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The pursuit of purity

A common failing I see in most online discussions of just about any topic is a failure to separate the person from the idea. Whether it be invocations of ‘racists’ or ‘misogynists’ (or, I will subsequently argue, ‘feminists’ or ‘skeptics’), we categorize people based on their arguments, usually (but not always*) after a tiny number of instances of a given behaviour, or based only on their furious affirmations of allegiance one way or another. This is not only a failing of our criticisms of others, but our images of ourselves.

The specific form of this that I want to discuss today is the word ‘ally’. What most people mean when they use the term ally is that they are a person who is not a member of a marginalized group, but who is sympathetic to that group’s needs and (in some cases) helps to articulate their arguments. Allies are useful and important to any movement – there were many white civil rights and anti-apartheid crusaders; there were (and are) many male feminists and suffrage advocates; there are lots of heterosexual people who fight against homophobia.

The crucial function that allies can serve, if they do their work properly, is to leverage their privilege to carry the voices of the minority group to new audiences. It is quite easy to dismiss minority perspectives as being self-serving when oppressed groups speak out for themselves (e.g., “playing the race card”); it is much more difficult to justify outright dismissal – not that it doesn’t happen, just that the excuses need to become more convoluted. Allies are able to break through some of the status quo resistance to change by bypassing the easiest excuse: that people are cravenly advocating a position for their own selfish gain.

The problem arises when someone who would like to cast hirself as an ally finds hirself being criticized for failing to recognize their own privilege. These kinds of criticisms can often be quite unkind, for reasons I have attempted to flesh out previously. When confronted with their failure, it is all too common to see someone fight “back”. After all, how dare they accuse you of being part of the problem? You’re an ally! You’re on their side! We need to save the vitriol and the snark for the ‘real enemy’, not in tearing each other down!

The demand, in whatever specific language it may be phrased, is for people who publicly identify themselves as “allies” to be treated differently from those who do not. Of course, simply identifying as an “ally” doesn’t in any way guarantee that you actually are an ally. It means, in the most generous interpretation possible, that you aspire to be an ally. I’ve seen many “allies” who self-identify as such in a fit of self-congratulation over not specifically opposing whichever group is under discussion, and I’ve seen others who drop the pretense altogether and simply wish to have their activities judged entirely separately from their observed shitty behaviour.

And this is the larger problem – labels are useful ways of describing the universe, but they are not sufficient on their own. I could describe myself as just about anything, but if my actions stand at sharp odds to the label then I deserve to be criticized as such. Indeed, we have little hesitation in calling out those members of ‘our own community’ who identify as “rational” but whose actions reveal themselves to be anything but (or, in most cases, only selectively so). When we begin to believe our own propaganda about our intentions, we put ourselves in the cognitively impossible position of reconciling our self-applied label with our actual behaviour.

Feminists rightly decry the “purity myth” about how women ought to behave: that a woman’s worth is held within her body, and that sex ‘ruins’ that worth. There is a second purity myth that we believe in, but rarely put words to: the myth of the purity of our intentions. We believe that because we are good feminists or anti-racists or skeptics, we are therefore impervious to behaviours or ideas that violate those principles. When facing criticism, we reflexively seek to protect our self-concept – I couldn’t possibly be misogynist because I’m a feminist! The only route out of that dissonance is to conclude that the fault lies with the critic – that they are overreacting, that they are picking fights unnecessarily, that they simply don’t understand the nuanced point that you are trying to make about why some gender roles are perfectly okay.

The problem with taking this ego-protecting route is that you rapidly reveal yourself to be failing at being an ally. Comment threads of social justice blogs (or, more commonly, those that specifically spurn social justice) are filled with people who bitterly complain that “I’m a feminist but…” and then go on a long tear about how roughly they were treated by other commenters for “simply disagreeing” about some point or other. It is the expression of the desire to be judged by your label rather than your behaviour. It is the same impulse that drives the undergraduate to the professor to get hir mark “bumped up” so they are still eligible for medical school, even though ze got the answers wrong.

The answer is to recognize that the drive for ideological purity, while laudable, is practically impossible. We are all somewhere on a journey going from the ideas we learned as children toward ideas that are (hopefully) less harmful and more inclusive. Nobody is “there” yet – the sheer amount of knowledge and information there is “there” is impossible for anyone to wield with perfect recall and accuracy. However, if we can learn to recognize criticism for what it is – an opportunity to take one step towards “there” – we can learn to take our egos out of the equation. In so doing, we not only make it more likely that we will live up to our own expectations of the label ‘ally’, we make it easier for others to recognize us as such.

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*This is a sticking point between myself and Amanda Marcotte, who thinks that someone who habitually engages in a behaviour can be labelled by that behaviour.

