Content warning: sexual violence, domestic abuse
“You are the company you keep” is a common phrase that I’m willing to bet most people have heard, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. The people that you associate yourself with, including your friends, significant others, acquaintances and other personal connections, are a reflection of your own character as much as they are a reflection of themselves.
It’s often expressed as a warning from parent to child, encouraging smart decisions when it comes to making friends. I would argue this is mainly for the purpose of parents wanting their children to stay out of trouble. And while it seems annoying to hear as a child, our parents are right: if you hang out with the “trouble makers” or the “wrong crowd,” you are more likely to wind up in trouble.
Moreover, parents are warning us to protect our reputations. Humans are creatures that survive by making quick judgements; decision-making is a survival skill. And while we’re no longer deciding where to build shelter or which berries are poisonous, we still need to make decisions quickly. Thus, humans are judgmental creatures, especially socially. It’s impossible to not judge others as it’s an inherent skill we developed as a species. After all, our perceptions of the world around us (and our status in it) are built upon things we have learned from previous experiences. This includes our interactions with others. Friendships (and judging who we should be friends with is a part of this) are naturally social as well. Who is an asset to our survival and who could be a detriment is an important judgment we still make daily. Thus, our parents warn us: Hang out with “trash” and you will be perceived that way too.
This proclamation of “you are the company you keep” is therefore applicable to the ongoing conversation on campus regarding sexual violence. As mentioned by speakers at the multiple protests outside of the Rowe Center for Undergraduate Education last week, if you are friends with abusers, it reflects poorly on you too. Simply put, if you remain friends with your friends’ abuser, you are not a good friend.
You cannot support survivors if you keep their abusers present in your life. This is because the friendships you maintain have meaning. One may argue, “It’s none of my business because it didn’t happen to me,” or say that it “isn’t that deep,” but it should be your business, and yes, it is that deep. You become guilty by association. Remaining friends tells abusers that their actions are okay. It also tells survivors that their traumatic experiences are not a big deal and that you don’t care about what they have been through.
So, surround yourself with good people! Another phrase or piece of advice that applies here is the age-old adage “birds of a feather flock together.” Due to our social nature, humans tend to seek out people they are similar to, or otherwise want to be similar to.
It is much like the “opposites attract” phenomenon of dating. Opposites don’t actually attract, but a partner may have a quality that you want to have more of in yourself. For example, if you are extremely introverted and are dating a textbook extrovert, it is not that opposites attract but instead that you likely wish you were more extroverted, and they bring out that side of you. Similarly in our friendships, we should seek out connections with people we want to be more like. Do you really want to be birds of a feather with someone who has a history of hurting others? Probably not.
Furthermore, we also tend to become like the people we spend the most time with. Do you want to become these abusers? Do you want to develop their predatory tendencies? No. Your friendship choices should be intentional because they come to define you, your values and your character. Make sure you like the company you keep; they are a reflection of you.