‘Friend or Foe’ is perhaps one of the most deliciously odd advice columns I read; the basic premise is that people having sticky questions with interpersonal relationships write in for advice. As the name of the column implies, it tends to be pretty blunt with the advice and the dividing people into one of two categories. Recently, a column ran from a reader asking what to do about terminating a friendship with a bigoted ‘friend’ (note: The column discusses suicide, depression, and mental health):
Dear Friend or Foe,
My friend “Rhonda” has always been a bit of a bigot, sneering in an offhand way at Muslims, Christians, Jews, gays, Americans, French people, Spanish people, doctors—really, nobody gets off. At the beginning of our 10-year friendship, this bothered me a lot. But I learned to ignore it, as the comments were infrequent and because she has many other fine qualities. Recently, we were talking about a public figure who struggled with depression and eventually killed himself. And Rhonda said how “stupid” the man had been to trust his doctors and the medication they gave him and questioned how such a “genius” could do such a thing. It really bothered me.
I’ve had my own problems with depression—I grew up in an abusive, violent home—but with the help of a great therapist and medication my life is turning around. I told Rhonda how hurtful her words were and how they reinforced the stigma associated with mental health care. “We’re not talking about you,” said Rhonda. “[The public figure] was a genius and should have known better.” I felt like slapping her. She started crying and accused me of not wanting to be her friend anymore. After protesting for a while, I said, “You’re right, I think it’s best if we don’t speak.” We haven’t spoken since.
Frankly, I’m relieved, as well as happy to be free of Rhonda’s “opinions.” Rhonda was also domineering and critical about what I wore and ate and what music I listened to. However, I do feel a modicum of guilt. Other friends have suggested I was too harsh. Rhonda is professionally successful, but her personal life has turned messy. She recently separated from her husband and began an affair with a married student. Plus, the economy has hurt her business. Was I too harsh in cutting her off?
Apparently Not a Genius
I confess, this letter kind of puzzled me. Generally speaking, when people toss off hateful and bigoted comments around me, I don’t make a point of befriending them, let alone staying friends for 10 years. As many ‘fine qualities’ as someone has, it’s hard to overlook them if the person is constantly trashing on entire groups of people. Or even not so constantly. My tolerance threshold for that sort of thing is very, very low. The inclusion of random personal details at the end of a letter is a nice touch, too; like, how is it really relevant that Rhonda separated from her husband?
What’s interesting about this letter is that the turning point for the letter writer was when the bigotry started to directly reference the letter writer’s life and experiences, and I think that’s a pattern you’ll see generally in the world. People are reluctant to take action to cut bigots out of their lives ‘really, she’s ok except for the whole hating Black people thing,’ as long as the bigotry doesn’t personally hurt them. Then, suddenly, it’s a problem. In this case, after years of not piping up when the friend said nasty things about people, the letter writer decided that, perhaps, it was time to fight back when a bigoted comment about mental illness was made.
Was the letter writer too harsh in cutting the friend off? Friend or Foe says no:
Whether or not Rhonda is having a hard time, you answer your own question by admitting that you feel relieved to be done with her. The basis of friendship is companionship. If you don’t enjoy spending time with the woman—and find her bossy and obnoxious—there’s no good reason why you should try to make up. Whether or not her comments are offensive and deserving of excommunication is another matter. You don’t cite specific comments she’s made about the various named religious and ethnic groups—I admit I’m curious as the bent of her anti-French smear (“you know those frogs and their love of wine and cheese”?)—but the fact that you’ve even noticed a pattern here sets off certain alarms.
As for the cited dig at docs, it sounds as if you’re oversensitive on the topic—if for good reason. I’m glad to hear that you’ve had such a positive experience in therapy and with pharmaceuticals. But it sounds as if Rhonda might have a complicated history here as well. Why else would she be blaming a stranger’s suicide on his doctors, as opposed to his depression? In any case, given the mess she’s currently making of her personal life, this might be the time for her to find out more about the mental-health profession for herself. I’d leave it to someone else to make the referral, however.
Friend or Foe
I agree that the letter writer wasn’t too harsh, but for different reasons. Personally, I think there’s nothing ‘harsh’ about telling bigots they don’t have a place in my life, and I’m perfectly happy to tell them exactly why, too. The only question I’d have for the letter writer is why the bigotry didn’t matter until suddenly it was personal. I don’t think anyone is obliged to stay friends with people who are ‘nice, but bigoted,’ or ‘nice, but kinda judgmental and bossy.’
Given how we’re all trained to make nicey nicey with people, it’s not surprising that the letter writer felt guilt and wrote in to ask for reassurance, but didn’t really get it here. Sure, it was suggested that the writer shouldn’t feel too badly about not wanting the companionship of someone uncompanionable, but why not just go ahead and say ‘yes, it’s ok to stop being friends with someone on the grounds of bigotry?’
And what’s with the ‘oversensitive’ comment and armchair psychology. Really, Friend or Foe? Just had to throw that in there? A ‘messy’ personal life is evidence of a Dark Past, and there are absolutely no contributing social attitudes behind the comments made about depression, ‘intelligence,’ and the medical profession?