The wages of virtue

Most of you probably know that in addition to the handful of other things I do in my life, I work full-time as a health economic researcher. I have a job. I work at this job because it’s a necessary thing for me to have the kind of lifestyle I want, and I have been given the antecedents to the opportunity to get a job like this (a stable home environment, a consistent parental focus on education, abundant encouragement from mentors, good health, a great deal of luck, the list goes on). On most days I like my job, although getting my ass out the door at 6:30 am every morning is not exactly ideal.

I have a boss. I like my boss a lot. He gives me a fairly free hand to do work on my own schedule, and is there as a resource if I need guidance or feedback. Part and parcel with this sort of laissez-faire approach is that, while I don’t get micromanaged, I also don’t get noted for every time I don’t screw up. I can sure as hell expect feedback if I do something wrong, but on a day-to-day basis I know that I am the only one looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m staying on track and doing things properly. If I screw up and don’t fix my mistakes, I get fired.

Most of you probably know that in addition to the other handful of labels I apply to myself, I consider myself a feminist. I have detailed the reasons for this countless times before, but suffice it to say that I recognize the same forces of oppression and selective perspective at work in white supremacy that I do in misogyny. The similarities between the two make recognizing one without recognizing the other nearly impossible. Insofar as being identified and self-identifying as male precludes me from directly experiencing the most virulent and visceral forms of misogyny, it would not be inaccurate to call me a “feminist ally”*.

The scope, depth, and vigour of my feminism is entirely within my own hands. Like my job, there is nobody who bestows hugs and cookies on me every time I do the bare minimum of recognizing gender equality.

A cartoon in which someone is rewarded lavishly merely for saying "I don't have a problem with queers"

In fact, the only time I ever expect to hear about my feminism from those with whom I express allegiance is when I fail to live up to it. To be sure, when I go out of my way to fight on behalf of feminist principles I may receive some plaudits from people who appreciate my taking a stand – it is always nice to know that my efforts are appreciated. That being said, there has never been a circumstance where I felt some sort of resentful entitlement to recognition and praise for simply acting as though (or worse, simply holding it in my head that) I believe men and women are fundamentally equal.

That’s because I realize that being an ally isn’t something that I am by virtue of agreement with an idea – it’s something I do. It’s a job I have. I can do a good job and stand up for these principles, or I can do a bad job and say things that come from an unthinking perspective. I can even do a slacker’s job and let other people do all the fighting, quietly agreeing with them but refusing to sully myself by taking a side. Hell, I can even believe in a feminist position but chastise “both sides” for being unnecessarily “uncivil” in their disagreement.

In only one of those circumstances am I being an ally. In all the others I am doing something else entirely.

There are folks who have, at various times, sought to turn this argument into a “with us or against us” thing. They whine to me about “divisiveness” or being “confrontational” or “angry”, and make vague hand-waving assertions about this argument’s resemblance to a foreign policy doctrine by a certain former US President. But this isn’t and never has been a “with me or against me” thing. You’re either with me, or you’re not with me. But if you’re not with me, you’re not an ally of mine. You can call yourself an ally, you can claim to share my position when it comes to gender equality, racial equality, or freedom of/from religion, but unless you are fighting alongside me, you can’t expect me to see that label as anything other than rank and deluded self-flattery.

Woman: "That's the 8th stamp on your Nice Guy card! Now you can stop pretending to care about me as a person and we can have all that sex that you deserve!" Man: "Hot diggity!"

Being an ally, like most jobs, is a long and gruelling task that is often thankless, and where the only time your efforts are noticed is when you screw up. The personal reward that you take away for your efforts is not the warm approval and deferential awe of those you’re staunchly defending. It certainly isn’t a “get out of oppression free” card for the next time you screw up. Anyone who thinks that it’s sexual favours needs to STFU and GTFO.

The truth about being a true ally of any social justice movement, be it feminism or anti-racism or atheism, is that your only reward is the better world that your struggle helped to create. Allies from outside the directly-impacted group are crucial, but their motives need to be sincere. They (we) are needed because their very existence disproves one of the central claims made by detractors: that the movement is about self-interest rather than principle. The best ally you could be is one who listens when in the presence of those you seek to work with, and who is unrestrainedly loud in hir defense of the position when surrounded by hir fellows.

