A thing happened today over at Tumblr. Lots of things, in fact, and today is hardly unique in that area; but one particular thing happened that dovetailed quite nicely with some Deep Thoughts (TM) I’ve been mulling about on my own for the better part of a week.
Let me back up. Over at FaceBook, I have friends from pretty much all areas of my life: school friends, from Cleveland, Greensboro, and now NYC; current neighbors and non-school friends; fandom friends from all over; and family, to name a few groups. Some of these people are much more conservative than I am. Some are much more liberal, or progressive, or libertarian, or whatever axis you want to choose. And some are just flat-out more politically active than most of the people I hang out with in fandom or RL. So there is a lot of sharing of political memes, news links, and the like. That’s fact #1.
Fact #2: FaceBook allows you to hide things shared from certain sources. So if (say) Theoden was my FaceBook feed and was sharing stories from the group HaveSwordWillTravel, a well-known extreme-right-wing group that shared conspiracy fearmongering about why Thorongil really disappeared after the Harad raid. If I wanted to, I could tell Facebook not to display stories from that group, or from Thorongil, or just any one particular story. In RL, this means I can spare myself the majority of political shares and focus on the discussions I actually do want to be having. It means I don’t have to deal with the frustration of being faced with things I disagree with, that FB can become more of a safe space to just hang out with friends and family, and that I can do the political thing on the terms I find more helpful (the blogs and periodicals I choose to follow because they’re thought-provoking. Keeping FB a place to hang with friends is very good for my sanity, these days.
I do this for my personal mental health, and also because I honestly believe you can have friendships based on something more substantive than whether you agree on anything, much less on politics. I sometimes find it hard to just scroll past things because it feels like I’m ignoring something that’s important to my friends. Out of sight out of mind is easier at some level, though at some level it does feel like a more intense act of ignoring – like you’re just not engaging with your friends on the things they thought were important enough to share, and that you’re somehow not loving them as a friend should. And, because I am the unique mix of neurosis and philosophical conviction that makes me me, the fact that I do this really bothers me.
My view about friendship, like a good deal of my ethics, is heavily influenced by Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics Bk VIII, he describes what he calls the complete friendship, which according to him “is that of good people, those who are alike in their virtue [...]. Those who wish good things to a friend for his own sake are friends most of all.” I’m far from an expert on Aristotle, but the way I understand this, it means (among other things) that true friendship involves caring about whether someone is actually a good person, and for their own sake rather because it gives you any advantage or honor. Certainly, that’s the Christian ideal I grew up with and tried to practice long before I met Aristotle.
There’s this thing in our culture where we tend to give people a wide berth and let them get up to whatever they want so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. But I don’t think that’s it at all. As friends, we’re supposed to desire the good for our friends’ own sake – we’re supposed to pull them (just as they pull us) into becoming the best kind of person we can be. And thinking on this, I’m reminded of Philippians 4:8, which in the NJKV says, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.” Put those two lines of thought together, and when I see a friend dwelling on anger and falsehoods and divisions –or, more precisely when I choose not to see this happening– that seems like a moral failing on my part.
Example: back in my last semester of undergrad, I was going through a bad time and both not really able to function and also not able to reach out for help. A friend emailed a dean at my school to say what was going on and then emailed me to tell me to expect a call. At the time I felt like my privacy had been a bit invaded (see above about bad time), but in retrospect it was just the kick in the pants I needed to make things more manageable. It got me into counseling and in touch with administrators who could arrange course extensions and exam make-ups. As I’ve grown up and worked out my own beliefs, I’ve come to decide this was the heart of friendship: a willingness to get involved when it’s necessary for a friend’s well-being.
Which isn’t to say I should fact-check every post or go all pedantic on them. In the best of worlds, I should try to understand why my friends want to share these things, what they are trying to communicate, and if it’s coming from something more serious that a real friend would address. Of course I’m only human and have limits to my own ability to get involved, and of course there’s a difference between a true friend and someone I have shared history with over long periods but have never truly moved beyond comfortable companions (which isn’t a bad thing in itself). Sometimes I think I underestimate that distinction and want to turn people into true friends when maybe that’s not warranted. The kind of friendship Aristotle’s going on about is a really, really rare thing.
And yeah, grad school or no, I’m enough of a philosopher to be really bothered by these kinds of things. *shakes hands* Hi, nice to meet you.
Getting back to Tumblr. Tumblr is a social networking site that’s kind of the center of the Sherlock fandom along with other BBC shows, at least so far as I can tell. It seems to be a cross between the photo-sharing sites like Pinterest and sites geared toward broadcasting rather than starting conversation like Twitter. If there’s a way to reply to posts I’m yet to find it, although people can “reblog” something on the site and add comments. I mainly use the site to share the Sherlock humor and “feels” (memes that tug at the heartstrings) I stumble across, increasingly on that site but also other places like Pinterest. Stuff that amuses me, that I want to spread around and Tumblr seems to be the place to do it.
