Why is it so hard to say “ally”?


A follow-up to Not if but where from last week. Dave Silverman is doing a Twitter survey to find out how people define “ally.” This has nudged me into realizing that the minimal sense (at least) is working together for a specific goal or cause; in other words it doesn’t necessarily mean an ally in all things, it can mean an ally for just one thing.

And I find I choke on using it that way. It has overtones of more…and I’m wondering how legitimate that is, and whether we need another word that would avoid that problem.

I choke on thinking of [people whose views on most things I detest] as allies of any kind.

I’ve been choking on this especially, lately, with the categories of atheists and skeptics. Well lots of us have. Lots of us have been finding out lately that many atheists are not our allies – except on atheism itself, and that turns out to be not enough for the purpose. It feels like a bad fit. Atheists who call us cunts at the drop of a hat don’t feel like allies of any kind.

Now if a meteor were approaching the earth then we could all be allies in trying to figure out how to survive. If the Nazis came back and started building nuclear weapons, we could all be allies in stopping them. But in issues that are not quite so urgent…it’s much more difficult.

I’m just talking about priorities, I suppose; about salience; about mattering. Atheism’s spot on my mattering map can change size, depending on what’s going on.

Or, to boil it down even further, I can just quote @splendisaurus:

Alright, so racists say they don’t like Islam. I also don’t like Islam. Should I “ally” with racists on this?

That’s a good example, and the answer is no – should not and must not; must do the very opposite.

Comments

  1. says

    Perhaps “someone who is motivated by the same values as I toward a mutual goal on which we can work together with mutual respect.”
    The “motivated by the same values” would solve the ally with a racist problem and “with mutual respect” would eliminate the problem of working with people who don’t respect us as individuals or as a group.

    Would that solve the problem of my not wanting to work with a homophobe if I am heterosexual? Does that motivated by the same values cover that when it comes to atheism? Perhaps we should add a clause about someone who doesn’t make us want to rage puke.

  2. Sheesh says

    Right. I’m not interested in allying with racists. And if Dave’s message here is, ‘the movement’s gotta be big enough for the racists,’ then you know, fuck it.

    We can come back to “atheist normalcy” as he puts it after we’ve Solved Racism. Alternatively, American Atheists can get up the nerve to say ‘we don’t want racists in our movement.’ And we can try to soldier on towards our secular goals without their ‘help’, such as it is.

    (Substitute racism/racists as necessary.)

  3. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Perhaps “someone who is motivated by the same values as I toward a mutual goal on which we can work together with mutual respect.”

    I think you’d have to add in something like “understands what kinds of things will actually be useful in achieving the goal.” Otherwise you get people like JT Eberhard who nominally agree with the goals of feminism or anti-racism or what have you but in reality know fuck all about it which causes them to actually be counterproductive.

  4. says

    Exactly, Joe. Someone you can work with who doesn’t make you feel like less of a human being in the process. I could continue to be an ally of say, the JREF, but only if I don’t care about my self-respect. Some things are too fundamental to have to sacrifice in the name of atheism/skepticism, otherwise, a/s is just like the very things we are supposedly against in religion.

  5. says

    If you’re a representative in the floor of the House you may well be in a situation to join forces in a specific issue, with someone that you opposes, and vice versa, on the rest of the times and issues. This is called Politics, and that’s why it’s so messy, and uggly, so often. Even when all actors are acting in good faith. The same reasoning is valid many times outside of Congress/Parlament. Comitments are necessary, and many times it’s difficult to know where the lines must be drawn. Sad but true nonetheless.
    Or maybe it’s just my actual reformist self talking (my younger left-wing version lost somewhere in the past would kick my ass if he could for sure ;-) )

  6. maudell says

    The thing is that people who believe my very identity (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) is inherently inferior to theirs do not consider me an ally. They may consider me a vehicle to achieving a goal if I shut up properly, but silent me is at best a subordinate. And they benefit of a social structure helping this dynamic. This extend to other groups/identities that are close to my heart but that I don’t identify myself as (I am not allied to transphobic atheists, for example). However, we all have blind spots, it isn’t a perfect system. But it’s important to me, particularly in the context of atheism, skepticism and reason. There is no excuse to be irrationally bigoted.

    I understand Dave Silverman’s job to reach a wide audience, and I respect that his methods are different than mine (he appears do be doing a good job overall, in my opinion). However, I would be curious if he would consider Tom Metzger his ally. Metzger, after all, is a flaming anti-semitic atheist. He believes Silverman is biologically inferior as a human being, but they are both atheists. Somehow, I feel like Silverman would be reluctant to include Metzger in his list of allies. I am not culturally Jewish, but Metzger will never be my ally. It’s a no-brainer.

    I believe the only difference here is in the level of organization and, for the most part, of magnitude.

