A Vote for Friendship
As liberal calls on social media for the electoral college to defect further muddled what has been the most bizzare US Election cycle, Poorna Swami goes back to that November day Trump was elected and suggests how the contours of friendship and dialogue in the space of social media need to be redefined.
“I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.”
- From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
On the day of the U.S. Presidential elections, I woke up earlier than usual. It was probably 7:30, the previous evening, on the East Coast. Massachusetts, where I had spent four years as an undergraduate, had just voted for Hilary Clinton. Over Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook chat, and all other forms of social media, my friends in the United States (none of them Trump supporters) rejoiced as another little bit of the map turned blue on our screens. Even as large portions of the map remained red, and Florida balanced on the precipice between red and blue, there was a general spirit of optimism, the hope that Clinton’s strongholds had yet to be counted. My friends raised their wine glasses to my coffee mug from across ten time zones. It was almost like a party—wry Twitter exchanges about boycotting Florida’s orange juice and the timeless Facebook jokes about the colour of Donald Trump’s hair.
But the comedy act would last only so long. Suddenly, my Facebook feed filled with posts of disbelief, disgust, and anger, from friends in the United States. Many friends even called, messaged, emailed, wanting to talk to someone, at someone, as they tried to comprehend what had just happened.
White friends. Friends of colour. White friends with black lovers. Friends who have known the traumas of abortion. Friends who had just learned their grandmothers and neighbours had voted Trump, without ever letting on. Queer friends, trans friends, friends who survived the AIDS crisis, now fearing for their lives. Friends married to immigrants, friends who are immigrants, telling me it was one of the most devastating days of their lives. And friends who grew up in the poorest regions of the United States — their hometowns had voted Trump — they seemed to be the best at holding themselves together, if only just about. One said, “I’m not panicked in the way that I might be if I didn’t remember Bush or growing up in a very traditional and hostile region. But I am very worried about the damage that can be done by this”.
Closer home, Indian friends broadcast on social media how they dreaded the violence Americans will face. It seemed like my virtual world had been hit by a colossal sadness—a collective, global mourning.
As my American friends repeated the refrain of “I just don’t know what will happen”, I struggled to comfort them. Quoting the political realities of Indian riots, and lynchings, and murders, I said, “In spite of it all, we move as a people”. I tried to sound confident. But the truth is, I really did not know what I meant by “we” or “people” or the sense of community for which I grappled. I could not locate the true empathy of my words.
“You’re lucky you escaped before this shit happened”, a friend in New York assured me. And I wanted to say:
“I escaped to the place where, in 2014, just after the election results were announced, my Muslim grandmother told me she was scared for her life. And I, who does not share that Muslim name, I remember being silent, at a complete loss for how to tell someone I love that it would be okay… it was too big a promise to keep. I remember 2014 as a time when friends said, ‘My vote is not about your safety, though, of course, you are my friend. Do not overreact’. And all through this, how many of my American friends even bothered to educate themselves, if not empathise?”
As my American friends now struggle with similar feelings, I do not blame them for not having paid better attention two years ago. Or for not having read the many articles of dissent I had shared. But I wonder, in an age when we are so connected (particularly we in the urban, educated classes), how do we choose to stand by our friends during those big political moments, and maybe even littler ones. When we pledge solidarity on all sorts of social media, what are we really saying? Whom are we calling friends? And what does that friendship look like?
"White friends. Friends of colour. White friends with black lovers. Friends who have known the traumas of abortion. Friends who had just learned their grandmothers and neighbours had voted Trump, without ever letting on. Queer friends, trans friends, friends who survived the AIDS crisis, now fearing for their lives. Friends married to immigrants, friends who are immigrants, telling me it was one of the most devastating days of their lives. "
Of course, you could say that our constructed social media selves hardly matter to how political history unfolds. But we do not need to look hard at that history to know that virtual connections can and do mobilise people, for good and bad. Think, Egypt. Think, Dadri. And, more importantly, if social media is that space where we work through our collective fright for the collapse of the world or distribute the hope we find, it also becomes a space that maps our intentions, our quandaries—indeed, how we move as a people.
