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Everyday Philosophy: “Should I disinvite my bigoted friend from group trips?”

You’ve got to know when to fight and when to laugh.
Three men looking at a smartphone and laughing, embodying everyday philosophy, with two faded figures and a sketch of a thinker with a question mark.
Credit: Siviwe Kapteyn / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Welcome to Everyday Philosophy, the column where I use insights from the history of philosophy to help you navigate the daily dilemmas of modern life.
  • This week’s question concerns the ethics of “disinviting prickly friends,” where one friend in your friendship group ruins the entire mood. Is it okay to stop inviting them to group outings? 
  • To answer the question, we compare traditions and look at the suggestions from Confucius and John Locke.

I have a group of cycling friends and we all go mountain biking together away about twice a year. I get on well with everyone apart from [one guy], who recently ruined the last trip for me by being antagonistic. He’s an ex-soldier and holds very right-wing views. I’m very liberal. Mike knows this and all through the weekend he kept saying slightly bigoted things about gay and trans folks and about migrants within earshot of me, trying to get me to bite. I didn’t but it did piss me off and marred the whole weekend. Can I politely exclude Mike from future trips because I enjoy the company of everyone else?

— Mike, UK

I think we’ve all been here, Mike. I’m not one for biking holidays, but I’ve had my fair share of family get-togethers, school reunions, and office parties where “slightly bigoted things” have “marred the whole weekend.”

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we’ll need to clarify our scope because there are many things going on in this dilemma. This is not, really, about “speaking truth to lies.” It’s not about how, when, and why you should call someone out for being a bigot. If anything, that’s what Mike’s friend wants. He wants a debate to turn into an argument, and the argument to throw some fists. Mike’s friend is not just a bigot; he’s a wind-up merchant who’s there to bike some mountains and cause trouble. And he’s fresh out of mountains.

So, parking for the moment the psychological motivations and moral questions surrounding the antagonists of the world, we’re here to talk about group dynamics and invitations. Is it ever right to disinvite or block a portion of a friendship group for your own benefit (we will have to assume the others in the group do like Mike’s friend; otherwise, he’d not be there at all)?

To answer Mike’s question, we’re going to look at two different philosophies from very different traditions. In the “yes” corner, we have the Champion of Concord: Confucius. In the “no” corner, we have the Sergeant of Strife: John Stuart Mill.

Confucius: Can’t we all just get along?

One of the most popular analogies in Chinese philosophy, and Confucianism especially, is to compare human relationships to those of a musical group, like an orchestra. An orchestra is not a uniform bloc. You do not pay to see a symphony performed entirely by cymbalists. Everyone in an orchestra has their own unique skills and instruments; everyone brings something of themselves to the group. But, when there, people bring together their differences to follow the same musical sheet. As Confucius wrote in his Analects, Book 3: “How to play music may be known. At the start of the piece, all the parts should sound together. As it proceeds, they should be in harmony while severally distinct and flowing without break, and thus on to the end.”

A good musician will harmonize others’ sounds; they will know when to lead and when to support. More importantly, they will know when to pause, let others play, and give others their turn to shine. The Confucian philosopher Mencius argued that of all the societal values, He (harmony) is the most important.

Let’s apply some Confucianism to Mike’s case. When Mike signed up for his biking holiday, he signed up for an orchestra. He was there to ride the happy, muddy trail of harmony. Instead, his bigoted friend was concerned only with his own ego and his own insecure need to establish the dominance of his political views. He was not there to play a symphony but to loudly blow his bassoon with the thoughtless insouciance of a drunk at a sports game.

So, for Confucius at least, Mike is right to disinvite this confrontational friend. Harmony over ego; symphony over noise.

John Stuart Mill: The case for conflict

Chinese thought is varied, nuanced, and complicated, but most scholars do seem to hold up the line that Chinese philosophy is concerned, more than anything, with He or harmony. A virtuous Chinese life is about shame (Haji), knowing and fulfilling your social role (Li), and respect for the wider order of things (He).

In the Western tradition, a different train of thought was leaving the station. Although similar arguments are found in at least ancient Athens, it was only in the 19th century that the British philosopher John Stuart Mill gave us the classical defense of free speech – a defense many still use today. For Mill, we should not only tolerate free speech but seek it out for three reasons. First, it prevents us from becoming arrogant and complacent in our own positions. Second, it tests the worth of our beliefs. Third, it revises and reestablishes the importance of our beliefs; it prevents them from turning into “dead dogma.” The person who sits in their echo chambers gleefully reposting confirmation biases will not hold any beliefs worth having.

It isn’t too hard to see how Mike fares against Mill. If our Victorian philosopher were here, he’d be wagging a disappointed finger at Mike, saying, “Oh, Michael, your beliefs need to be tested. We need to show the world that they are important. Take up the fight. Rise to the challenge. A healthy democracy needs ideological bouts like this!”

And he’s got a point, Mike. Echo chambers are not just a thing of the social media age. They existed in cloistered villages and exclusionary communities for millennia. If you surround yourself with like-minded yes-men, your mind will atrophy and your beliefs will grow weak. Take the bite. Get pissed off.

There’s a time and a place

The thing is, I sympathize with both Confucius and Mill. I love harmony. I enjoy the relaxing sound of laughter, companionship, and accord. At holiday times, most families leave politics at the door, and the festive spirit swells under the decision. Bickering, fighting, and heated debates are exhausting.

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And yet, sometimes we need to have those fights. The most valuable things in our society both deserve and require us to stand up for them: liberty, respect, and decency. A great many injustices in the world have been enabled by the do-nothings of “harmony.” So where does the middle ground lie?

I think the case of Mike is interesting because what his dilemma is really about is the setting in which it takes place. This is not the floor of the House of Commons. This is not a college debating chamber. This is not the marketplace of ideas. This is a group of mates riding bikes in nature. The very reason everyone is there is to have a good time. They are there to play in an orchestra, not in a jousting competition. The invitation likely didn’t read, “We’re here to get along and not fight,” but that’s the unsaid, tacit assumption of most group away days.

So, the compromise. Mike shouldn’t abandon this friend or constantly shy away from his political positions. He should meet him and take on his beliefs in the right setting. That setting is not a bike holiday. Mike’s friend misread the tacit assumption. If he carries on doing so, I think it’s fair to rescind the invitation.

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