Comments

  1. says

    I think many people have an urgent, burning need to know who’s on “their” side and who isn’t–hence all the labels, ideological and otherwise. It’s much more difficult to evaluate someone’s behavior than to stick a label on them and judge them by that.

  2. says

    More difficult, yes, but ultimately necessary. It’s similarly more difficult to learn about radiometric dating than it is to say “a god did it”, but we don’t tolerate that kind of cop-out. It requires a bit of self-awareness.

    But now that I wrote a blog post about it, I consider the problem fixed.

  3. invivoMark says

    I can’t imagine why you’d write this post right now. :-P

    I do see myself as aspiring to be a good ally to pretty much all social justice movements. I am not a perfect ally, and I know this – like you point out, that isn’t possible. I very much like, and completely agree with, your last paragraph.

    But while it’s easy to agree with your post, it’s hard to actually act according to your prescriptions. Whenever someone else tells us that we’re wrong, of course we’re not going to believe them. We come to our opinions for reasons, and we generally like to consider our reasons sound. And I don’t think that we should simply assume that we’re wrong just because someone told us that we are – even if the issue is feminism and the person telling us we’re wrong is a woman. It’s much easier, but not necessarily more correct, to assume that the woman is wrong.

    But there is ground between assuming that we’re wrong and assuming that we’re right. There are lots of cases, in feminism and elsewhere, where I’m honestly not sure if my actions are okay. One example is gendered pronouns – I just can’t bring myself to use “hir”. I’m undecided about whether that’s something I ought to try to fix. But I’m okay with the possibility that I’m wrong, and I won’t begrudge anyone who disagrees with me.

    I’ve also been on the receiving end of people lashing out because I didn’t agree with them. I won’t name the issue, but I once received several nasty comments and got unfairly lumped in with someone who really was being a bad ally, simply for asking questions. And I honestly didn’t have a complete opinion at the time, and was being sincere with my questions, but the fact that I wasn’t joining the chorus in berating the bad allies was enough to damn me.

    It was very off-putting, and infuriating as an aspiring feminist to be unfairly accused. As much as I abhor tone trolls and don’t want to be one… a more measured and reasoned response is helpful when dealing with someone who is sincerely trying to be an ally.

  4. says

    I can’t imagine why you’d write this post right now

    Actually I started it back in January and never got around to finishing it, what with Black History Month and then the Chicago trip (and the posts that fed into that).

    And I don’t think that we should simply assume that we’re wrong just because someone told us that we are

    I wouldn’t quite rephrase my prescription that way. What I would say is that the further you get from your own lived experience of a social justice issue, the greater the chance that you’re wrong. And if your reflexive response to criticism is “no you’re wrong” rather than “how am I wrong”, then you’re making a mistake.

    a more measured and reasoned response is helpful when dealing with someone who is sincerely trying to be an ally.

    Meh. I would say that part of the job description of ally means that you’re going to get smacked around by your “own team” a bit. It’s going to happen. You’ve got to be in the game because it’s the right thing to do, not because people are nicer to you as a result. I understand the impulse to adopt a “more flies with honey” approach, but I don’t think there’s any group anywhere that doesn’t realize it can make more friends if it’s nicer to people, so I don’t go there. I assume if I’m being yelled at, it’s for a good reason; and if I don’t agree that the reason is good, it’s my job to back off and not force the issue rather than trying to point out how I understand their oppression better than they do.

  5. jesse says

    I’m gonna say this as someone who was a true “Red Diaper Baby” and has, I think a lot of experience (lived experience if you will) with the issue of “purity” on “our” side as well.

    There is sometimes a sense I get — especially when taking to certain brands of feminist or leftist or freaky right winger — that our political principles are judged on how “pure” we are. You’ve met this person: the one who is an ardent Maoist or something who says all property is theft and we should therefore live in the woods like the Unabomber, and if you don’t agree then you are an evil capitalist running dog. Usually these folks are pretty insufferable.

    But it does come up in issues of political organizing. One of the things that can doom any political movement is when you start treating concrete political positions the way religious people treat testimonies about faith — as some kinds of magical incantations. When you ignore that all your favorite isms don’t always match up with the messy, messy realities of people’s lives.

    Too often I hear people talk about other people i these moralistic terms that make me wasn’t to ask what parts of the catechism I am missing out on reciting.

    Or the old communists and SDS people who used to do this routine of self-criticism, and the origins of the term “politically correct” come in part from that, and their behavior then. I think this is part of that issue of purity of motive you bring up. In an American/ Canadian context especially we think a lot about purity of motive, in part as a result of our shared protestant heritage which places a lot of emphasis on that. (The fact that you are saved by a testament of faith in the Protestant tradition and not actions says a lot).