  7. Pen says

    To be honest ‘ally’ is not a word that has strong positive connotations with me in the first place. I’ve always taken it to mean ‘working together on something that happens to be currently in our shared interests’ with the obvious undertone that the allegiance ceases outside those interests, when the goal is met or if the interests cease to be shared.

    Around here ‘ally’ is used where I would have tended to use ‘supporter’ which has some connotation of broad-based, approaching unconditional support (hopefully not completely unconditional).

    As far as some atheists are concerned, you could say we are ‘co-adherents of the same belief system in matters of religion’, little more than that. Nobody is going to use a long phrase like that though

    .

  8. says

    Dave says he’s not talking about Nazis, but about good people who agree on 99%.

    But the trouble with that is that there are a hell of a lot of people between Nazis on the one hand and good people who agree on 99% on the other. Often we disagree on a lot more than 1%; often it may be only 1% (although actually I doubt I know anyone I agree with on 99% – that would be a LOT) but that 1% is crucial – like, whether or not I’m an inferior because female.

  9. maudell says

    Well, the Nazi analogy implies violence. Anti-semitism that is clear but ‘non-violent’ is exactly like atheists who think that women are inferior to men because biology. The Metzger analogy may be flawed because of his violence (he was the first anti-semitic atheist I could think of). However, I still see a double standard. Plenty of atheist white supremacists are non-violent. Unless he’s cool with calling them allies while they argue on the inferiority of ‘the semitic races’, I see no difference. So if he doesn’t mean anti-semitics (the part of his identity that is historically persecuted) he surely doesn’t mean other racists or misogynists (for the same reason).

    As you mentioned, the 99% figure makes no sense. I have not heard of anybody disassociating from other atheists for a tiny minor disagreement. I might have missed the people destroying each other about knitting techniques, but I doubt it’s a thing…

  10. says

    Eneraldo makes a good point. What else do we call these people who join forces to work towards a common goal, but otherwise hate each other? It’s very common in politics. Are we confusing “ally” with “friend”, and thereby demanding too much of mere allies?

  11. says

    Otherwise, in the end of the the day, the point is that to be atheist doesn’t mean much politicaly speaking. One can be a libertarian atheist like Ayn Rand. Between someone like her an a left-wing/liberal theist I’ll probably join forces with the last in most issues most of the time.
    I know a liberal/left-wing theist is a contradiction in terms in USA politics, but it is not in Brazil and many Latin American countries. In Brazil before Woytyla’s papacy a significant part of Catholic Church (form low rank to high) was instrumental in the reconstruction of the political left. With some many problems related, but secular left was never perfect either anyway.

  12. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Who’s this “we,” kemosabe?

    Guess what? Someone who thinks it’s OK to call women cunts, gay men fags, trans women “trannies” or “not real” has crossed a fundamental line with me. This isn’t fucking rocket science, so don’t you sit there and give pronouncements about politics being the art of the possible and the compromise. You don’t get to do that.

  13. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I’m really SUPER TIRED of the default being that those who object to being mistreated have to be the ones to make the compromise. It’s always that way. And though I know you both don’t mean to do so and you’re awesome people, Eneraldo and Cath-you’re doing it right now.

  14. atheist says

    I definitely agree that “ally” should mean a lot more than just, “someone who agrees with me on an important issue”. Example: a work with a local political group that is focused on educating people climate change. A young man wanted to join, as he was also interested in this. But as we discussed our thoughts about other politics more, I found out that he was a libertarian, whereas our group is a bunch of progressives. You can pretend that we can work around these differences, but in reality not only do we have different opinions on economics, we have different worldviews. It would have been hard to work together, with such different views of the world.

  15. chrisho-stuart says

    I’m fine with being an ally with someone on some matters, but not on others.

    I really like the definition in the first comment, by G Pierce (Was ~G~)

    ..”someone who is motivated by the same values as I toward a mutual goal on which we can work together with mutual respect”

    except I’d leave out “motivated by the same values”.

    The key things for me are these:

    It’s MUTUAL. To be an ally (in some cause) with someone, you are each allies of each other, in that context. Hence: either party can veto or break an alliance.

    It’s WORK. Being an ally to me carries some connotations of actually doing something. Might be simple; might be speaking up, or making a donation, or giving cookies when needed. But being an ally is more than just approval of your goals.

    It involves some basic level of RESPECT. It may be qualified or limited, but there has to be some acknowledgment of each others worth in the particular cause for which you are allied.

    MOTIVATION… I don’t care. Our motivations may be radically different, but as long as we have a common goal to work towards, that doesn’t matter. It’s the WORK TOGETHER that makes it for me.

