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Logic and rhetoric
“”I'm not a murderer; some of my best friends are alive.
The friend argument is an argument used by people who want to claim knowledge about and/or sympathy with a group, by referring to their "friends" belonging to this group. It is commonly used to clear and absolve oneself from suspicion of racism, xenophobia or other kinds of prejudice. It is a particular form of the "Not prejudiced, but..." statement.
Conversely, if the above argument — that "if you're close to somebody, you can't wish to do them harm" — were true, one would expect to see far fewer (read: zero) domestic abuse cases.
- "I don't hate blacks. I have many black friends. But..."
- "I am not homophobic. I have a gay friend, and he is OK. But..."
- "Some of my friends are atheists. But..."
The friend argument is one of the laziest ways to try to worm out of accepting the responsibility for endorsing prejudice. The idea is that someone cannot be prejudiced if they have friends of that demographic; if they had a real prejudice against that full group, then none of them would be okay to hang around, and conversely, then that member of said group would no longer be their friend.
In a rather absurd example, someone can cite a specific example that excuses their general behaviour, for example "how can I be a misogynist, I love my mother."- or, in an even more absurd example "I'm not sexist- after all, all of my girlfriends have been female." While this line of reasoning might be true for someone who genuinely doesn't have a general prejudice, it isn't a good argument to prove it - and it certainly doesn't absolve someone who actually does hold such a belief. Such argumentation can be used as 'evidence' that someone is not prejudiced, but this alone does not amount to 'proof'. The underlying fallacy is that one single point of data, this one "friend," completely overrides any other bits of evidence we have to assess someone's views. This is simply not valid reasoning. The presence (or not) of a prejudice is determined by what follows the "But..." in those above examples, not what comes before.
Often, the excuse is accompanied by the fact that this hypothetical friend is "not typical" of the group being discriminated against. This would be like saying "I have a Muslim friend, he's not a typical Muslim because he doesn't fly planes into buildings," or "my friend is an atheist and he doesn't preach about it like Dawkins". This usually reveals more about where someone's prejudices towards a group stem from; anecdotal evidence, selective reporting of the "bad" ones, or existing stereotypes. The fact is, a person attempting this argument is guilty of forming a prejudice against an entire group by only looking at a few examples that confirm their views.
Having a friend who belongs to a demographic that one hates isn't incompatible with a prejudice against that demographic - and this is the key to the fallacy. A prejudice, is by its etymology a "pre-judgement" of someone, based on more general information that may not necessarily apply to an individual. This can be a relatively benign conclusion ("he's a gay man, he must like fashion") or it can be the considerably more negative ("he's a black man, he's going to stab me"). However, once some has actually gotten beyond the stage of judging someone on prior knowledge, they can change their mind about that individual. In many cases, this might overturn the prejudice entirely but in the case of people using the friend argument, it has only overturned the prejudice against one individual, or maybe a few more. The prejudice, the pre-judgement against a group of people, still stands. This is why saying you have a friend in one particular demographic doesn't excuse racism, homophobia or other prejudice; you can't have a pre-judgement about someone you already know, but you can still maintain your pre-judgement against people you haven't met.
The Confederacy's black friends
A common claim found in Lost Cause tracts is that there were thousands of black soldiers fighting on the side of the Confederacy. The number is, of course, severely inflated. While cases of black Confederate soldiers can be found, the idea of entire black regiments is a myth and a number of Southern generals explicitly rejected this idea. In a number of these cases as well, black slaves and servants are re-spun as soldiers. Less than four hundred black soldiers were called up, near the end of the war as a desperation tactic. Most of them never saw combat, and a majority deserted for the Union lines. It could be said that these mythical soldiers were the Confederacy's "black friends."
- Friend arguments are equally receptive to the fallacy of guilt by association. See Grover Norquist and his attempts to court gay and non-white conversatives.
- Corresponding article on TV Tropes
- A brief history of the "some of my best friends" defense, The New Republic
- "I Have Gay Friends", Blag Hag
- Rowan Atkinson sketch involving this argument
- VenomFangX - Why Morally Subjective Women Imbalance My Equilibrium (VFX uses the "I have a friend but disagree with his lifestyle" gambit.)
- Revisionist Fourth Grade History: "Thousands" of Black Soldiers, New York Times
- See also Civil War Memory's category for "Black Confederates."
- The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth, Buzzfeed