    Anyhow this gets into when people talk about allies and such. My dad was a veteran organizer, and he always old me that when building coalitions it is important to not alienate, to find common ground, and to understand that not every coalition is going to work for the same thing. The Catholic Church, for instance, was a big help in working with working class people on some issues — like the sanctuary movement and the labor people — but you wouldn’t be talking to them about health for women.

  6. invivoMark says

    Well, dammit. I wrote a reply to Cromm’s latest comment last night, but my reply seems to have been eaten. Briefly, I had said:

    I pretty much agree with everything.

    I would clarify my point about measured responses vs. yelling at people. I’m totally fine with being mean to douchebags. But I’d also keep Hanlon’s Law in mind: never ascribe malice where stupidity will suffice; never ascribe stupidity where ignorance will suffice; never ascribe ignorance where honest mistake will suffice. Or, more briefly: be vicious, but check your target first.

    The reason I make this point is because friendly fire hurts. It’s the most painful kind of rhetorical fire. I’m trying to be the best feminist I can be, but I also need dialogue with other feminists to hone my beliefs and strategies to make me a more effective feminist.

  7. Ze Madmax says

    The demand, in whatever specific language it may be phrased, is for people who publicly identify themselves as “allies” to be treated differently from those who do not. Of course, simply identifying as an “ally” doesn’t in any way guarantee that you actually are an ally. It means, in the most generous interpretation possible, that you aspire to be an ally. I’ve seen many “allies” who self-identify as such in a fit of self-congratulation over not specifically opposing whichever group is under discussion, and I’ve seen others who drop the pretense altogether and simply wish to have their activities judged entirely separately from their observed shitty behaviour.

    This highlights one of the issues I (personally) have with self-applying the label of ‘ally.’ Because of how privilege works, and how much of it occurs outside of one’s awareness, it’s often not an issue of whether or not a majority group member will act with unchecked privilege, but rather when it will happen. So one’s status as an ally is fluid and dependent on one’s actions. Hence why I don’t consider myself a feminist (because I endorse/support feminism) but whether I am a ‘feminist ally’ is to be determine by, y’know… women. Ditto with anti-racism/pro-GSM rights and minorities/GSM folks.

  8. hoary puccoon says

    invivoMark @ 3– “Whenever someone else tells us that we’re wrong, of course we’re not going to believe them.”

    But why would that be? Years ago, In South Carolina, I was deeply involved in the fight to ratify the ERA, and tangentially involved in the civil rights movement. And I wanted Black people (I didn’t know anybody who said African American then)– anyway, I *wanted* them to be less respectful and more upfront. Yes, it hurt the night after Martin Luther King died, to hear that they didn’t want any whites involved in the local memorial service. I was grieving, too. A lot of white people were. (But, then, a lot of whites in South Carolina weren’t.)

    But, still I wanted to know, to really understand, where the Black activists were coming from. I don’t think I ever got there. There were too many years of distrust before I ever entered the state. I was treated as a respectable white woman would be treated. And I never cracked that polished veneer of manners. That was, of course, completely the prerogative of the Black community. They knew, as I didn’t, what they were up against. They knew from bitter experience the danger of letting a white woman get close.

    But it seems to me, if you’re really an ally, being told you’re wrong, being told when you don’t understand, being treated like you deserve no special favors for your great and generous liberalism (which is nothing more than common human decency)– being treated like one more imperfect human being is a precious, precious gift.

  9. smrnda says

    Being an ally requires a willingness to listen to be people who you supposedly support. It’s possible to have good intentions but to achieve nothing from a faulty understanding of the problems facing a group of people simply because you don’t have the insider perspective. Criticisms should be listened to and learned from, particularly since it isn’t like every member of every marginalized group has the exact same opinions.

    Since I’m relatively well-off I try to explain how my own recent success has little to do with merit and how poor people get stuck being poor and that the situation they face aren’t ones that can be overcome with a better work ethic. Once in a while I’ve been accused of being patronizing towards poor people since I’m presenting them as victims who can’t lift themselves up without outside assistance, but I tend to get this criticism from people who aren’t poor, so I’ve never been sure how this affects my ally status.

  10. Jacob Schmidt says

    Arguments, disagreements, and the occasional yelling match are a part of life. Everyone does it. It’s ridiculous to flounce in an angry huff when some group disagrees with you. If that group is discussing an emotionally charged issue (like they’re own goddamn rights), emotions can flare up. So, even assuming that you’re* totally right, you still shouldn’t get super defensive.

    Throw in the fact that you’re probably wrong, fighting back just makes you an asshole.

    Trigger Warning, rape
    This thread is a good example of the phenomenon.

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