  16. says

    If you’re a representative in the floor of the House you may well be in a situation to join forces in a specific issue, with someone that you opposes, and vice versa, on the rest of the times and issues. This is called Politics, and that’s why it’s so messy, and uggly, so often. Even when all actors are acting in good faith. The same reasoning is valid many times outside of Congress/Parlament. Comitments are necessary, and many times it’s difficult to know where the lines must be drawn. Sad but true nonetheless.

    So your example of how we should shut up is to point to a situation where people maintain a realistic view of who is their enemy and who is their friend, and not make any more contact than is strictly necessary? And you think this is a vote for allying in any meaningful way with racists just because they’re atheists? Because that is teh part of my identity that matters least, so guess how much I care to work with them on atheism.

    I know a liberal/left-wing theist is a contradiction in terms in USA politics

    Er, no, it’s not. IT’s the default. It’s about 30% of why I get irate when USian atheists pretend that religion causes social inequality – the majority of people working to increase equality in the USA are theists.

  17. Shatterface says

    Re: The Nazis.

    Operation Paper Clip and the Soviet Alsos demonstrated that opposing sides can make allies out of their previously mutual enemies.

    Who was it who said “Our German scientists are better than your German scientists?”

  18. says

    I think Eneraldo is perfectly correct. He’s not saying that we SHOULD go out and “ally” with homophobes and racists. That’s not in what he wrote.

    But absolutely there is wheeling & dealing between factions going on all the time in politics. In Australia we’ve had two governments in a row with complicated alliances. Sometimes you have to vote for the lesser evil because the good is not actually available. And also sometimes you have to work with them. (And sometimes you have to decide that it’s too toxic to do so even for a good cause.)

    What is the difference between an ally and a friend? What do you call those who are aligned in common for a specific cause – eg a Catholic group who want to help the poor and protest our horrific mistreatment of refugees, but at the same time they want to ban abortion and gay marriage? They’re not my friends, they can’t possibly be, they have appalling views that harm many people. But are they reasonably considered allies on the refugee front? Or is there a different term?

    I’m tentatively thinking that the answer to “I’m your ally, don’t piss me off with your demands for respect and equality!” is not “You’re not my ally” but “You’re not my ally IN THIS”. Or perhaps “You may be my ally on X but you are my enemy on Y, so fuck off!”.

    I’m not just saying that maybe our terminology is not as helpful as it could be. Ophelia’s place is usually good for getting at those nuances

  19. oursally says

    It’s a hard part of growing up, realising people often have to ally with people they don’t like. To get real things done, like pushing laws through parliament, or putting out fires, or winning wars and stuff. And often enough you wonder afterwards if you didn’t “slaughter the wrong pig”. The world is not as black-and-white as it ought to be, something adults have to live with.

  20. Bjarte Foshaug says

    What I think happens a lot is that, rather than a common goal legitimizing an alliance, the alliance kind of ends up de-legitimizing the common goal. I’m glad G Pierce mentioned the JREF. It would be nice to think we could continue to work with an organization like that on issues of skepticism without even lending any passive support to their sexist views, but I don’t really think the world works like that. By continuing to work with them after everything that has happened, you are at the very least acknowledging that their behavior is not a deal-breaker and that you are prepared to let them get away with it. I can’t do that, which is why Secular Woman is the only atheist organization I would still touch with a ten-lightyear pole.

  21. thetalkingstove says

    This “agree on 99%” thing from Dave is really naive. Christ, don’t some slymepit types claim to be feminists, to be all about the equality? He seems to be buying that, somehow.

    Dave, the gulf is way more than 1%.

  22. carlie says

    What I find to be a crucial “tell” is if a person is saying that it’s more important to be allies with someone who disagrees on “x”, when “x” is something that the person saying it is not. To be more clear, I don’t take much stock in someone saying that the cause of atheism is more important than agreeing on racism when the person saying it doesn’t have to deal with the effects of racism, or saying that the cause is more important than agreeing on feminism when that person doesn’t have to deal with the effects of sexism. Sure, cause X is more important than any other intersecting issue… when you have no other issues yourself. The trick is understanding that other people have different priorities because X isn’t the only thing they’re dealing with.

  23. jamessweet says

    Don’t have time to read the comments yet, so this has probably already been covered, but…

    I think what you are choking on in the minimal definition is that that is true only insofar as there isn’t anything that obstructs working towards the common goal. For example, theists and atheists can be (and often have been) successful allies in skepticism, as long as the theists don’t flip out when atheists apply a skeptical eye towards religion, and as long as the atheists don’t look for every possible opening to personally ridicule theists for their beliefs. Of course, this alliance has also broken down at times — from my position, it feels like it’s more from violations of the former truce than the latter, but then again it’s quite possible I’m biased about that :)

    Feminist atheists and not-so-feminist atheists can be allies, but as of late there has been a pretty huge obstruction (the aforementioned “cunt at the drop of a hat” problem). Hell, I don’t agree with every single thing from (for lack of a better term) the A+ subgroup, but it’s easy for me to be an ally because when I see a blog post where somebody is advocating on a particular social justice topic and I’m not sure I’m ready/willing to go that far, I kind of shrug, try to take the message in, and if I don’t like it just discard it.

