Meet the Infrels: A Thought Experiment
Think about people who have no friends.
Imagine that there are many reasons why they have no friends. Some might be very shy or simply lacking in social skills. Some might live in places or move in circles where they just don’t get to meet potential friends. Some might simply be unpleasant to the point where people don’t want to be their friend.
Naturally we’d feel sympathy: loneliness is terrible, and a life without friends is missing something that, for most people (but perhaps not everyone) is very important.
Imagine if, in some of the more obscure pockets of the internet, people without friends began to interact with each other. They compare and commiserate over their suffering and start to thematize their plight. They build an identity for themselves: they are the ‘involuntarily friendless,’ or, for brevity, ‘infrels.’
The most efficient solution to their situation would be for infrels to simply befriend other infrels. But imagine that, through a cruel twist of fate, infrels aren’t the sort of friends infrels are looking for.
Imagine infrels notice that friendship isn’t evenly distributed across the population. Some people seem to have all the friends, while others are perpetually friendless. To explain this distribution, they decide there must be a ‘friendship market,’ and that they are unjustly shut out of this market; from the viewpoint of the friendship market, they are ‘low-status males.’
Oh, did I not mention that part? Imagine that infrels are pretty much all men, in one of those stunning random coincidences that nobody can explain. There are plenty of women who don’t have friends, but curiously, they don’t identify as infrels.
Imagine infrels weren’t the first to notice that friendship is unevenly distributed. Imagine that sociologists, economists, and psychologists had often studied the social dynamics of how friendships form. But imagine that for infrels, this isn’t simply a theoretical problem, but a practical, even existential one. They want to ‘get’ a friend, and they blame others for their inability to do so.
Imagine that, within their networks, infrels become increasingly angry and resentful. They rail against stereotypical figures they call ‘Todds,’ who have more friends than they need, and ‘Sallys,’ who — in their view — befriend Todds too eagerly. There are, after all, practical limits on how many close friends you can have — so surely the Todds are soaking up all the available friends, and the Sallys are cruelly enabling them? For some reason they don’t seem to expect the Todds to give up having lots of friends, but they do blame the Sallys for befriending them.
Imagine that one of their high-profile supporters thinks the answer is enforced best-friending, so that there are friends left over for low-status males, even though he also argues that hierarchies are morally desirable because lobsters are — no, wait, scratch that part. Nobody would believe that.
Imagine there are also professionals who will be friendly with you for a fee. Call them ‘friend workers.’ Friend work is controversial: some people think acting in a friendly way to others for money is demeaning, while others think this is simply another way of selling labour. Imagine some people say infrels should just hire friend workers if their unmet friendship needs are so great.
But imagine that infrels don’t want that: they want a friend, but they don’t want to have to pay for a friend (even though they also think that everyone pays for friendship in some way). If the Todds don’t have to pay for friends, why should they?
In that, perhaps, infrels might have a point, just not the one they think they do. If infrels went to friend workers, they’d be getting to do some of the fun things friends do with each other, and for some people that might well be more than enough. A fun,vno-strings-attached chat now and then might even be preferable for some people.
But that’s not the same thing as friendship. Friendship isn’t bought and sold on a market. Friendship isn’t owed, isn’t earned, isn’t a reward for effort or a standing entitlement we can claim from others. Friendship is, in an important sense, always gratuitous. It just happens, or it doesn’t. It is bad to be without friendship, but it’s not something you can force, let alone demand.
Of course, there are certain qualities we value in a friend. Yet ultimately, every friendship is a unique relation, born of the event of encounter between two persons. Hence, friendship isn’t something that can be redistributed, because if we tried, what we’d be distributing would not be real friendship but a mere simulacrum. By turning friendship into a commodity — something fungible, tradeable, market-appraisable — we’d be converting the most personal, joyously spontaneous thing about ourselves into something impersonal. We’d be destroying what friendship really is.
Imagine that infrels don’t care about any of that. They want a friend and they resent the Sallys for not friending them. Imagine some of them start outlining elaborate fantasies about redistributing friendship. Imagine those plans amount to the Sallys surrendering control over their friendliness. Imagine infrels don’t seem to care about the Sallys’ autonomy at all, so long as they get what they want. Imagine this all starts to look like it’s less about friendship and more about people who can’t accept that Sallys get to decide for themselves who they will and won’t befriend.