The many anti-Trump sentiments that filled my Facebook feed revealed an uncomfortable fact. While I do not know anybody that voted for Trump, I know many that voted for Modi, supposedly for reasons beyond his majoritarian message. “Let’s not talk about this any longer”, friends had said, when I asked them about how they could overlook their friends’ identities, histories, and senses of security as they voted. What bewildered me most, though, was how these friends, who had promoted one man’s hatefulness just two years ago, seemed to publicly condemn another’s now. Is it a matter of distance, I wondered…is it easier to recognise bigotry from far away? Or perhaps it is simply that social media also gives us the possibility of filtering our friendships, of choosing the people and ideologies we see first when we wake up each morning. And it allows us to have different preferences for each place, and trending story, and person.
The politics of friendship, I realised, are highlighted more strongly in social media. It is easier to find the discrepancies between whom we throw in our lot with in our face-to-face interactions and in our digital lives. Social media is where we can add or subtract words, and images, and symbols to create ourselves and the longitudes along which we relate to everyone else. We can even make distinctions between who is a friend in person and a friend in comment threads. And that choice, perhaps, is the most politically charged. Friendship is political. It is a decision, based on multiple rationales, affinities, and circumstances, that makes us call some people friends and others, if not enemies, irrelevant.
"But I wonder, in an age when we are so connected (particularly we in the urban, educated classes), how do we choose to stand by our friends during those big political moments, and maybe even littler ones. When we pledge solidarity on all sorts of social media, what are we really saying? Whom are we calling friends? And what does that friendship look like?"
That is not to say we cannot be friends with people unlike us—if that were the case, we would all live by intolerance. Because friendship is political, it can also be contested from within. To me, that is its beauty—how instead of saying “Let’s not talk about this any longer”, we can get into its messiest, most uncomfortable corners. How we can run at each other with our differences of opinion and, really, just come out with it. I, too, am guilty of many silences.
Although a fabrication, social media allows us the transparency to define our friendships unequivocally. I do not mean a simple friend and unfriend transaction. But, as I see it, social media has become the bulletin board where we announce how we plan to invest our thoughts and efforts to make new friends. Social media also tells us of whom we exclude from our circles of friendship, whose struggles and aspirations we discount in our filtering processes.
In my immediate, supposedly liberal, Indian surroundings, we were all quick to stand behind those protesting Trump and his victory, but we stayed quiet about the hundreds protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Even our news sources mentioned the event only occasionally. And although the DAP protest has been hailed as the largest Native American protest in modern history, we failed to spare the thirty-second status update to ‘Check In at Standing Rock’—that world-wide social media action that claimed to misdirect police in Morton County, North Dakota. I wonder, can we truly be against the potential violence in Trump’s presidency and remain oblivious to DAP action and arrest? (But we are guilty of this often, right here, in our own states—we rarely extend our support, if only virtually, to so many adivasi resistances.)
So what now? As the United States signs petitions to abolish the electoral college, how do we, across the world, maintain our pledges of friendship? Sure, we can share videos of Michael Moore or use the appropriate hashtag when Black Lives Matter asks it of us. We can find the perfect 140 characters to show that we mourn. We can hold virtual hands with those who walk to Trump Tower in midtown New York, and watch their live feeds from out there in the cold.
"Social media is where we can add or subtract words, and images, and symbols to create ourselves and the longitudes along which we relate to everyone else. "
But perhaps we could do more, even as we sit in our pyjamas with our laptops open.
Jacques Derrida, in his “Politics of Friendship”, writes that “to love friendship, it is not enough to know how to bear the other in mourning; one must love the future.” If we are to have a future where empathy runs in two directions, where friendship embraces its full potential for friction, we need to have those difficult conversations. We need to talk about what we believe, how we identify, and who are our allies, even if we change our minds and take back our words—friendship allows us that learning. We need to both reason and scream in combinations of retweets and emojis to show each other how a vote for good domestic healthcare could also mean a vote for horrific foreign policy. This is how we can sit with our wine glasses and coffee mugs and chat, as friends, about the future. Describe what we want from the future. What that future even looks like, and at the expense of whom.