It’s Okay to Not Be Friends with Everyone: The Pierce Hawthorne Problem in Community

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I’m committing to blogging every weekday in January: sometimes about big important topics, sometimes about small everyday ones. Today I’m blogging about Community.

You don’t have to be friends with everyone. It’s okay to not like people. It’s okay to not want to hang out with people. In particular, it’s okay to not want to hang out with people who treat other people horribly.

I’m a big fan of the TV show Community. It’s a smart, funny show with a fairly diverse cast. It emphasizes friendships much more than sexual or romantic relationships (nothing against sexual or romantic relationships, but they do tend to dominate TV and movies). And it has a huge amount of self-conscious fun with pop culture tropes. Every episode plays with common tropes, structures, and iconic examples of television: messing with them, fusing them, giving them homage, taking them apart. There’s a claymation Christmas special, a bottle episode, a clips show with clips from non-existent shows, a Western episode that morphs into a Star Wars episode, shows in the styles of Ken Burns and Law & Order and M*A*S*H. I once said to Ingrid that I wanted a TV show based on the TV Tropes website, and she said, “You mean Community?” (If you’re going to check out an episodes or two to see if you like it, I recommend the paintball ones: “Modern Warfare,” “A Fistful of Paintballs,” and “For a Few Paintballs More.”)

But I do have some issues with the program. (Yes, you can like a piece of pop culture, even love it, and still critique it and recognize its flaws. Amazing, huh?) And one of the biggest problems with Community is Pierce Hawthorne — and the persistent theme throughout the show that cutting someone out of a group makes you a bad person, and that once a person is in a group, you have to tolerate them forever, no matter how badly they behave.

Pierce is terrible. Truly terrible. He’s personally terrible, and politically terrible, and the two intertwine in a horrible demonstration of the personal being political. He’s racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, openly and grossly, in generic ways and ways that specifically target the other members of the group. On top of that, he’s just terrible. He’s inconsiderate, manipulative, selfish, and generally unpleasant. And whenever someone calls him on it or asks him to knock it off, he resists, dismisses, or ignores it.

But one of the consistent themes throughout the show is that anyone trying to get Pierce out of the group is being mean. Even when he does things that everyone acknowledges as appalling and unforgivable, they still feel guilty about wanting him out, and they still forgive him and let him stay. They even spell out this pattern, and he still gets to stay. It’s straight out of the Five Geek Social Fallacies: the group is convinced that ostracizers are evil, friends accept you as you are, friendship comes before all, friendship is transitive, and friends do everything together. Add all this up, and you don’t get warm, friendly inclusivity. You get people who can get away with anything. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the character whose terrible behavior is tolerated is the straight, white, cisgender, wealthy, older man. Pierce is on the privileged end of just about every marginalization spectrum you can think of — and he’s the one whose every behavior, no matter how repugnant, is tolerated.)

This is especially absurd since the group was formed artificially. It’s not like this is a group of old friends that formed organically over time: Abed just picked them out of his Spanish class. But it’s absurd in any social situation. People get to set boundaries. People get to have standards. People get to say, “I don’t like it when you treat me that way, or when you treat other people that way, and if you keep doing it I don’t want to be your friend.”

And groups get to decide who is and isn’t in them. That’s more complicated, obviously. You get all sorts of group dynamics — who gets listened to, who doesn’t, how decisions get made, how much consensus there needs to be — and they’re different in different groups. And yes, cattiness and elitism, manipulation and bigotry, can play into people being excluded for no good reason. But if every single person in a group can’t stand someone, and they have entirely good and fair reasons for it, that’s not ambiguous. That’s very clear-cut. And that’s exactly the situation with Pierce in Community.

I wish more community organizers, of both in-the-flesh and online communities, would take this lesson to heart: It is literally impossible to be welcoming to everyone. You can’t include women and also include people who are persistently and unapologetically sexist: ditto with people who are racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, and more. When you include people who are hostile, contemptuous, dehumanizing, or just stubbornly clueless about other people, you’re excluding the people they mistreat.

We’ve all felt the sting of being excluded. We’ve all been picked last for teams, not invited to parties, ignored or looked down on by tight-knit cliques, refused admission because of our race or gender or sexual orientation. It’s uniquely painful, and if we have compassion, we often flinch from inflicting it on others. And no, we shouldn’t inflict it lightly. Humans are social animals, and shutting people out is serious business. But that’s exactly why we need to be willing to do it. When our compassion leads us to tolerate terrible people, we’re effectively shutting out the people they’re terrible to. We need to extend our compassion to them as well.

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It’s Okay to Not Be Friends with Everyone: The Pierce Hawthorne Problem in Community