The validity of varying interpretations of friendship: An Oberlin Perspective

For my final research paper, I decided to interview people in the Oberlin community on their different beliefs surrounding the idea of friendship. I decided on this research format for a few key reasons. First, a lot of my work outside the classroom at Oberlin has involved interviewing. For the past two years, I’ve been working with and traveling to a community in Alabama doing research. As a part of this research, I’ve conducted or otherwise assisted and documented twenty plus oral history interviews. This experience has taught about the importance of oral history work and how much of a powerful tool it can be.

I felt that it would also be important to capture the perspectives of people who have not been able to take the class. While I have had the pleasure of spending the whole semester taking time to learn, think, and analyze many different perspectives on friendship most people in the world have not. I think that that’s an important distinction to make. While it’s all well and good for us to have this vast knowledge, I believe that some of the more unique perspectives and thoughts have the potential to be invalidated, or become moot points if most of the world doesn’t know about them or think about friendship in that way. I’ve appreciated the fact that we haven’t constructed a concrete definition of friendship because after a few months of trying to do so I’ve come to the realization that it doesn’t exists. Friendships is what we make it to be which is why it has so much potential but simultaneously is hard to pin down.

For this reason I originally was only going to speak with students who had not taken the course but one person from our class really wanted to do it and I felt that because of that it was important to give them a voice, especially since they have some really profound thoughts on friendship that I was not able to hear as much about in our discussions.

The questions I asked are listed below. I would like to expand upon one of them briefly before I dive into the interviews themselves. I felt that it wa important to include a question about Aristotle since much of our work this semester has been based directly upon his thoughts and chapters on friendship or upon later philosophers reflections and analyses on Aristotle. Because two of the interviewees hadn’t taken the class before I offered a brief summary of one particular area of Aristotle’s ideology. I explained his ideas of the institutionalization of friendship in Greek democracy and his thoughts on the different forms of friendship: sameness, difference, utility, need, and virtue. It felt important to capture people’s initial reactions to these foundational beliefs for our class.

A final disclaimer. I did not record or tape these interviews in any way shape or form. What you see written below is a combination of exact transcription, fragmented transcription, and, in some cases when people were speaking very quickly, a main idea or take away was all I had time to note down. Interpret that as you will as you read through them.

  • What does friendship mean to you? Why is it important?
  • What are the core values or foundation of a good friendship?
  • How has social media affected your social life + friendships?
  • Respond to Aristotle’s values of friendship
  • What role do you think forgiveness plays in friendship?
  • What does the institutionalization of friendship look like to you? Aristotle believed that friendship was fundamental to democracy and that democracy is meant to create grow and facilitate friendship
  • What are the limitations of friendship?

Interview with Jalen

Santiago: What are the core values or foundation of a good friendship?

Jalen: Honesty, Accountability, and Support

Santiago: What does friendship mean to you? Why is it important?

Jalen: What does friendship mean to me, that’s a great question. I think it’s really defined by the bonds you make with other people. It depends on the person. Friendship can look like supporting them or talking to them, or just hanging out True friendship lies between a mutually shared system of support. I think without having friends people would feel isolated and that’s not really healthy or helpful in developing your personhood. I think with having friends you can learn and grow with one another.

Santiago: How has social media affected your social life + friendships?

Jalen: I think now we live in an age of artificiality in which friends are formed. Bonds are formed — Formed isn’t the right word — reinforced through liking and commenting on social media to kind of give you that sense that you are surrounded by people who like you or care for you. I think true friendships lie outside of that and are seen and maintained by you day to day whether that’s through person to person or checking in through various ways through messaging etc.

Santiago: Respond to aristotle’s values and beliefs of friendship.

Jalen: Goes hand in hand with accountability. By having someone who like can both affirm you and also tell you when you’re doing something wrong and produces a more meaningful relationship.

Santiago: What role do you think forgiveness plays in friendship?

Jalen: I think if forgiveness is authentic then it can strengthen a bond but if it’s only for the purpose of easing tension or conflict then it will make the relationship artificial and then crumble.

Santiago: What does the institutionalization of friendship look like to you? Aristotle believed that friendship was fundamental to democracy and that democracy is meant to create grow and facilitate friendship

Jalen: If there are more friendly relationships between between congresspeople I think there will ultimately be better communication and more cohesive resolutions

Santiago: What are the limitations of friendship?

