When the Synchroblog admins announced our February topic (cross-gender friendships), I was really excited about it. February is so often given over to romantic love, it’s downright refreshing to see someone discussing non-romantic love just days before Valentine’s Day. And make no mistake: friendship is a unique and special kind of love that’s at least as important as romantic love. That would have been a worthwhile topic all on its own.
But then the US military approved women’s serving in combat roles, and for some reason the Christian blogosphere (at least those sites I follow) started talking about an old essay John Piper wrote basically saying that women shouldn’t serve in the military, not because men are stronger than women physically, bu because they’re hard-wired by God to protect women:
Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.
I’m honestly not sure why this Piper article came up when it did, as it’s five years old and surely conservative Christians have been saying asinine things about gender and combat in the interim, but for whatever reason, once it took center stage you can imagine the kind of response it got. (Jenny Rae Armstrong was particularly brilliant.) On top of that, the latest Forward Thinking prompt asks what we should tell teenagers about sex, so those blogs I read that weren’t rebuking John Piper were almost all responding to that topic. For a while I could barely go a few hours without stumbling across another post about how women and men were really more alike (or not) than we always thought. The Synchroblog topic started to seem almost prescient.
But maybe that connection isn’t immediately clear to everyone. After all, discussing sex is pretty much the opposite of focusing on friendship instead of romance. As for the Pentagon, war and killing is a big jump from love or friendship. If you look behind both of these discussions, though, you see (or at least I see) the same discussion coming up time and time again. How similar are men and women? Do women in general have what it takes to become good soldiers, as much as men do, or should a man “step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her” because “that is what manhood does”? On the sex issue, do we need to have a different conversation with our daughters than we do our son? Does a girl’s “virtue” (meaning her virginity) somehow determine how worthwhile she is in a way different from the way it does for boys? As Libby Anne puts it in her summary of a fascinating new psychology study, “Are men and women from Venus? Or are the sexes really all that different?”
When it comes to friendship, this matters. In fact, for an Aristotelian like myself, very few things matter more. Aristotle takes up the topic of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, specifically books eight and nine, and this discussion is central to my own thoughts on the subject. First, the mandatory hedging: Aristotle here is discussing philia, which Richard Kraut rightly notes covers “a wider range of phenomena than this translation might lead us to expect” – family relationships, for instance, in addition to our philia love of people in our lives we’re drawn to over the course of our lives. But it definitely includes friendships in the modern sense, even if it’s not limited to it, so I think it’s good to look at his discussion.
For Aristotle, there are three kinds of relationships we usually call friendships: relationships of utility, pleasure, and the good. Many women have a utility friendship with their hairdresser. You spend some time talking to her every month and she asks about your life. You may occasionally get advice from her and eventually build up an emotional attachment. But if she stopped cutting hair I’d probably never see her again, and would in time build up the same “friendship” with my new stylist. We are friends because she’s useful to me.
Then there are the friends built around pleasure. I may be good friends with someone because they amuse me, because I like laughing at her jokes or because she gives me a run for my money at MarioKart. And that’s a step up from utility “friendships” because it’s based on the person’s traits rather than their actions. But even so, it’s not true friendship for Aristotle. We moderns might call these people “fair-weather friends” (or, more precisely, people who have this relationship with us we’d call fair-weather friends). Even though there’s something about the person that’s binding us together, it’s their personality and their quirks rather than their true character. We might call both these kinds of people friends, but at some level the label’s not quite accurate.
See, for Aristotle true friendship – friendship built around the good, or around virtue – is all about what we are at a deep level. A true friend loves you for your own sake, not for what you can do or the pleasure I can take from our friendship. This is the person who sticks by you even when you can’t provide those things, when you’re getting over an addiction and railing at everyone in sight or when your mum dies and you can’t do anything but lay in bed. These friendships recognize our value and want to be around us even when that value isn’t getting played out in a way that’s pleasant or useful in that moment. These are the kinds of friendships that last.
All of this seems good, but a little disjointed from the question of whether men and women can truly be friends. What you have to realize, though, is that true friendships are built on a kind of equality, and more than that, a kind of similarity. For example, just sitting here I can’t help thinking of several wise people I consider true friends. Some of these friendships are deep and have been cultivated over years; others are just beginning. Tanaqui, Dwim, and Juno from the Tolkien fandom all spring to mind, as do my CTF froods Ellen and Lindy and Edwise, and my recent friends I’ve discovered discussing religion and politics on FaceBook like Lance and Brian. These people are as different from each other (and from me) as night and day, but in each of them I see something worthy of respect. More than that, I see something I could have – something I could hope for. I want Lindy’s peace, Ellen’s sense of perspective, Dwim’s passion for justice, Tanaqui’s devotion and reliability, Juno’s perseverance, Edwise’s careful commitment to respect and truth, Lance’s open-mindedness, Brian’s ability to truly hear other people. I hope there’s something about me that they want for themselves, too. This respect partnered with the move to grow closer together is, I think, at the heart of true friendship. I can go years without speaking to these people, but when I think of them, when I talk to them – that bond is still there.
