I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but you shouldn’t publicly defend your shitty friends.
Look, I understand the temptation. The suggestion that we may not know our friends as well as we think we do is terrifying. As much as we understand that other people are complex and unknowable mysteries, we want to believe we have a direct line to their true selves. Without this belief it would be impossible to trust anyone at all. And so we use our interactions with a person as a rubric for how they must behave with others; our relationships are the most immediate and useful data we have. When we have a great deal of this data—say, childhood camping trips or late-night conversations about our greatest fears—we feel confident that we know this person’s essence. We know what they dream about, and we know what they’re capable of. When we layer in the biographical details, how prestigious their job is, how loving they are to their mother, we feel confident in describing them as good. We know them. This person is our friend and they have never been anything but kind to us.
An attack on a friend’s character feels like an attack on oneself. We are associated with them and so their tarnished reputation may impact ours. But more than that, the assertion that this person isn’t the good person we believed them to be is a threat to our conception of the world. If we are wrong about them, we could be wrong about everything. Those late-night conversations that were so precious to us run the risk of seeming fraudulent and embarrassing, even unsafe. We recommended this person for jobs, we invited them to our parties, we set them up with our friends. They got out of bed to jump-start our car in the middle of the night when we left the overhead light on. There is so much good in them! Defending our friends is self-preservation, born from loyalty and the ugly fear that we are mistaken.
The fact is someone can be a wonderful friend to us and a shitty person to someone else. Even the kindest people have bad days. They misspeak and lash out; they have blind spots and raw nerves. Humans are not consistent and predictable; we behave in contradictory ways that are strange even to ourselves. Our shorthand evaluation of someone’s character doesn’t account for the human fuckups that embarrass and baffle us. Our friend’s flippant joke to a female colleague is hurtful even if there was no intentional malice behind it.
More confusingly, people can be kind to us and cruel to others, especially when they do not look or sound or believe like us. There is no hard and fast rule that if someone is good to us, they are good to everyone in just the same way. Our friend’s flippant joke to a female colleague may carry a dark edge of misogynist disdain even if he helped our son get into his dream school. Our friend might dehumanize and assault a girl at some party even if he has always been a perfect gentleman with us.
When we rush to defend our friends from an accusation, we believe we are being helpful. This is what loyalty is, we assure ourselves. We are the character witness, we know them better, and we know this cannot possibly be true. But our data is not useful—our friendship with this person has nothing to do with their interaction with someone else. We’re being selfish. By rejecting this new information, we protect our understanding of the accused at the expense of someone else’s lived experience. We are yelling in an already noisy room, adding more confusion and more tension as we drown out this stranger trying their best against all odds to speak.
It’s a short trip from offering evidence of someone’s character to inventing evidence of the accuser’s nefarious intentions. They must have something to gain from this smear, some secret agenda. Attention, or money, or a twisted desire to take a good person down. How else could they be so wrong about someone we know so well? The scripts are readily available: what a terrible thing it is to mar the name of such a promising young man. What a shame. It is easier to reject wholesale any information that conflicts with our reality than it is to grapple with a disturbing truth. We make others into liars lest we make liars of ourselves. Another life ruined by a false accusation.
The irony is that many of us swear up and down that we believe survivors right up until they’re talking about our friend. The part of us that knows better—the part of us that votes Democrat and donates to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and calls for better HR in our offices—that part of us short-circuits. Our loyalty and outrage override what we know to be true: false accusations are rare, victims have nothing to gain from speaking up, intention has nothing to do with impact. Then we cling to our values like they’re proof that we’re right and the victim is wrong. We’re not a rape-apologist, we’re allies! It’s just in this case there’s more to the story.
But there isn’t more to the story. This story has nothing to do with us. By inserting our voice, we go from irrelevant to a useful idiot giving cover to someone who has caused pain. No matter how confused we are, or how scared we are for our friend, or how much anguish we experience trying to reconcile our version of our friend with this disturbing new information, it’s not about us.
At the end of the day, the best way for us to help our friend and their victim is to react in private. We can grieve our feelings of betrayal offline. We can process our shock with people we trust. If we must support our friend, we can do so directly and quietly. Maybe in time we will discover that we were right, that it was all a big misunderstanding and our friend is still a flawless Boy Scout with rotten luck. But if the opposite is true, which is far more likely, we cannot take back the things we say and the pain we cause when we react loudly and impulsively in public.
It hurts to question if our friend is truly the person we thought they were. It can hurt like a death. When the accused is a lover or a mentor or a family member, that hurt is multiplied by shame and fear. But our feelings aren’t more important than anyone else’s feelings, and our feelings are not facts. There are no easy answers or options other than to live with our discomfort and powerlessness.
Take a deep breath. Keep your eyes open. Delete Twitter from your phone. Nothing about this will make sense for quite some time. But one detail is already true: this isn’t about you.
Recommended reading: Disrupting the Bystander, When #metoo Happens Among Friends