Jalen Not holding people accountable is inauthentic and creates artificial relationship or can’t reach deeply into peoples personhood or ideals. IT becomes a relationship of “hellos” “how are yous” or likes and comments on social media instead of actual meaningful connections.

Reflection

This was my shortest interview and offered some of the more expected responses. Jalen offered the common yet equally valid critique of social media and how it impacts our lives. I was not able to write down all of his thoughts on it but he elaborated more on the ideology behind “liking” and “commenting” on people’s social media and how that is used to measure popularity or a successful social life . After reflecting on Jalen’s thoughts I feel that I can take that a sinister step further. Broaly, social media translates friendship into a system where we can attempt to attach a constantly fluctuating numerical value or rating to the quality or popularity of who we are as people, what we do, and the relationships we form with others. I think, as you can imagine, that this has potentially disastrous consequences especially on our mental health.

Jalen: Before and After telling him he’s my friend and I love him!

Interview with Zite

Santiago: What does friendship mean to you? Why is it important?

Zite: To me, i don’t know if this is the answer, but to me the main goal of friendship is comfort. So i wanna be around people who make me feel comfortable and I want to make sure my friends are never uncomfortable by anything i’m doing in my friendships. As a back person, as a not cis person, as a queer person, i don’t feel comfortable a lot. So I cherish people that i feel comfortable with where I don’t have to put up barriers and I can just be myself

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Santiago: What are the core values or foundation of a good friendship?

Zite: I think that something that is obviously necessary. You have to be similar. You have to have a balance between similarities and differences. You have to be able to learn from each other and teach each other things and grow from the relationship. Proximity is incredibly beneficial to friendship. Being close to each other, spend time with each other If you have friends that are really far away you’re not going through life together. You’re losing out on important experiences that will help you grow. I’m not going to be friends with people who have fundamentally different values than me that affect other people’s lives. Also trust, thats a given, that’s number one. You can’t be friends with someone if you don’t trust them.

Santiago: How has social media affected your social life + friendships?

Zite: I don’t know, I cant speak of it in general. Different platforms have affected my lives and my friends differently. Snapchat has been so good. I can send little random updates throughout the day. I can feel like i’m still in communication with people even though it’s a bit of an illusion. I like the illusion however, it makes me feel good. Instagram, I felt like it didn’t do much for me and my friendships. Instagram did nothing to enhance my relationships with people I care about. All of the photos I posted my real friends already saw. I only saw photos of people i didn’t care about. It was stressful constantly seeing all that.

Santiago: Respond to aristotle’s values of friendship

Zite: I think that it’s kind of unrealistic to say that the only valuable friendship is friendship built on virtue. First of all, how are you going to find out if someone is good unless you have an experience with them that’s pleasurable, isn’t that friendship based on pleasure?. Relationships can evolve and change. A friendship or relationship that starts with utility can evolve into something based on love. Categorizing it invalidates a lot of experiences and peoples situations in a way that doesn’t make sense

Santiago: What role do you think forgiveness plays in friendship?

Zite: I would say that forgiveness is valuable in friendship, as it is in every relationship. People make mistakes and u cant expect to form any real bond if u cant forgive them and let them grow and go through that. I think that like… Well I grew up in a really christian background. Something that jesus says in the bible is that you have to forgive your friends. When someone says these people have been wronging you jesus says you have to forgive them 70 times 7 times. I don’t know the math on that but I think friendship means really having to forgive people and understanding why people do things. Understanding the reason why they did what they did and why you should forgive them. Being able to forget, not the lesson but the memory and the pain of an action.

When you forgive someone it means you’re not going to bring up what the person did in the future, you’re not going to hold it over their head. You’re not going to move forward in a friendship with the expectation that they’re going to do it again or constantly thinking about that it did happen. You have to bring the lesson with you but leave the event itself in the past. If you’ve forgiven someone, what happened doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is your relationship and your intentions moving forward, if you’ve truly moved forward.