But if the only time you’re doing any fighting is against the people pointing out how you’re failing to be an ally, well then you’re the worst ally imaginable.

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*I hasten to note that one can be a male feminist. I would go further and say that men who agree with the tenets of feminism ought to be as vocal as possible in such self-identification.


  1. ischemgeek says

    THIS. Yes. Exactly. Thank you.

    Sorry, over on the A+ forums, we’ve been trying to get that across several different threads at once to people who I think want to get it but don’t yet, sooo ya. You just said what I was trying to convey better than my best attempts. Thank you. Do you mind if I link it all over the place? This’ll probably be my new go-to response to “But I try to be progressive so shouldn’t I get cookies? Why’s everyone yelling at me?” If you don’t mind, that is. 🙂

  2. says

    Sometimes, in fact, the wages of virtue are that you’re trusted with the information that something you did hurt. We don’t usually share our vulnerabilities with people who only want to take advantage of them.

  3. says

    I guess it depends on your perspective. If what matters to you is doing the right thing by the moral standards of your society, then you are 100% correct. That is exactly how our society advocates handling virtue and blame. Goodness is expected (and so largely ignored,) badness punished.

    Of course, human psychology tells us that negative reinforcement rarely changes behavior much. Punish someone for something, and they’ll keep doing it – they’ll just learn to hide it. The way to change people’s behavior is to reward good behavior. Yes, there are many complications to this, but at root, if you want someone to repeat a behavior, you should reward it.

    Luckily, humans will accept all forms of social recognition as positive reinforcement, so literally all you need to do to keep someone on the right path is give them acknowledgement. You don’t need to pay people, but at the bare minimum, you need to tell them that they’re good people when they do good things, if you wish them to keep doing so.

    We have a sick society precisely because we function in reverse, focusing on punishment rather than reward. The question in the end is, do you wish to be right (by the standards of our deeply flawed society) or do you wish to be effective?

  4. says

    I’ve taken to calling it “Bigot Tokens”… if you collect enough by doing the right thing now, you can trade them in for a free pass on something terrible later.

    In real life, the most you can earn is the benefit of the doubt and a chance to correct yourself, apologize, and have your apology accepted if you say or do something borderline. Free passes? Not a chance!

  5. Enkidum says

    Of course, human psychology tells us that negative reinforcement rarely changes behavior much. Punish someone for something, and they’ll keep doing it – they’ll just learn to hide it. The way to change people’s behavior is to reward good behavior. Yes, there are many complications to this, but at root, if you want someone to repeat a behavior, you should reward it.

    Well….. If you want someone to repeat a behaviour, rewarding it is the best guarantee of that happening. But if the problem is that you want someone to stop doing something, you don’t have much an option beyond negative reinforcement. Shame and punishment can be extremely powerful motivators.

    But when you’re talking about something as complex as one’s attitudes towards other races or sexes or what have you, this kind of behaviorist analysis is too simplistic. If the behavior you’re rewarding is “not being an outright asshole”, which is basically what the article is talking about, then it’s not clear that the same strategy is going to work.

  6. adriana says

    Fantastic article. Couldn’t be any clearer. Thanks for writing this so the rest of us without your clarity of writing can refer to it.

  7. Onamission5 says

    Really, really, really well said.

    Not to mention, the act of handing out cookies– or explaining why one is not– to potential allies uses up valuable resources of those who are directly affected by SJ issues. If I have to spend more time in a group or organisation headpatting self-labeled allies than I spend doing the work I am there to do, there’s something wrong with the power balance in that group. I posit that the expectation that one will be lavished with praise for not being a complete asshole is yet another way that privileged people try to dominate and keep all the power, ’cause being the very important center of attention is what they are used to.

  8. iiii says

    Most of the time, the only reward for acting like an adult is being treated like an adult. At some point even the most privileged people have to grow up and stop expecting the folks around them to drop everything and celebrate any time a privileged person makes poo in the potty instead of spattering crap all over the room.

  9. karmakin says

    Said cookies are the currency…the fuel…that movement work…especially SUCCESSFUL movement work…runs on, like it or not. Or at least that’s my experience. And it’s not just “allies”, it’s everybody. Sure, you’ll find the occasional person who is there to put themselves out of a job, so to speak, but more often than not people are there for the feel-goods. Or at the very least the feel-goods balance out the stress and work of looking the problems of society flat in the eye.

    Why successful?

