So Ellen DeGeneres, a beloved pioneer of queer visibility in the media, has shady friends. At least one that we know of: former American president George W. Bush, a conservative politician who was in office during the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and subsequently waged wars in West Asia, thus creating a poor human rights record – something he shares with many who have held positions of power. The revelation that she had hung out with him at a recent sports match disappointed so many of her fans that she felt compelled to respond to the outrage. DeGeneres said, “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
Here’s the thing – most of us have shady associates. DeGeneres’ capital and cultural weight mean she mingles in circles which wield power; all of us mingle in circles which confer and reinforce that power through votes, purchases, retweets and other personal choices. Power isn’t the only factor – cruelty happens in myriad, sometimes little, ways. We maintain rapports with people whom we’d abhor if we knew only their actions and opinions, but not them. We have trauma bonds, pragmatic enmeshments or happy memories with some; we can’t stand our loneliness without a few; and sometimes there’s a love that trumps all. The ugly truth in all cases is that the harm they do doesn’t affect us deeply enough.
DeGeneres was wrong to conflate this special consideration with goodness. To say that having friendships with people who wittingly create harm for others shows kindness is deliberate obfuscation. Such friendships may be convenient, unusual, meaningful, uncomfortable, symbiotic, resolved, or more. But not kind. Being kind to a malicious individual annuls kindness as a way of being. A friendship is not an act of charity, so the argument that we can be altruistic to someone who did past damage but is now in severe need isn’t relevant.
In the TV series The Good Place, a demon conducts an afterlife experiment on four condemned humans, creating a version of heaven that proves playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s line, “Hell is other people”. In the latest season, the now-reformed demon is determined to fix the system. He visits a living human who – having received knowledge about the afterlife’s workings while on psychedelics – is committed to as wholesome and unhurtful a life as possible. The demon discovers that this hermit is a profoundly broken person, obsessed with what we could call his karmic footprint. He doesn’t do anything good or useful. He’s too busy avoiding doing bad.
Like a carbon footprint, a karmic footprint too is an inescapable fact of the human condition. While we can control to some extent the pain we personally cause, we (sometimes subconsciously) justify our loved ones’ actions so as to justify our relationships with them. Doing so isn’t kindness. It’s merely compromise. The least we can do is hold this self-awareness as we try harder to keep our own hands clean.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 17th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.