Forgiveness is hard, sometimes I think I’ve got it but then I realize that I haven’t or I mess up or realize how much more I have to learn . It’s hard to cultivate meaningful relationships and it takes work. Some things can really end friendships and be so bad that you can’t move forward. Thats real, but looking at it personally, it’s important to forgive for the person themselves so you can move on and form future relationships and not be stuck in the past. ITs extremely hard to do so, I mean I do it somethings. A lot of friends hate each other and have not forgive each other and are still “Friends.”

Santiago: What does the institutionalization of friendship look like to you? Aristotle believed that friendship was fundamental to democracy and that democracy is meant to create grow and facilitate friendship

Zite: I think it’s necessary because like when people think….think of you. For example, IF you had to. Say you only had 50 dollars. If your friend asks you for fifty and stranger asks you for fifty. Who are u going to give to? Your friend. That’s why friendship is important. People are always like “nobody owes me anything” friends do owe each other things, like respect, basic tenets etc.Institutionalization would like..

People in america are socialized.. I’m in a class where were learning about human rights.. Individual human rights I’m a human being so i deserve this this and this. Other countries have internal ideas of duties to themselves and each other. In these duty based communities you still get your basic rights but it’s more about community accountability. In places like america were taught to think about things individuality, “worry about yourself.”

Institutionalization of friendship would look like… For example smart students are fast tracked ahead in education vs the other kids who have a slower track. In this situation institutionalization of friendship looks like not separating students vs on someone perceived intelligence so everyone can come up together and we can teach and learn ourselves and each other. Little things like that so we can foster community instead of doing what’s going to be best for someones own life. The way we talk to each other, the little comments we make. It looks like laws and government..

Santiago: What are the limitations of friendship?

Zite: I think that friendship, the way we conceive it now, has a lot of limitations. Were it to be institutionalized the limitations would be decreased. If we introduced friendships it would be more than just “be nice to each other.” We would be dismantling systems of inequality and individuality. Friendship is used as a way to distract from people getting reparations or justice from whatever it may be. Basically, friendships limitation. Friendship itself is not something that has limitations, we as people have limitations that we put on friendships. If someone is being racists and your like “oh my god lets just be friends” what they mean by that is just forget about it and be nice. That’s a limitation of friendship

Institutionalizing friendship makes people who are Racist HAVE to be accountable for their behavior. You just have to. Friendship in its ideal dismantles oppression and inequality and promotes fairness. You can’t just ignore racism. Just like aristotle said, Friendship is between equals and if were not equals its not friendship.

Reflection

I think I could talk about Zite’s interview for hours. They have some truly incredible and profound thoughts and reflections on friendship. I think that it was vital that I interviewed someone from the class since hearing an academically and philosophically informed perspective on friendship, especially one that has had months to develop has led to some very unexpected answers to the interview questions.  

I would like to highlight the contrast between Zite’s and Jalen’s thoughts on social media. Zite actually went through the different social media platforms and explained how they each impacted their life, positively or negatively, in different ways. I think that it was a really valuable unpacking and also made an important distinction that each platform has different impacts on our lives and on our minds.

Zite’s reflection on forgiveness and the institutionalization of friendship were the most memorable takeaways for me. One of the most powerful statement in their response was that friendship itself has no limitations except for the ones that we put on it as people. I think that’s a really important takeaway especially given the context that zite’s interpretation of the institutionalization of friendship manifests in dismantling structures of racism and inequality, something that I personally agree with wholeheartedly.

Interview with Jane

Santiago: What does friendship mean to you? Why is it important?

Jane: Friendship means work. And its important because its work. It tests your emotional and mental limits. But it’s important because usually you take away so much from friendships and learn more about yourself through that work.

Santiago: What are the core values or foundation of a good friendship?

Jane: Communication, empathy toward one another. Really important in combination. And just things in common

Santiago: How has social media affected your social life + friendships?

Jane: I think that it’s improved my friendships because when I was abroad it was a really great way to keep up with everyone. It’s a nice way to keep in touch we each other over the summer

It’s a good way to keep up with what people are doing so you can reach out and be like how is ____ doing. A good way to feel like people are there even when they’re not physically.

