Whither Allies


I’m back from ScienceOnline09, with an inaccessible laptop hard drive holding all my notes, and I’ve gotten one mostly full night’s sleep in the last four. It would be wiser of me to hold off on blogging contentiously until I’m better rested. In fact, I have a ton of comments I’m dying to respond to. Instead, I’m writing this, and I ask a small amount of indulgence in the reading, because I think it’s important enough to write even under less than ideal conditions.

I had a number of very nice chats with people before the sessions they were moderating about the topic of the session. Not surprising. Most of the moderators were a little overprepared and very invested in the topic, as they should be.

One of these discussions was with Zuska in the hotel bar. We were talking about lurkers and who reads her blog, and I made a comment about the risks allies take in opening their mouths and the inevitability of screwing something up. She agreed and said something about the responsibilities of allies when that happens.

Janet is now saying something very similar at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

You can’t tell just by looking which purported allies have had a crystalizing experience. When people who say they are allies let you down in the crunch (which happens a lot), it’s hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon. Thus, one lesson for allies (beyond the importance of being reliable at crunch-time) is not to be surprised or offended when you’re not immediately recognized as an ally. Saying you are doesn’t count for nearly as much as showing you are.

Let me say something now: You can’t count on me.

Of course, you can’t count on your parents to step up when your uncle is being an ass about your college choices. You can’t count on your best friend to know what you need to hear about your date. You can’t count on your sweetie(s) to know what you want for your birthday. You can’t count on you to do what’s best for you when you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. As comfortable as it would be and as useful as it is sometimes to act as though the opposite were true, you can’t count on people, even the people who are supposed to be on your side.

There are a couple of reasons you can’t count on me. The first one is implicit in the examples I just gave. I don’t know what you need or want at any given moment. The fact that I recognize you as part of a marginalized group tells me that you’re marginalized. That’s all it tells me, because part of being an ally is recognizing that marginalized and stereotyped groups are just as diverse (if not more so) than the mainstream.

The second reason is one I brought up talking to Zuska. I’m an ally, in part, because I don’t deal well with authority. This means that it’s easier for me than for some to look at the reasons given for marginalization and say that they don’t make sense. However, it also means I take a step back any time someone says allies should behave in a particular way.

On top of that, I’m dealing with my own issues of marginalization. Some are relatively small and many are problems of privilege, but they’re still real and part of the reason I understand marginalization. I may not have brought them up because, well, I’ve been listening. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have to take a step out of your fight to fight my own.

So, no, you can’t count on me. What you can do, though, is tell me what you would like me to do in a given situation, know that I’m likely to say an enthusiastic “yes” if I can (as I did a couple times this weekend), and know that I don’t make promises lightly. Well, you really can’t know those last two, but those are the areas where I want to be called on the carpet if I screw up.

That’s a lot of speaking for myself, I know. But in the end, that’s all I can do. I’m not your ally because I feel sorry for you and think you need caretaking. I’m your ally because I believe you have things to say I want to hear. I’m your ally because I believe in the intrinsic value of diversity and basic human dignity.

I hope that’s enough. It may not be, in which case, you have every right to decide I’m not your ally. That would sadden me, but I understand that trying to change your mind would waste energy we could both put to use better elsewhere, just as trying to change me would be.

We don’t achieve diversity by insisting that we all be alike.

***

As an aside that’s nothing of the sort, I also want to respond to DrugMonkey‘s comments to Janet’s post. If you follow this blog or DrugMonkey, you’ll know that there was a big to do last month involving a commenter on DrugMonkey who I and some other DrugMonkey regulars felt was a trollish poster child.

Now, I had two purposes in mind in pointing out the trolling. One, I’ve developed an interest (perhaps even an unhealthy fascination) with that kind of thing, and two, I wanted to give people a place away from the fray to react to the manipulation. I thought both worked.

Then I saw this comment from DM:

Some, see Stephanie Z’s post, consider you to be nothing more than an unrelenting disruptive troll. and suggest that I should ban your ass.

I was concerned briefly that DM really thought I was suggesting the troll should be banned, but I didn’t say anything. For one thing, he was delivering an excellent lesson. I didn’t want to interupt. And there are always more chances to talk about trolls and how they should be handled.

[sigh] Always.

But when it keeps coming up, I get more concerned.

Fascinating. And by this may we conclude that those who may have the privilege of ignoring said clueless idiots’ obnoxiousness in case they are redeemable are themselves proving to be bad allies? Is it letting down in the crunch to fail to come to the same conclusions as those with said finite time and energy?

For the record, DM, no.

As I said above, I think it’s silly to expect or even want monolithic behavior from people supporting diversity. Yes, there are times when a massed voice is helpful, but aside from that, well, it’s a lot like my take on science communication. The people we need to reach, in the mainstream or in other marginalized groups, are not monolithic. We need as many ways to reach them as there are people to be reached.

In addition to places for people to sit and rest outside the line of fire, we need both carrots and sticks, and it’s really hard for the same person to provide both at the same time. So as far as I’m concerned, as long as you can handle all the mixed metaphors, I’m happy to apply the pressure and allow you to show someone which way they need to move to get out from under it.

That’s what allies are for.

Comments

  1. says

    It was nice to meet you at the conference, even if it was just for a moment. (And sorry I got your momentarily confused with another Stephanie, d’oh!)

  2. says

    Hey, Brian. It would have helped everyone if I’d remembered that my blog would be an important part of my identity at, you know, a blogging conference and thought to put it on my name tag. :)It was very cool to meet you too.

  3. says

    some (a set which included Stephanie Z) called our friend a troll. Some (an overlapping set which did not include Stephanie Z) wanted me to ban ol’ trolly. better?anyway, well said in the bulk of the post. just about how I feel about the whole “ally” thing. which is why I come down on PP’s side on the whole “it is not my place to call myself a feminist” issue. among other problems such labels are straitjackets which start to constrain you into playing a role and being careful to hide any rough edges. that’s okay if that is your online thing, to inhabit a well defined character. not so much if your intent is just to write as the mood strikes…

  4. says

    DM, I’m happy as long as you know I’m not going to tell you what to do on your blog. Well, unless you ask. ;)Yep, I’m all about rough edges and writing as the mood strikes me, which should be obvious from the lack of focus around here. I can play extremely well with others but only as long as I don’t feel constrained to do so.Oddly, the label of “ally” (in its many forms) isn’t one that bothers me, possibly because of the “other” implied in it and because I find it politically useful. It’s only when someone tries to tell me that it means something more than its traditional political definition that I get fidgety.