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.