Michael Kennedy: Staring into the Black Mirror and Re-assessing the Need for Friendship

In the contemporary moment, a significant portion of humanity is facing a deeply personal and paradoxical issue. Despite a globalized world with countless mediums of communication accessible at one’s finger tips, people are feeling lonelier and isolated from others. A 2014 study concluded that common mental disorders- related to mood, anxiety, and substance abuse- are highly prevalent globally, affecting people across all regions of the world.[i] Affecting people across many indicators of difference, scholars are addressing this health crisis as directly related to the post-modern way of thinking and functioning. From an American standpoint, there’s many indicators that the public can relate to a sense of growing alienation and crisis, especially related to technology.

One of the most critically praised shows on television in the last five years has been Black Mirror, a series inspired by the model of The Twilight Zone that creates stories of human’s dependency on fictional technologies and examining the toll it takes on the human psyche or one’s humanity itself. The series won “Best TV Movie/Miniseries” at the 2012 International Emmy Awards and won “Outstanding Television Movie” at the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards for its Episode “San Junipero.”[ii]  One recurring theme in many-if not most- of the episodes is the use of alienation as punishment, either imposed upon the protagonist or resulting from their choices. Viewers not only appreciate the show for its use of plot twist but are attached to the close relation of the dystopian stories to their own reality.

21st century society has shaped our social relations and more critics are criticizing a lack of “genuine” relationships. A set of lyrics from Arcade Fire’s 2013 song “Reflektor” illustrate how humanity is re-evaluating its own relations:

Now, the signals we send, are deflected again
We’re still connected, but are we even friends?
We fell in love when I was nineteen
And I was staring at a screen[iii]

The subject of the song questions the nature of some of their most intimate relationships and whether technological mediums for friendship have shaped or misconstrued their relationships. They question even their most intimate friendship, as the subject questions whether they fell in love with a person or the perception of them. Such questions arise in a period where youth participate in social media. While social media expands the capacity to stay in touch with others, maintain, and build relationships, platforms have introduced new dynamics into the social sphere: appearance plays a larger role when one is represented by a single profile picture, inequity in technologies allow some to be very “active” on social media whereas others cannot, and content posted can be blocked or ignored. Major mediums used for connecting with hundreds of friends have been heavily monetized, selling user’s information to mega-corporations for directed advertising strategies. Even if users’ interactions are innocent, this medium of “friendship” is tainted as its direct goal is to make profit.

The individualistic nature of consumerism and the pressures of capitalism have undoubtedly taken on toll on people’s health and wellbeing. British scholar George Monbiot draws upon trends of social media usage, image modification, and statistics of health and wellness to conclude that contemporary social life is a “post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.”[iv] This war against ourselves isn’t because of Facebook or the internet or the capitalist economy directly, Monbiot agrees with many scholars that the issue is ideological in nature.  He recognizes, “Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”[v] In order to combat the alienation that is plaguing the globe, a solution must be ideological or philosophical, a change in worldview and self-perception. Fortunately, there is a broad base of scholarship that exists attempting to connect the personal and political to a worldview of friendship that can alleviate the pressures of individualism.

 

Scholars such as Horst Hutter recognize that the contemporary experience of alienation and loneliness reflects a historical devaluation of friendship in prominent philosophical and political understandings. They argue that it is not 21st century technology that necessarily spawned these issues but the limitations of current systems of value. John Von Heyking and Richard Avramenko contend that, “It is only in the modern era that friendship has lost its prominence and been relegated to the backbenches of political philosophy. It simply has not been a central concern for political thinkers within the liberal tradition, or any other, in the past five hundred years or so.”[vi]

Friendship has historically played a significant role in philosophy, especially political theory. As Hutter writes, most people don’t know that “Western political speculation finds its origin in a system of thought in which the idea of friendship is the major principle in terms of which political theory and practice are described, explained, and analyzed.” [vii] However, modern nation states have been founded on political philosophies of the 18th century and later, emphasizing self-autonomy as the highest value and casting aside commitment to values of friendship. While these political philosophies have advocated forms of freedom and justice, it is important to criticize all modern political philosophies for their limitations. Von Heyking and Avramenko recognize, “Commentators often observe that the modern era, and liberal democracies in particular, are so committed to liberty and autonomy- that the individual is emphasized to such a degree- that he perforce becomes isolated from other human beings. This is true as well for liberalism’s critics including nationalists, socialists, and romantics who prize ‘the nation,’ ‘the people,’ the universal proletariat, and ‘the state’ as an abstract entity that subsumes individuals and his intermediate relations…”[viii]

Pre-Modern philosophies of friendship are rich in substance on the role and importance of friendship and how it can inform and enrich broader society; these philosophies are by no means incompatible with our current values. In fact, Plato and Aristotle-two of the most highly esteemed philosophers in “western” thinking and ethics-produced scholarship on friendship in their works Lysis and Nicomachean Ethics respectively. Rather than creating a model mode of friendship, these philosophers challenge their readers to question the possibility of a friendship worldview. If Aristotle suggests, “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods,”[ix] how can we make friendship central to life? In the contemporary age, we can still relate to these classic texts and the human experience of their time. Such texts provide the opportunity to re-evaluate our worldview and what philosophies of the past hold true for the present.

Re-examining the role of friendship in philosophy presents the opportunity to re-prioritize friendship as a worldview in a way that can connect the person with the body politic, addressing the human need for companionship as well as re-conceptualizing the body politic as a community of people who deserve and provide friendship and care. George Monbiot summarizes the stakes of this philosophical venture:

 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.”[x]

[i] Zachary Steel, Claire Marnane, Changiz Iranpour, Tien Chey, John W Jackson, Vikram Patel, Derrick Silove; The global prevalence of common mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis 1980–2013, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 43, Issue 2, 1 April 2014, Pages 476–493, Web. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyu038.

[ii] “Black Mirror (2011-) Awards” IMDb. Web. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2085059/awards.

[iii] Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Merge Records/Sonovox Records. 2013.

[iv] George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart” The Guardian, October 12 2016. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/neoliberalism-creating-loneliness-wrenching-society-apart?CMP=fb_gu.

[v] Monbiot.

[vi] John Von Heyking and Richard Avramenko, eds. 2008. Friendship and Politics, Essays in Political Philosophy. Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. Pg. 1.

[vii] Horst Hutter, Politics as Friendship: The Origins of Classical Notions of Politics in the Theory and Practice of Friendship (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1978), 2.

[viii] Von Heyking and Avramenko, Pg. 2.

[ix] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Class.

[x] Monbiot

 

Bibliography:

Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Merge Records/Sonovox Records. 2013.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

“Black Mirror (2011-) Awards” IMDb. Web. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2085059/awards.

George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart” The Guardian, October 12 2016. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/neoliberalism-creating-loneliness-wrenching-society-apart?CMP=fb_gu.

Horst Hutter, Politics as Friendship: The Origins of Classical Notions of Politics in the Theory and Practice of Friendship (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1978).

John Von Heyking and Richard Avramenko, eds. 2008. Friendship and Politics, Essays in Political Philosophy. Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Picture used: Banksy, 2014.