Today, I shared a picture of Sherlock making a frustrated face because Sally Donovan (one of the “regular” Scotland Yard policemen) casually calls Sherlock a freak
along with the caption:
One day John will punch her, and it will be completely justifiable.
Which is really just a slight elaboration of the image itself. I was trying to be cute. Unfortunately, I also tagged “sally donovan.” On Tumblr, tagging is kind of like selecting a character for a story you post on an archive. In addition to giving browsers an idea of what to expect, it lets people searching for just that tag pull up your post. Which made it seem like I was hating on Sally’s character.
To be brutally honest, I’m not crazy about Sally. Her main function seems to be to call Sherlock “freak,” act hostile toward him, and try to sabotage his friendship with John. She’s also one of the driving forces behind the suspicion within Scotland Yard that ultimately drives the climax in “Reichenbach Fall.” As someone who’s been called a freak a good part of her life and who’s lived through the process of trying to own that differentness, and as someone with some exposure of surviving other peoples’ suicides, Sally’s actions don’t sit well with me. They also seem basically unexplained but driven by something – I can easily see a rocky past between her and Sherlock, or some past memory Sherlock calls to mind, or something that makes more sense of their interaction. I’d love to see that explored, but as things are at this point, I really don’t feel all that sympathetic toward her.
All of which I say, not to add insult to injury, but to explain why it didn’t occur to me I was being exceptionally harsh on the character, that others might perceive it as a threat. And because I tagged the character’s name, it was the equivalent of (say), writing a story about Merry and Pippin writing Diamond as an evil harpy of a wife – and then listing her as a character so people interested in reading stories about Diamond found the story. Unintentional, 100% not my intention, but also not okay. I get why people would be upset.
But it’s the way they got upset, and the way that felt to me, that got me thinking. Check out the responses over at Tumblr. A lot of people took it in the spirit it was offered, but some of the people who added comments were a little vicious. Well, I’d just badmouthed their favorite character; if I’d published that Diamond story described above on a large, fairly anonymous site like FF.net, I should expect a few flames. The thing that surprised me and got me thinking was how little those comments bothered me. They weren’t pleasant, of course, but they weren’t awful either. Even though I was being told my life was meaningless and insulted with what I can only assume was supposed to be a homophobic slur (not quite sure how else loryisunabletosupinate’s comment is supposed to be the insult it seems meant as).
My point here isn’t to get people to say I didn’t do anything wrong. I did mess up in how I presented this, and even the caption by itself was a little more violent than I had meant it. (I didn’t mean to suggest Sally’s character deserved a literal beating or anything of the sort, though I can see how it might come across that way.) What fascinated me was this seemed like it should be personal but it really wasn’t. It hurt on the level of one human being saying this kind of thing to another over a silly fandom meme, but not (for instance) like it would if one of you got mad at me and told me I was so wrong you didn’t want to speak to me again. It was a whole other kind of situation.
I think for me, I really do care about people because we’re in a special relationship of friendship. Or at least companionship. If you’re reading this you’re almost certainly in one of those groups, and I respect your opinion enough to take it to heart if you tell me I messed up. But anonymous internet commenters are, well, anonymous. They are not a three-dimensional person I’m called to love or at least value, not yet.
And that makes me a bit sad. Part of that’s just life, but I do hate engaging with people at that level. I want to care, and I want them to care enough about me (even if it’s at a superficial level) that if I hurt them we’d work it out with more respect and dialogue and less of the namecalling. But that hurt is a vague one, very vague.
Actually, it leaves me longing for the real thing in the fandom. I want smaller groups where I can engage in discussion and really get to know people. Like the Henneth_Annun and LOTR_Community_GFIC lists were. I want the conversation and the friendship and the back-and-forth, not this anonymous sharing of banalities. (Okay, I want that, too. This is Sherlock and silliness is part of the game. But it’s a both/and thing.) So on a practical level, if anyone knows of smaller groups I could explore, I’m all ears.
On the more philosophical, level, though, this exchange and the way it left me feeling vaguely sad rather than attacked? It drives home the point that there’s something very special about those more personal friendships, and I think what it is, is I care about you as persons. When we interact it is personal, not as names on a screen but as people whose quirks and histories and personalities I know something about. And while I think we use the word “friend” too easily these days and only a few of us have relationships that reach that level of intimacy, I think you see me for who I am and tend to push me to become the best Marta I can be. You are honest, you care, you hold me accountable.
That seems like a step on the road to true friendship, if nothing else. And you give me space to say and think what I want, which is good. It’s respectful. But I also think at the end of the day, if you saw me saying or doing things that seemed dangerous to my character, I like to think it would make you uncomfortable and you’d call me out on them. Not harshly, but make me aware you were worried, maybe talk to see what was really going on. I know that some of you do fall into that camp. And that’s the start of friendship, I think. It’s what I want more of these days, much more than people just to laugh at dragons with purple scarves with.
Where exactly is that dividing line? I don’t know, and that does worry me. But thinking about friendship in light of more-or-less anonymous comments like those over at Tumblr does make me more aware of where the real difference lies. That’s something, at least.