Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Trust and the Meaning of Words and Names

One of the greatest obstacles to friendship in an era of increased isolation and nationalistic protectionism is that the boxes we make for ourselves and others keep us segregated.  These boxes are not material things, but are made from words and definitions, from slogans and redefinitions, the most potent weapons of politicians and entrepreneurs.  Both aim to sway the most people with the fewest, most powerful words.  Take, for example, the word “freedom.”  In his Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism,  Todd May quotes Milton Friedman’s “classic defense” of his neoliberal economic theories, put ever-wideningly into practice over the past forty years: “freedom in economic arrangements is an end in itself [and] an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.”  Here “freedom” becomes a catchword in multiple senses, in that it catches many desirable ideas efficiently and in that it catches its audience in a bind, which is, as May elaborates, “If we hold freedom to value, then we have reason to embrace neoliberalism.”1  As May will point out later in his book, the neoliberal market place thrives on consumer feelings of obligation and guilt—how could I not have snatched up that “Buy one, get one free” deal?—and what could sound more immediately and obligatingly American than freedom?  Friedman’s defense almost relies on a gut reaction which says, How could I, an American, be against freedom?  Yet, despite this ideal association with neoliberalism, May’s deeper exploration shows that “freedom” is a misleading word to attach to the neoliberal economy.

As he gets into characterizing “The Figures of Neoliberalism: Consumer and Entrepreneur,” May frames neoliberal economics as an inherently untrusting doctrine: “what distinguishes neoliberalism…is a loss of belief that markets will emerge and thrive naturally…governments are required in order to ensure that markets don’t go off the rails [and] frame the economic sphere in such a way as to allow the proper operation of markets.”2  The neoliberal stance espouses no faith in markets to thrive on their own—they cannot really be “free,” because they cannot be independent, cannot take care of themselves—yet without seeing this ineptitude as a flaw.  May brings in Foucault to summarize how modernity has responded to such a new conception of the market as a fragile and unwieldy thing, quoting, “[government] has to intervene on society so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulatory role…in society[, effecting] a general regulation of society by the market.”1.5  If any kind of “freedom,” this is the kind of freedom which toddlers on a playground have, freedom within a highly determined and protected environment until someone scrapes a knee; is this freedom or infantilization?  Obviously, the word “freedom” rings better than “protectionism” or “coddling,” so of course Friedman chose “freedom” for his defense.  But where does this leave his audience, if he has chosen a word not for its truthfulness but for its sentimentality?  His theory does not trust the market’s ability.  Should we trust him?

We are seeing another facet of Foucault’s observation in practice.  When life becomes economics and economics oversees the purview of the national state, we find ourselves on the doorstep of a future of Zucktowns and Amazon healthcare—that is, corporations building their own employee cities and distributing social services in place of an ineffective government.  It is not the place of this article to rule on whether this future is a good or a bad one.  It is the place of this article to do to neoliberal structures part of what Amazon and Facebook are attempting to do to a government dragging its feet on social needs: transcend the barriers it imposes on our best lives.  The danger in Facebook and other tech companies’ employee community-constructing projects like Zucktown, is that they have the effect of hyper-localizing and isolating, characteristic aspects of a negative global climate of neonationalism and protectionism.  This article does not hope to emulate that particular facet, but in fact to aim directly against it: given that a neoliberal world is our extant environment, what theories can help us circumnavigate isolationist, protectionist attitudes?

Studying political economist Karl Polanyi, Donatella della Porta takes to his observation of the simultaneous forward- and backward-looking of movements against the marketplace.  As she summarizes, “History teaches us that counter-movements seeking the re-establishment of traditionally guaranteed rights can put forward progressive narratives and offer more inclusive and participatory visions, but they can also draw on regressive models and exclusive and plebiscitary ideas.”3  Indeed, this country’s partisan divide between “progressives” and “conservatives” becomes tellingly unwieldy when we talk about economic issues.  While people on the left generally take every opportunity to rail against a world run by Wall Street, it is most prominently white, working-class people, a demographic associated with staunch conservatism, who suffer from the prioritization of market interests.  At its worst counterintuitive belligerence, our partisan segregation on economic matters is at best an overlooked arena of common ground.

But the absoluteness of our names does not allow us to cross over and discover that the ground is common.  A week ago, I tried to argue to a friend that people on the left “should embrace their new social position as conservatives,” since protecting minorities from discrimination, keeping guns out of schools, and literal environment conservation efforts are a “conservative” agenda by the dictionary definition of conservation.  When I wrote that these were conservative moves, his response was, “No, Conservatives want us to arm teachers.”  Me: “That’s not a conservative move on their part whatever they call themselves.”  Him: “2018 lingo updates: Conservative = insane moralist pseudo-politician, Moderate = conservative…Liberal = I hate conservatives, Radical Left = pick one between ‘shoot back’ and ‘smash the patriarchy’.”  What he points out is that these words have stopped meaning anything besides a particular group of people who despise and are despised unconditionally by another group of people.  All of these “definitions” have in common that they actively profess hostility to another group.

“And as long as it doesn’t mean anything,” I mulled, “why are we even using it? Just as an immediate, gut-pull knee-jerk catchword” to incite highly-charged feelings of us-versus-them.4

Todd May’s solution to the problems of neoliberal modernity is the elevation of friendship.  In defining what the sort of friendship which can combat neoliberalism looks like, he draws on the philosophers Edward Hinchman and Richard Moran, who write about telling as an act of and reliant upon trust.  The trust of a “deep friendship,” as May defines it, builds on the same logic as Hinchman’s and Moran’s trust in telling5, and in fact, their version of trust in turn rests on the relationship of the teller and the person being told: “When you tell me it is raining outside, you ask me to not only believe that it is raining outside, but to believe it because you told me so.”6  There is an almost invisible line one crosses somewhere between growing to trust a source through the exchange of information and coming to trust information because of its source, and certainly trusting information solely because of its source is a worrying problem in current partisan politics and social stratification.  But this worry too often supplants the first half of the equation, that trust does grow out of exchanges of telling and being told, and that friendship thrives on trust.  Earlier I asked, should we trust Milton Friedman?  It would be easy not to, in a jaded and cynical world split apart into camps who define themselves by their suspicion of others.  However, this does not necessarily mean that we do something worthier if we do trust Milton Friedman.  Thus the solution left open to us is to practice, not being more trusting, but being more trustworthy.

If we follow May, then to have a mentality of friendship as a society, our society needs to be one in which we can trust.  This means at a minimum being able to trust what is said, which in turn means using words to mean what they mean, not to manipulate emotions.  The first step to reaching across partisan political, social, and other divides, to uniting to transcend the barriers neoliberalism has brought into our lives, our politics, our very modes of thinking and perceiving the world, is to reclaim the names and mantras which only antagonize and exclude.  Let’s use words sincerely, being transparent and authentic about what they mean.  How can I trust a Conservative when her name doesn’t mean what the word means?  How can she trust me when my name is only meant to quickly ally me with others against her?  Let’s start on the road to friendship with names we can trust.


1Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 6.

2Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 29.

3Donatella della Porta, “Progressive and regressive politics in late neoliberalism,” in The Great Regression, edited by Heinrich Geiselberger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), subsection “Neoliberal globalization as the challenge,” ebook.

4Facebook conversation, March 28, 2018.  Retrieved April 6, 2018.

5Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 91-92.

6Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 68.

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