    It’s all about what you can offer people that you’re expanding the circle over. Sometimes it’s a group image or identity (The whole pink/breast cancer thing comes to mind), sometimes it’s the feeling of doing the right thing, sometimes it’s something on a resume. People have different reasons.

    But yeah, doing movement work without those emotional cookies, I think is simply not either realistic or effective.

  10. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    On the other hand, a kid who’s learned to poop in the toilet isn’t being unreasonable for wanting people to stop claiming they shit on the floor. An occasional “I know YOU get it” or adding a “most” explicitly where it’s implied, and then moving on, isn’t “dropping everything and celebrating,” that’s a false dichotomy at a level better suited for those still potty-training.

  11. Onamission5 says

    What I am saying is not that cookies for allies are bad in and of themselves, but that they should be expected to come from the reward of a job well done, they should be incidental to making progress on the cause. Any privileged person who expects a reward for allied action to come from those very individuals who are fighting against their own oppression is taking precious energy resources away from those less privileged people they are there to assist. They are making it All About Them.

    Again, if I have to spend an inordinate amount of time handing out cookies to allies, and the rest of my time just trying to clear space to exist, then I’ve got nothing left for the fight. Cookie demanding allies have shifted the power balance back into their own favor.

    I have no problem handing out headpats when I feel they are warranted, however, if I have to deal with “Did I do good? Huh? Huh?” all the time or “I did good! Want cookie or I am leaving!” on top of living while female and fighting for social justice, then that is going to be a significant and totally unnecessary drain on my personal resources.

    I get what Ian is saying because I’ve seen it directly. Straight people who come into LGBT spaces, men who come into feminist spaces, white people who come into PoC spaces claiming the title of ally, put forth a tiny bit of effort, and get pissy or pouty that they don’t get cookies for their Very Important contribution– efforts that LGBT folks and women and PoC have to put forth every. single. day. just by virtue of existing. Demanding praise and headpats for base effort makes an issue all about you, rather than about the people you’re supposed to be trying to support. Where’s *their* cookies?

  12. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Onamisson’s formulation makes complete sense to me, and I can’t find anything to disagree with in it.

    (Does this mean I should keep silent? ;))

  13. jose says

    The workplace is a good comparison but you get money for it. When you do volunteer work, the work is supposed to be the reward because you believe in what you’re doing. Activism is like volunteering except it deals with politics but the reward is the same. The reward for going to a demonstration is for the company to say they’ve decided to sit down and talk with the workers. Don’t be like the phony, opportunistic politician that joins a demonstration just for good PR and forgets all about it after getting elected.

  14. Adam says

    That would be the basic problem I have with this article, in the sense that the beginning seems to equate the job one has where the boss always gets on your case when you’re wrong but never rewards you. Yes, it can be similar from the perspective of the boss. However, in job situations the behaviorist philosophy would work better than when we’re talking about jobs. A little positive reinforcement now and then, especially for people who almost never screw up (“hey, good job,” etc), is much more likely to actually encourage that behavior to continue. Feedback of at least some form I think is important in a job situation.

    That said, I do not believe that type of approach should apply to simply “not being an asshole.” To a certain extent, depending on the situation, that is subjective. In the context Crommunist is putting this in, I 100% agree that the reward doesn’t come from praise but from a better world.

  15. says

    In point of fact, negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment at all. Negative reinforcement applies to positively reinforcing the absence of an undesirable behavior, and is indeed the correct way to handle a bad behavior. Once again, punishment only trains a person to hide a behavior – it does not effectively extinguish it unless you are omniscient with regards to that behavior. All real behavior modification systems that employ punishments effectively use repetitive and arbitrary punishments as a baseline, making them a part of the person’s day to day life so that their absence can then be used as a reward. If you’re not sufficiently evil to do that, the only value of punishment is as a deterrent to others – it does not modify the behavior of the person you punish in useful way, at least not reliably.

    In terms of day to day life, it’s about context. If you know that a person is inclined to be an asshole, then their refraining from doing so is an accomplishment. No, it wouldn’t be an accomplishment for you, but I’m sure there’s something that would if you’re honest with yourself. If you know someone is a dick, and they manage not to be a dick, it’s important to reward that good behavior with some acknowledgement – if you care about that person not being a dick in the future. If you don’t care about their future behavior, of course, do whatever makes you feel good…

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