The politics of friendship: expectations and self-reflection in times of conciliation

By Doctoral Candidate, Angelique Stastny, The University of Melbourne

Narratives of friendship have been inherent to political practices and diplomacy. Friendship and its opposite – enmity – translate in politics as consensus and conflict, and together they have drawn the physical and imagined contours of societies and nations. The politics of friendship and colonialism, for instance, have often worked together, the former being a commonly-used tool by European nations to legitimize colonisation as well as to comprehend, contain, and subjugate colonised populations. The politics of friendship was a way of locating colonised people, first portrayed as strange and unfamiliar, on the colonial axis of power: from allies, unwilling friends, to enemies. These narratives constructed spaces of inclusion and exclusion and created colonial geographies where space was constructed around the binaries of Self/Other, Domesticated/Strange, and Friend/Foe.

Image:  Mr Murray Walker (Designer) & William Barak (Artist) & Tommy McRae (Artist) & Victorian Tapestry Workshop (Maker) 1832, Tapestry - & Now Exploration & Settlement Are Underway, Victorian Tapestry Workshop, 2001. Courtesy of Museum Victoria.
Image: Mr Murray Walker (Designer) & William Barak (Artist) & Tommy McRae (Artist) & Victorian Tapestry Workshop (Maker) 1832, Tapestry – & Now Exploration & Settlement Are Underway, Victorian Tapestry Workshop, 2001. Courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Early colonial school textbooks in Australia reveal that this politics of friendship reflected a Eurocentric notion of social relations and conciliation, within which colonised people were expected to accept, and adopt, the values of the Europe-inherited colonial cultures. European settlers were often portrayed of friendly character and goodwill, and promoted and nurtured friendly relationships with colonised populations. This politics of friendship aimed to contain colonised people and were defined according to European values and attitudes. Such representations of friendship precluded any possibility of foreignness. It beheld assimilatory values and was a political strategy to contain and comprehend the perceived “strangeness”, the incommensurable, by making it commensurable. The colonial politics of friendship was therefore alike “space-making” rather than peace-making/keeping. This space-making consisted in the creation of a desired homogenous community (through inclusion and exclusion) and the concomitant erasure of its perceived vulnerability. This space-making moment – when the colonised “Other” was ascribed the category of either unwilling or compliant friend – was a staged moment of failed or successful friendship, and in all cases an early moment of nation-making. George Sutherland’s textbook Easy stories for Australian children: A junior reader of Australian history correlated with geography published around the time of Federation is, in that sense, most emblematic of these narratives and politics.

The politics of friendship was represented as an emotional drive that brought together individuals and worked in favour of conciliation and the creation or refashioning of nations around colonial European ideals. This politics of friendship was based on the projection of the European Self onto the “Other”, and on the “Other’s” capacity to sustain this self-reflection, rather than on mutual understanding across diversity.

Today, at a time when several societies around the world attempt to grapple with these colonial pasts towards post-colonial futures, and engage in renewed processes of conciliation, the politics of friendship, and the meaning given to this friendship, is a fine line between entrenched self-projection and mutual understanding.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Joachim Rücker, President of the Human Rights Council. 23 April 2015.

Every year, 30 July is the International Day of Friendship; a day during which the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon encourages to promote ‘international understanding and respect for diversity’ and to ‘cultivate warm ties that strengthen our common humanity and promote the well-being of the human family.’ His words encapsulate notions of difference, respect and equality in diversity. Yet, only a few days apart, on 9 August, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples reminds us that this call for friendship is made in a context of cultural diversity but also of a continuing, global structural disparity born out of European colonialisms. Friendship, a relationship of equals, can exist between individuals within, and despite, this overarching structural disparity but it may take more than benevolence and compassion. It calls for an individual critical reflection on one’s social position and social imagination that transcends unequal power relations. Friendship thereupon moves away from being an emotional drive to being the possible emotional outcome – to be cherished – of an effort of self-critique and mutual understanding.

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