the reader.

I imagine your friend’s transgressive behavior belongs to a class of more-than-superficial, but less-than-fundamental, disagreements between sensibilities. The nature of the misdeed at the root of the controversy is more likely a careless error than it is a deliberate attack. I do not suspect that this friend is a violent, remorseless criminal or has some solid personal quality that makes you unsafe. For the purposes of this discussion your friend may qualify for critical adjectives in the vein of obnoxious or unaware; I aim to make no comment here on your friends whose track records bespeak adjectives like hateful, malicious, or prejudiced. To simplify the problem that you are posing for the sake of analysis, I’ll define the salient characterization of your friend’s position in some relevant organization (a handful of friends, a chamber ensemble, an online forum for fungal recreationists) as a “social gray area.” The prickly combination of details surrounding your friend’s offense make it difficult for you to take a clear position in one camp or the other. While I am not in general a big proponent of defining my own terms, introducing the notion of a social gray area will allow me to avoid taking a complicated stance on any moral dilemma emergent upon the details of the relationship between you, your controversial friend, and some other persons with supposedly valuable opinions on the company you keep. I think that by investigating some common features of a typical reaction to a situation that in any sense is considered a “gray area,” some light will be shed on the appropriate reaction to the social “gray area” in your horizons.

Some decisions, like which advice columns are for reading and which advice columns are merely sent to your email by questionable online-only publications to be ignored, are easy to make. But others, like whether I am comfortable pardoning a friend’s offensive behavior as a condition of my relationship with them, make me nervous. I think it is often impractical to decide. I find, in situations like yours, that the labor required to resolve tensions of rational or emotional uncertainty by deciding exceeds the positive consequences of choosing one way or another. In this kind of case, my recommendation is to ignore the disease by avoiding arrangements of circumstance that make its symptoms felt. If you have a stomach virus, forego any vigorous hopping you had scheduled and spend some time in bed; analogously if you’re not sure which friend to side with in an argument, hang out with somebody else. Think of it as shrewd management of emotional resources. It may seem like I am suggesting you avoid the problem. This is not entirely wrong. I think it is within reason to downgrade some social hurricanes to not-your-problem status, so long as the crisis will not roll inertially without your conscious intervention. If the discrepancy among your friends remains a social gray area, it is fine to make a practical rather than decisive judgment and punt on some interpersonal jury duty. Do not assume the role of mediator unless you are convinced that your time would be better spent doing more hard work.

The bottom line, Duane, is to ignore the conflict by ignoring the involved parties. This may be hard to accept, especially if you like your friends and don’t want to be apart from them. But it’s not so bad in practice. Consider the worst-case scenario in which you have only two friends, Jerry and Jerry’ (that’s to be read “Jerry prime”), and they hate each other. Jerry has told you that he believes your relationship with Jerry’ is an abomination and vice versa. Both Jerry and Jerry’ have given you the same ultimatum: you can no longer have a friendship between each of them separately. It’s one or the other. If you follow the thread of the advice presented in this column so far, you will tell both Jerry and Jerry’ that they need to get their shit together without you and think of a better way to go about this. You might try to make a new friend, Jerry” (to be read “Jerry double prime”), or else spend some quality time on your own. This seems reasonable, and I would do it. If you are unconvinced, consider the following paragraph in which I have enumerated some of the amazing things you can do if you are alone:

When you are alone you are free to solicit as many questions from strangers as you want. You can do this by a variety of media, like email or anonymous online form. Being on one’s own offers a chance to ponder reader-submitted questions about whether a bidet is better than toilet paper and what was the last thing you killed with your car. If you don’t have to worry about people you know, you’re free to worry about people you don’t know. So pick a question and spend a couple of weeks mulling over it until you’ve got something to say. Maybe you will be proud enough to publish it, maybe not, but it only takes one person to try your very best.

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