I think social media has made my social life harder. It puts a lot of pressure on me and makes myself feel worse about myself. Puts pressure on myself to form more friendships with certain types of people. Puts unnecessary pressures to make your life seem really great with your friends. IF you don’t post a lot of pictures with friends than it seems like you’re lonely which isn’t true. If you post a lot of pictures with friends than it seems like you’re cool or have a good life. Social media is a way to compensate for something rather than show off what you have

Santiago: Respond to aristotle’s values of friendship

Jane: I would say for the most part I would agree with it. I think a lot of my friendships have formed out of need. Coming to college, friendships being formed out of need is emphasized. That happens a lot. You are told that the friendships in college are the life long ones. You’re also here and alone and you need people to start a life. That’s the americanized college version. In other countries college is just for academics. Here it’s for the “experience”

I find myself cultivating friendships because sometimes I feel isolated or i feel like i need moral and mental support. Sometimes i becomes friends with people who are friends of my friends because it’s easy. Merging your communities with your partner for example.

Moving to a new place makes you have to have more friends. I guess we’re always trying to be our best selves and finding people that are going to make us our best selves

Its hard because how well do u truly know a person? You can find out years later that they are not ethically good. They become a shell of a person because it turns out you didn’t know them at all. IT’s been something i’ve been struggling with. I’s possible to love people even if they’re not virtuous people or friends which makes it really hard because you feel ashamed.

Santiago: What role do you think forgiveness plays in friendship?

Jane: It plays a huge role in friendship. Because I’ve experienced friendships where you can verbally forgive someone but the feeling of forgiveness doesn’t happen. These types of resentments build up over time and can lead to the ending of the friendship. Forgiveness and empathy go hand in hand because you can’t forgive someone without empathy. In my experience, I tend to be a little bit too forgiving and I tend to compromise my own beliefs in order to avoid conflict. It used to be that I used it to be mentally sane in times of instability. Now its a crutch that carries me past conflict without making it go away.

It can be a double edged sword because the need for forgiveness is so prevalent. Forgiveness is a key that unlocks all the tension in people. If you’re not given it the tension doesn’t go away. Power and weight of forgiveness can be quite burdening. I sometimes wish it wasn’t a necessary factor in healthy friendships.

Santiago: What does the institutionalization of friendship look like to you? Aristotle believed that friendship was fundamental to democracy and that democracy is meant to create grow and facilitate friendship

Jane: I don’t think friendship should be institutionalized. I think it’s false that its always a good thing. For some people friendship can be harrowing and difficult. Society can make those people feel stressed. Democratic society says you need friends and if you don’t you’ll feel lonely and be an outcast essentially. I think if you institutionalized friendship it would be dangerous. In media, novels and children’s books friendship is a solution to systemic problems in life. Life without friendship is made to look like communist russia or something. People should feel fine to live a life without being social or having friends.

Santiago: What are the limitations of friendship?

Jane: Friendship makes me feel crazy. I think sometimes it can make me feel really good about myself  or like the worst i’ve ever felt. Makes you lose your sense of reality. You forget how you see yourself in lieu of how you’re seen by the people you have friendships with.

Response

There are two things I would like to highlight about Jane’s interview. First, her reflection on social media was similar in spirit to Zite’s but divided it not into the different social media platforms but into impacts on friendship and impact on social life. It was a distinction that, as I reflect on it now, was implied in the wording and structure of my question but not intended to be made in the response. Jane making this distinction added unanticipated depth to her answer and opens up space for a larger. deeper, and more complicated conversation on digital media and friendship. I feel like I shared the truth of jane’s response before hearing it but was unable to put it into words until she did so.

The second part of her interview I would like to emphasize was where her answers differed from my own thoughts and the other people I interviewed. My question about the institutionalization was structured in a way that did not allow people to disagree with it. I didn’t think about whether or not people would disagree with it or not because the idea made a lot of sense to me. Jane’s disagreement with the idea entirely was unexpected yet an important caveat. Her response contradicts the basis of almost everything we learned in class in a way that I think is incredibly valid and that I haven’t thought of before.

Jane: Before and After me telling her she’s my friend and I love her!!!

This assignment was more than just a final for me. It helped me understand the perspectives of friendship that I never would have been able to by reading books or class discussions. There’s no one definition of friendship. It’s what we make it to be through our own relationships. While my friends might have different answers and thoughts than me on some of these questions we still care about and appreciate each other and that’s not something that can be explained, or analyzed. Friendship isn’t an equation with definable variables that add up to create the same solution again and again. I hope that these interviews will also shed light and give you some food for thought on your own interpretations of friendship!