What Happened to True Friendship?

In January, 1998, I was in Washington working with a team recruited by the White House to design a dialogue guide for the President’s One America initiative on race when the media erupted over Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. There was gloom in the room and groans of, “There goes all our work down the tubes.” No question, the initiative as a whole – along with much of the Administration’s work – suffered hugely from this distraction. It cost the country dearly.

I thought of this again in the wake of Dominique Strauss-Khan’s arrest on charges of attempted rape of a New York hotel housekeeper and the admission by Arnold S

chwarzenegger that he had fathered a child with a member of the family’s household staff. Both men, like Clinton, were known as womanizers.


chwarzenegger was described in some reports as a serial groper and Strauss-Khan had a notorious reputation as a seducer. 

My question is this: Why did no-one hold these men accountable? Why did those around them enable these destructive patterns of behavior to continue?

In the aftermath of every scandal, psychologists and behavioral experts fill the airwaves. But where was the friend who might have said: “You need to stop this.”? Or, “This is a really bad idea.”? I often reflect on this when public figures – whether a Tiger Woods or a John Edwards – are embroiled in situations where personal lifestyles have fatally damaged brilliant careers and caused untold pain to families.

Because of the pressures they live under and the intoxication of power and popularity, public figures in particular need friends who are not afraid to confront them with uncomfortable facts. But all of us in ordinary life need people around us who will hold us accountable. Yet in many situations where a dose of common sense might have saved a marriage or prevented a dishonest and ultimately disastrous financial transaction, we have delegated moral authority to professionals. It used to be that friends would offer simple home truths. Now we defer to counselors, therapists, or life coaches. 

Of course, there are many times when professional help is essential. But have we become too hesitant to challenge one another? Is our desire to be liked stronger than our care for those whose approval we crave? Perhaps, most importantly, do we fear being seen as judgmental in a culture where relative morality is the accepted norm? 

Paradoxically, in recent decades, as Rushworth Kidder writes, “as moral relativism grew in strength, so too did a countervailing social consciousness,” a desire for universal values: for human rights, for rights of women, and codes to stop corruption. Relativism is therefore in conflict with widely acknowledged social values of respect, quality, and honesty.*

Tolerance has become a preeminent value of our age; and thankfully we are moving beyond many prejudices of the past. But a true friend is also a truth teller. Cicero wrote that a friend must have “the courage to give advice with candor,” and the relationship demands “frankness without which friendship is an empty name.” 

A true friend calls it like it is.  As a song goes, “He looks right through you and he loves you just the same.” Do we need more honest conversations on friendship and accountability? I look forward to comments from readers. 

*Rushworth Kidder, “Rape, Relativism, and Respect: Duke University’s Dilemma.” Ethics Newsline, newsletter for Institute for Global Ethics, 10 April 2006.

1 comment

  1. Joanna McAbee

    Yes, such a friend is a rare treasure. But when you find one, so much power is poured into your life to rocket you along your path that one is really all you need. Thank you God that my path crossed with a truth-telling person who became my friend.

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