What Is an Ally?

I’m seeing some talk about who is and who isn’t an ally. Some of it is good. Some of it is…not. This is slightly modified from what was published here.

Once again, I see the latest in a very long line of posts I’ve seen that demonstrate that we in the blogosphere very rarely seem to understand what an ally is.

I’m not really sure how it happened. Allies in the culture wars aren’t appreciably different than military or political allies, but somehow, the meaning of the word has changed online. We’ve gone from “In everyday English usage, allies are people, groups, or nations that have joined together in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them” to the assumption that the act of alliance comes with specific obligations and that people are “bad allies” or not allies at all if particular things are done or left undone.

This isn’t true, of course. There is nothing about an alliance that requires that one of the parties give up its sovereignty, or there would be many fewer alliances. Alliance is not allegiance. We do not set aside our own concerns and our own marginalization because we care about someone else’s. We don’t let someone else set the terms of our participation in the public sphere, simply because they call us allies, without going through the tricky act of negotiation. We don’t give up our autonomy as allies any more than we would, by giving aid that isn’t wanted or needed, usurp the autonomy of those we aim to help.

Student groups and others who are working to recruit allies understand this. They talk about the behavior of “ideal allies,” presenting aspirational goals and actions that can be adopted by allies. They recognize that learning will need to occur, and continue to occur, throughout the experience of being an ally, saying, “Ask lots of questions and talk honestly about what you do know, what you don’t know, and what you’d like to learn.” They don’t expect perfection, and they don’t demand monolithic behavior.

It’s quite possible the rest of us could learn something valuable from the pros on this one.

What Is an Ally?
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7 thoughts on “What Is an Ally?

  1. 1

    Interesting that this “who is an ally” is coming up now in this context; I am used to that question coming up in the atheioblogosphere in regards to accomodationism, etc.

    And I think the answer in this case is as simple as the answer in that: You can be an ally on some causes and not on others. Ken Miller is our ally when it comes to fighting Creationism; he is not really our ally when it comes to clear thinking on the relationship between science and religion; and he is most definitely not our ally when it comes to the place of religion in society. Not that difficult…

    Disclaimer: I haven’t read most of the links you link to, and have not been following the sexism&atheism wars very closely as of late. Ironically, I find myself in a position somewhat (though not entirely) analogous to where accomodationists find themselves: I think people like you and Watson, etc., are ultimately right, but on the other hand I am not far enough removed from the other side not to feel some identification with where they are coming from (I can only say I am glad I didn’t hear of the whole “incel” thing around 2004-2006, because at the time I probably would have fallen for that bullshit hook line and sinker). Where the analogy to accomodationism breaks down is that I feel your side is absolutely right to take a hard-line uncompromising stance against misogyny in all its forms. As I wrote on a comment to another post, sometimes empathy for people who are being assholes is not useful. But as for me, I just don’t have the energy for it… I’m glad some people do, though, and I support you 100%

  2. 2

    Well… to be honest, I believe that in certain respect there ARE specific obligations that come with proclaiming oneself an “ally”.

    For instance, if at some point you begin engaging in actions that are directly harmful to me or my position, and then use “But I’m an ally! I’m on your side!” as a smokescreen or means of absolving yourself from criticism, then you definitely do NOT fit the definition of ally… because you are, rather than operated towards mutual benefit, benefiting and championing yourself at cost to me.

    I’ve had this come up repeatedly over the last few weeks… self-proclaimed “allies” using it as a means of insulating themselves from having to consider any accusations of cissexism… like all it takes to be an “ally” and therefore above critique is to not regard me as a subhuman monster…and really, I think when discussing issues of social dynamics and identity we need a different sort of definition. If “ally” is simply a position that can be self-proclaimed, it can and WILL be used as an excuse, distraction and absolution as people perpetuate their pre-existing biases and act COUNTER to the movement forward that ultimately benefits group X.

  3. 5

    Maybe the issue is that there’s kind of a difference between interacting here and in the real world.

    I’m old enough to remember the world pre-Internet, (insert “get off my lawn” joke here) and one thing I have noticed: when you do politics or anything else the Internet is just plain easy. Really.

    Nobody is really who they are here, we’re all just writing stuff, and while we’re communicating, and that’s great… let me put it this way. When I was a teen my father was involved in several labor disputes, and his union had to work with people inside and outside — they needed allies. Nobody could bullshit about being allies when you had 5,000 people marching and getting beat down by cops. You were either getting beat down or you were not. You were a snitch or not. You couldn’t say “but I am an ally” and snitch to the goons. In a town where a huge, huge chunk of the population worked in the same factory, being around folks in a real-life setting forces you to behave a certain way. No hiding behind a screen name, you know?

    I mean, I love the Internet, and all that, but I try to remember that activism of any kind is about real shit, and it happens in the real world. (I am not someone who buys or a second that Twitter brought down Hosni Mubarak, given that only 20% of Egypt’s population has any ‘net access at all).

    So some of the time I kind of ignore the qualifications people put on stuff and say, “look, what did you just say and tell me what you mean” and leave it at that. By their fruits (or words) you shall know them and all that.

    Am I making sense? An ally is the person who says s/he’s willing to get beat down with you — and does it. They’re the ones that offer some concrete help. When I saw the workers marching in my home town, nobody gave a rodential posterior that one woman was a lesbian and the other guy was black. The cops on the take and company men didn’t care either. Allies are there when shit hits the fan. Everyone else? Screw ’em.

  4. 6

    Where is the line for an ally? Does someone have to walk in lockstep to be considered an ally? If someone has a half dozen important issues and I’m on his or her side on four of them and on the exact opposite side on two of them, can I be a true ally?

    I think it would be difficult to be a true ally if you vehemently disagree with some of your allies important positions. If someone was a rationalist, atheist, but also a rampant sexist it would be almost impossible to fit in here. However, it is not necessary to agree 100% with everything your ally says and does. Diversity is a good thing, including diversity of opinion. But true allies need to have a rough agreement on the issues that they are allied about.

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