  24. medivh says

    For me, the word “ally” is always an analogy. I don’t like it’s use for labelling people as its origins are in a legally binding treaties between states, which may or may not be dictatorial in nature (and therefore may not be subject to one person’s whims). But if we must use the word for people, let’s keep it analogous.

    An ally is a person who has agreed, upon their honour and to their core principles, to not attack me and to give serious weight to attacking others who attack me. If we have a “border scuffle” and it turns into a full-blown fight, I’m not going to trust that person to be an ally. If some part of me disgusts another person, I’m not going to trust that person to be an ally. If I happen to agree with some part of a person’s public viewpoints, that doesn’t mean anything – especially if that person has attacked me in the past.

    And if a person has shown a disinclination to help me against aggressors, I’m going to show them a disinclination to being considered an ally. This does not, incidentally, mean I expect allies to jump into trouble I get myself into. That would be asking far too much.

  25. atheist says

    @carlie – September 25, 2013 at 3:50 am (UTC -7)

    …I don’t take much stock in someone saying that the cause of atheism is more important than agreeing on racism when the person saying it doesn’t have to deal with the effects of racism, or saying that the cause is more important than agreeing on feminism when that person doesn’t have to deal with the effects of sexism. Sure, cause X is more important than any other intersecting issue… when you have no other issues yourself.

    This is a very good point. You seem to be describing what other folks have called “single-issue politics”, and explaining why it is too simpleminded.

  26. says

    Josh @ #15 and #16

    I’m sorry but I don’t think I am doing that. First I didn’t say “we”, nor tell anyone what to do or say, I was not prescriptive at all. I definitely didn’t say that anyone should shut the fuck up in the name of the greater cause or something. That’s an acomodationist stance and it’s bullshit.

    I’m really SUPER TIRED of the default being that those who object to being mistreated have to be the ones to make the compromise

    I agree with you. That’s not what I’m saying.
    Either I’ve expressed myself very poorly or I’m been misread. To say that lines can be fuzzy and that to draw them can be tricky doesn’t mean that they should not or cannot be drawn.
    Besides I would not say what you or anyone else should or would do or not do. I’m just a random guy giving (uninvited) 2 cents from abroad. It’s a privileged position and I’m aware of that.

  27. says

    Rutee @ 20

    So your example of how we should shut up

    Except that I’m NOT saying that ANYONE should shut up. At all.

    Because that is teh part of my identity that matters least, so guess how much I care to work with them on atheism.

    Maybe I was not clear enough that ‘atheism’ is not where I draw MY lines in most of the issues most of the time.
    But that is more or less circunstantial than a principled position. Again, this is about me where I live, it’s not an advice to anyone else.

  28. says

    My goal is for people to be treated with dignity and have their rights respected. Traditional atheist movement goals–church/state separation; promotion of education & scepticism; ending discrimination against non-believers; anti-apologetics and anti-theism–are all just a part of, or a means to achieving that larger aim. How can I consider someone my ally if they are working against my fundamental goal? Not just by, for example, trampling on the dignity of “the enemy”* but by treating me or my friends in the community like dirt? Like carlie said, anyone who calls for me to work with such contemptible people are just displaying how clueless and privileged they are.

    *For example, I’m thinking of xenophobic atheists who use anti-Islam rhetoric to stir up a fervour against brown immigrants. I don’t consider them (the racists, that is) to be allies of mine either (I’m much more likely to see the brown immigrants and Muslims, especially perhaps the women, as my allies in this case), but I can almost grasp the idea of someone else *cough* David Silverman *cough* thinking that I should let that slide because I’m also against Islam. But how that someone else could think I should let it slide when the bigotry is turned directly on me or others inside the movement is baffling.

  29. Bernard Bumner says

    As someone who is privileged in most aspects of my identity, I recognise that my perspective on alliance is very much skewed. I will never need to seek alliance to find my rights and opinions receiving loud voice in society.

    I do worry that the notion of allies is often fetishised by members of the community. They treat the notion of alliance as some relationship of bondage which must be negotiated via some accord, and therefore broken via some ritual or another. That very much favours the powerful person; it is no longer sufficient to reject them, but it must be done publicly and with careful explanation, and in such a way that community judges it to be fair.

  30. says

    I can’t think of any good words that already exist for this phenomenon. And the best I can come up with right now is ‘frostally’ – someone who is on the same team as you on a specific issue, but with whom your relationship is otherwise frosty. I don’t see that catching on though.

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