On friendships in a global world

The rise of China, the rise of Asia, call for new personal and collective histories. In that effort, writers have a major role to play. We speak about ‘bringing cultures together’, but this expression is incredibly vague. Who’s ever interacted directly with a ‘culture’? No, we read books, listen to music, look at various artefacts, navigate foreign cities, and engage with individuals. So, the better way to phrase it would be, we must create conditions where friendships can be formed between people who do not belong to the same culture.

Friendship might begin out of pleasure or utility: that’s Aristotle. It grows as we come to appreciate the character of the other person. Friends come together because of shared activities: it is the foundation of cultural and economic activities. Friendship holds a city together. It is also the fabric of our ethical lives, and our political existence. But it goes beyond the boundaries of a city, those close networks of regular physical encounter. It exists also between cities, supporting trade, nurtured by a network of diplomats and merchants who know each other, trust each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Who share something together: that very network, that very connection between their main place of residence, and the communities that live there.

As the world becomes more global, that network is becoming broader and broader. We need new ways for the people belonging to those different worlds to come together.

Here is the crux: friendship exists on the basis of a shared virtue framework, anchored in common practices, and common judgements of what is good or bad – or shared criteria to assess it. How can friendship begin, and grow, between people who do not share this common framework, or a common vocabulary? That is the difficulty, but flip it around, and you find opportunity.  Friendship is political at heart, and therefore building new friendships is – genuinely – the way to change political structures. For with it comes a new vocabulary, a new understanding of virtue, new norms – and new collectives. Friendship is the most potent political antidote to tyranny – the Greeks knew that very well. As did the French revolutionaries, who proposed to list not only family relationships, but friendships on their registry, and declared ‘who has no friend shall be banished from the Republic’.

The root of society, this is what I propose here, is not family but friendship. Connection between families. Like a web. So, when studying abroad, when travelling, the injunction to ‘make friends with locals’ is not benign. This is how radical change might come about.

This network of friendship is, in turn, an ecosystem for trust. It is a way to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma: tragedies of the common have this element in common, that people fail to collaborate effectively, maximise their own interest at the expense of others. Not so with friends, we work together to find balance. Climate change, ecosystem collapse: a proper understanding of friendship – could – help us find a way forward. Because we need to build new collectives, united by new shared understandings of what is good, and communicating this through new language. And then, as we face a period of fast change, we will need the warm emotional support of friendship, simply to get through.

The proposal then is – could we build a friendship school for the 21st century? What would this look like? Please share ideas in comments, or reach out if you’d like to discuss!