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Friends And Benefits

Every so often I see this on the Internet: Can Men And Women Be Friends? I don’t take it too seriously; the question is contrarian, and people who argue it have to argue very strenuously. But it says something interesting about the way that people relate today, and worth addressing.

When things have broken down completely, when two people have nothing in common and nothing to offer each other personally, the only things left – the only reasons to associate at all – are money, and pleasure. This is not necessarily a value judgement; this is why we go to work, after all.

In this situation, when one person rules out another as a friend, or in other words implicitly require sex as the cost of association – money or pleasure – it’s a sign that things have broken in other areas. Things only get to this point when we have no other way of providing value for each other: that’s the real story here, even if it’s not directly stated.


A mutual exchange of value.

Things have gotten so bad that most of the time people have nothing of concrete value to offer, in our minds anyway. In that larger sense, people aren’t necessarily wrong for thinking that: a lot of the time, it’s unfortunately, at least partially, true.

There’s a deeper problem behind this crude construction. And that is, it’s actually pretty difficult to provide value for others in our atomized society.

If, say, we lived in a village, and you controlled access to land that I wanted to use, there would be none of this ‘sorry, we can’t be friends’ business: I’d be happy to see you and talk for as long as you wanted to talk (a loose definition of friendship) if it meant a measurably better life for me.

In other words, when we can make a productive exchange and we both know it, then the relationship doesn’t have to carry any more weight; it earns its way.

There was a time when friendships provided this, easily and naturally. Maybe it was access to a scarce resource, maybe it was how to find a tailor or a craftsman: when two people got together and could reliably exchange this information, that friendship carried its weight.

It didn’t need to do more than that; that was enough to immediately, intuitively recognize the value. No one had to beat you over the head by reifying positive emotions also, since the value was fully expressed in every form in the friendship.

But, over time, things fell apart. We moved to a place where we each have very specialized jobs. Part of it was economic, part of it was the breakdown of political organizing (not in the political party sense, beneath that), part of it was what they call the loss of the social fabric.

Nothing really came in to replace those lost reservoirs of value.

Now, in a sense that isn’t just people being boorish but actually indicates a real problem, friends can’t provide much of value, besides ‘entertainment’ (itself a sign of a kind of emptiness, which is why friendships like that can be so easily replaced with movies and television).


Don’t call us. We’ll call you.

In the absence of easily demonstrated value, a language about how to think about friendship has sprung up, an idealistic, pseudo-Christian ethos that stresses principle over practicality (which is why the backhanded insult ‘Platonic’ fits it so well).

We live with a very sharp division between the ‘real world’ – the economic arena, which, despite its downsides, is still the only place to pay for necessities – and a hyper-moral, nonprofit space of ‘everything else,’ including friendship, which is often described in incredibly lofty terms but, without those necessities, is as fragile as a feather.

We need to think about ways to twin these. An economic arrangement that is tempered by friendship quickly becomes much more pleasant (and motivational), just as a friendship with an economic or ‘weight-carrying’ element gets my attention.

Some friendships have years of shared experience to back them up, but many don’t have that luxury. It’s not wrong, to ask what value such a friendship provides; in my experience, friendships with no clear answer tend to wither away.

I used to bounce around volunteer groups that, one by one, lost their members, essentially for that reason; where was the value? If the only answer is idealistic, people will exit – without ill will, without malice, in the nicest possible way, but with a tacit sense of judgement.

You’ve got a throw a bone to their self-interest, and it’s better to address it head-on and find out what you can offer people instead of pretending it’s not important and then being passively wrecked by it.

So now, in my friendships, I do try to ask: where is the value – for them, and for me?

That’s also why I strongly support any kind of local economic organizing, whether it’s a credit association, people joining together to start a business, etc. It’s an attempt to at least answer the question, to at least try to reach out to others and give them something of value.

It’s OK to try and fail. Try anyway. It helps.


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