Friday, December 18, 2020

The Sins of One's Friends

A query for my peanut gallery. Consider the following scenarios, all of which involve a potential friendship with someone who it turns out had engaged in conduct you find morally abhorrent (e.g., they embezzled money from a charity -- but you can pick your own example. The point is it's something that you, personally, would find condemnation-worthy and reflective of bad character. As a quick note -- later on in this post, one such example we'll talk about is of a celebrity sexually preying on and grooming young fans). 

Call this "the bad act". Here are some different scenarios for when the bad act happened and when you find out about it:
  1. You meet someone new at a party. They seem like a nice person you'd like to become friends with, so you invite them out for coffee with the intent of striking up a friendship. Later that evening, you find out that this person had, five years ago, done the bad act.
  2. Same as #1, but except instead of the bad act having occurred five years ago, it was committed in the immediate past and was currently in the process of coming to light (with whatever consequences that entails).
  3. You've been friends with someone for several years. They're not necessarily your BFF, but you're pretty close and you like them a lot. You find out, however, that five years before the commencement of your friendship, they had done the bad act. They never had mentioned this part of their history to you.
  4. Same as #3, but here the bad act was committed during the course of your friendship. Again, you had no knowledge of it and your friend had not mentioned it until now.
In which of these scenarios are you most likely to consider yourself a friend of this person one year later?

On the one hand, it stands to reason that one would be more invested in a pre-existing relationship (3 & 4) versus one that hasn't even started yet (1 & 2). Yet one can also imagine more of a feeling of betrayal in that context, whereas for someone you've just met you might be willing to let them explain themselves. The proximity of the wrongdoing seems to touch on whether the person is dodging or at least potentially open to accepting responsibility and accountability. If it's further away, you can say "they're not that person anymore" -- but it might also be the case that they haven't really reckoned with making amends. If the wrong just happened, it may feel more visceral, but there's also more of a direct opportunity to help them make amends and help make whole the people who were hurt at the exact moment where that is likely to be hardest.

On the whole, there are warring impulses here. On the one hand, we do not want to be complicit or indifferent to terrible behavior. To carry on the friendship with a person like that disrespects the victims, it calls into question our own moral code. And on top of that, their conduct hurts us too, even if we are not the primary victim, we are certainly liable to feel wounded or betrayed having been friends with someone under what now perhaps appears to be a false front.

On the other hand, there is the true fact that in some sense a person who has done something terrible is most in need of friends who can support him or her -- not to evade accountability, but to make amends and recompense, and to hopefully rebuild themselves to be better than they were before. If you believe in rehabilitation, you have to believe in the legitimacy of offenders' friends staying friends with the offender and maintaining that relationship -- not blindly so, but genuinely so. I am exceedingly dubious that any sort of rehabilitation or growth can be managed without the continued support of one's personal network; and yet of course the circumstances which demand rehabilitation are those most likely to cause (and justify!) the severing of that network.

Again -- warring impulses.

I've been thinking about this for awhile, sparked in part by a scandal that broke a few months ago at Rooster Teeth (an internet comedy group that I've been a fan of for years now). A popular member of the group, Ryan Haywood, was terminated after it came out that he had been having affairs with teenage fans. There was significant evidence that Haywood was exploiting several power imbalances -- along the dimensions of age (Haywood is 40), celebrity status, and that he was at very least manipulative if not abusive in these relationships -- in order to groom these young women. This was not a "scandal", where someone's consensual extramarital affair or leaked nudes yields tittering and holier-than-thou judging. This was despicable, grotesque, morally abhorrent conduct that has no justification whatsoever. Haywood deserved to be fired, and he deserves all the other consequences falling upon him now in his personal and professional life.

Two of Haywood's (now-ex) coworkers released a video speaking on the situation, and it's a bracing watch. Obviously, I'm not a part of these people's actual lives and the image one gets on cultivated YouTube videos doesn't necessarily reflect "real life." But it really does seem like all the people who were part of this group were genuinely true friends with one another; at the very least they had worked closely together for almost ten years. You can hear the anguish in this video in having to come to terms with someone who they (thought they) knew and who they definitely cared about having done these awful things; as well as guilt in their own role -- however inadvertent -- in being part of the machinery which enabled Haywood's conduct to occur. After all, this was a comedy group; the reason Haywood was a star and a celebrity who had fans he could groom was because of the joint efforts of the entire collective.

To be clear: the coworkers in their video are absolutely unequivocal in condemning Haywood and are explicit that they are by no means the primary victims. But it's also evident that they're in a form of shellshock over the news and are struggling to cope (they mentioned that Rooster Teeth had provided counseling services to its employees in the wake of the incident), and they know others are in a similar position.

From what I can tell, the first they knew of Haywood's bad actions was upon hearing that he was terminated -- it was a total blindside.* I won't claim to be totally plugged into this community, but it does not appear as if this was a case where "rumors" had been burbling for years until finally they became too much for the powers-that-be to ignore. This was not the widely-demanded inevitable conclusion of a scandal that had breached containment. For the most part, Rooster Teeth appears to have initiated the investigation on its own and made the decision to terminate Haywood without there being any significant external pressure on them to do so.

In the above-linked video, one of his former colleagues said the following to fans who were resistant to the idea that Haywood -- someone whom they had admired and laughed with for years -- deserved to be terminated or even were in denial that he had done what he did:
If you haven’t come to terms with [what Haywood did], I understand. I see people in the audience that can’t — I know a lot of people, for years, a lot of people since they were teenagers looked up to him, looked up to us, and they just refuse to believe it. You need to accept it … He is not coming back. He’s gone. I hope he doesn’t come back in any fashion, and we’re never going to talk about him again.

This is, perhaps, the clearest illustration of "cancel culture" operating in an idealized fashion -- actually being about accountability, but being very explicit that this entails fully cutting someone loose ("we're never going to talk about him again."). When they say there's not going to be any retrospective, there's not going to be a reunion, there's not going to be a big conversation about whether he's "done his time" -- that's what this is. And again, it's fully justified in this case. But this case also drove home just how agonizing that process is. It is not the case that severing a relationship with a close friend will ever be easy, no matter what terrible thing they've done. It will never be easy, and I daresay it should never be easy.

* If you're wondering how they could have not known, Haywood apparently made a habit of staying an extra day at the end of conventions and events -- saying that he wanted to spend time in the city or visit friends -- and it was then, after his colleagues had already flown home, that he would meet with his victims.

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