Now, let’s assume (heaven forfend) that John Piper is right. Let’s assume that men are simply hard-wired, divinely ordered in a way that makes them naturally want to sacrifice themselves to protect others. And let’s assume that’s something women simply can’t share. Then, in this regard at least, men and women can’t be equal. I may respect a man’s good traits, but I can never hope to have them within myself, so I will never grow toward that person the same way Aristotle’s true friendship requires. And let’s say a woman’s chief virtue lies in her nurturing capacities but this is something her husband simply doesn’t share. A woman can admire her husband’s virtue but she can’t go after it herself. The same for the neighbor or the schoolmate she might have been friends with otherwise. If they are truly moving on different tracks, if they can never become more like each other and that be a good thing, true friendship is impossible.
I’m not sure I can put this any better than Margaret Atwood did. In her book The Handmaid’s Tale she gives us a dystopian future not unlike the one John Piper envisions: where men and women carry out their respective tasks in their respective spheres. At the heart of the book is a handmaid a woman employed (if you can call it that; slavery is more like it) to help the elderly, barren, ruling class procreate. Once a month, when she’s fertile, she lays on her mistress’s knee, pushes up her skirt, and is penetrated by the husband. It’s emotionless, in the ideal at least. But this one handmaid begins having an affair with the husband in private. They have sex, sometimes, but they also do old-married things like play scrabble and read magazines together. Forbidden magazines – women aren’t allowed to read, and the magazines are banned in any case – but on some level, the husband is hungry for a connection. And he can’t find that with his wife, because he now has nothing in common with her. Not in the sense of having grown apart, but in the sense of just not having the kind of nature, the kind of life, that at all intersects with her. This all comes out in one of the novel’s most underrated scenes:
But why show [the magazine] to me? I said, and then felt stupid. What would he possibly say? That he was amusing himself, at my expense? For he must have known how painful it was to me, to be reminded of the former time.
I wasn’t prepared for what he actually did say. Who else could I show it to? he said, and there it was again, that sadness.
Should I go further? I thought. I didn’t want to push him, too far, too fast. I knew I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about your Wife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. She wouldn’t understand. Anyway, she won’t talk to me much any more. We don’t seem to have much in common, these days.
So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn’t understand him.
That’s what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true.
At some level, I thin, the Handmaid is wrong. It’s not that this particular husband and wife have grown apart and that she no longer understands him. Rather, the wife can’t understand the husband because their lives and the way they are told they are supposed to be simply have too big a divide. There is no bridge and no way for them to grow toward each other. They can’t appreciate the virtue in each other in the way true friendship requires, because there’s no hope of becoming like each other.
Marriage in the best of cases is built on friendship. I know from my own life that it’s possible outside of marriage, too. (My own list of friends is remarkably female-filled, and this is a new thing if you look at my life; I almost always had mostly guy friends.) But it requires seeing ourselves in other people, and seeing in them something we would want for ourselves. In a world like Margaret Atwood’s or John Piper’s, where men and women really and truly are so separate from each other they’re almost like two different species, that’s just not possible.
Aristotle was right: friendship is two bodies joined by a single soul. Luckily, when I look at the men I count as friends, I see that shared core that makes me love them for the good inside of them. And sharing, as they say, is caring.
This blog was written as part of the Synchroblog challenge. If you’re interested in this topic and have the time, please check out what my fellow bloggers had to say about cross-gender friendships.
- Chris Jefferies – Best of both
- Jeremy Myers – Are Cross-Gender Friendships Possible
- Lynne Tait – Little Boxes
- Dan Brennan – Cross-Gender Friendship: Jesus and the Post-Romantic Age
- Glenn Hager – Sluts and Horndogs
- Jennifer Ellen – A Different Kind of Valentine
- Alise Wright - What I get from my cross-gender friend
- Paul Sims – Navigating the murky water of cross-gender friendships
- Jonalyn Fincher – Why I Don’t Give out Sex like Gold Star Stickers
- Amy Martin – Friendship: The most powerful force against patriarchy, sexism, and other misunderstands about people who happen to not be us, in this case, between men & womenFriendship: The most powerful force against patriarchy, sexism, and other misunderstandings about people who happen to not be us, in this case, between men & women
- M K Anderson - Myth and Reality: Cross-Gender Friendships
- Bram Cools - Nothing More Natural Than Cross-Gender Friendships?
- Hugo Schwyzer – Feelings Aren’t Facts: Living Out Friendship Between Men and Women
- Marta Layton – True Friendship: Two Bodies, One Soul
- Kathy Escobar – The Road To Equality Is Paved With Friendship
Also, I think of this post as the first part of a two-part series. I’ll be building on this Aristotelian picture to talk about sexual ethics and homophobia for the Think Progress challenge. I hope to get that posted later this week. So I hope you’ll check back for that, too.