I have a proposal. It’s not particularly modest, and I don’t think it’s satirical. Let’s get rid of the word “ally” in left politics.
Okay, that might be jumping to conclusions. First, let’s look at the word and its users first, and figure some things out. I’m wondering: who or what is “an ally”? What does the word convey, and what is the position of “allies”? Are these two at odds, and if so, how?
(My primary perspective here, as you know, is one of a man with feminist convictions, and the particulars of this argument may or may not apply to “allies” in other emancipatory struggles, so, grain of salt recommended if I start generalizing. Grain of salt recommended in general, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t know that.)
An ally, my trusty OED tells me, is “a state formally cooperating with another for a military or other purpose; a person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity”, originally from the Latin alligare, “bind together”. What I like about the term is the martial connotation: if there are allies, it means there’s probably a fight going on. This is important not because I’m a fan of militarism, but because mainstream liberal-democratic discourse insists on the denial of struggle, and on pretending that structural injustice and subjugation are the result of ignorance and unreason. And this well over a hundred years after this was written:
[T]he world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.
We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic.
–Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
So, I like that. Bourgeois reason maintains that “we”, the human creatures, are all on the same side against the dark and irrational forces of prejudice and oppression. To bring the war metaphor into the discussion is to demolish that view, exposing how prejudice and oppression arise not from the dark corners of the human spirit (and therefore metaphysics), but out of concrete social relations and material realities. Hopefully we’re all well past thinking of patriarchy as being only about women’s unpaid labour, but that labour remains an absolutely uneradicable aspect of it, and to be “against sexism” as a man in some abstract way, without recognizing how you have and are benefitting from that labour, is utter folly.
But while the implication of class struggle seems to be embedded in the concept of an “ally”, experience shows that this doesn’t mean shit. “Allies” who have “seen the light” are perfectly willing to unsee it and appeal to their privilege, which they’ve supposedly renounced, as soon as someone draws attention to an objectionable thing they did. They’re “on your side” as long as the repercussions are fairly minimal and the praise is forthcoming; when the time comes to own their mistakes and their abusive behaviour, bam, huge meltdown about their poor hurt feelings. Examples abound, I’m sure we’ve all seen it. Hell, I’ve done it myself, though most of you wouldn’t have seen it.
I’m seriously not out to gloat here. That’s the worst thing I could possibly do: point and laugh at how some folks are Bad Allies and I’m better than them. I’m not, of course, and either way it’s not some competition to see how long we can go pretending that we’ve freed ourselves from our upbringing and cultural norms and ideology. But the fact remains that some folks who are “allies” are really bad at it, and that it seems to be a pervasive problem.
I’d like to try and figure out why this is the case, and what structural forces are at work. I’m not interested in moral failings, but when these “failings” start to occur in recognizable and predictable patterns, it becomes obvious that there’s something more going on.
The first thing that strikes me about “ally” and “alliance” is that — if we’re talking about international politics — alliances are, in practice, temporary and opportunistic. They’re rooted in common interests, but as soon as they stop being mutually advantageous, they are dissolved or broken. This is important because in the context of social justice, in the short view, an “alliance” is never advantageous to the “ally”. A man opposing patriarchy is acting against his own material interests in the short term. Long-term, an argument can be made that a future egalitarian society is better for everyone, not just those currently oppressed, for countless reasons — my favourite is that this society would not have assigned me, by accidents of birth and neurology, to a class and an identity predicated on violence and emotional incompetence. (It’s perfectly enough to say that patriarchy is unjust and leave it at that, of course. But the personal is political, and this is my personal stake.)
Being an “ally” is shooting yourself in the foot in the name of either ethical principles, or some benefits in the indeterminate future, most likely not in your lifetime. Let’s not lionize people who make this choice, or sing the praises of their supposed sacrifices: it’s a really fucking stupid choice! It’s counter-intuitive and dubiously rational. In all your interactions with me, please remember that I am a horrible idiot who doesn’t know what’s best for him.
Now, some of us know a lot about self-hate, but it’s absurd to seek a transformative politics based solely on your own self-hate. It cannot be done. In order to reach out to others respectfully and build meaningful relationships — without which we cannot even dream of transforming a society built on alienation — you must also respect yourself. And principles are important, but they won’t carry you all the way, all the time.
My own short-term gain in being an “ally” is the everyday practice of relating to others with kindness, trust and honest criticism, and hoping for them to respond in kind. I really cannot overstate how important this is to me. There came a certain point in my life when I realized that I interacted with everyone around me in a way that was not only egotistic, but frequently coercive, and that these were people I liked or admired or loved, and I didn’t want to do this anymore. I’ve come a long way since then — nowhere near long enough, of course. And you know what? You bet it’s been nothing but beneficial to me. It’s helped me cope with my fucked up brain problems, for one, and encouraged me to try and fix them. It taught me a lot about how to build happy and healthy intimate relationships. I have a continuing incentive to try and act in a feminist manner as much as possible, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s positively impacted my life.
But that’s just me. And really, should anyone besides me even care?
There really isn’t much reason to special-case “allies” and maintain that passionate conviction will overtake structural forces, because that’s just how magical we are. To be consistent in my analysis, I can’t escape the conclusion: that there is absolutely no reason for any woman/member of another oppressed group to trust an “ally”, ever. Every one of us is a walking liability, and there’s no telling when we might wake up one day and decide that ethical principles and a better world for our grandchildren aren’t worth giving up concrete privileges in the here-and-now.
As leftists, of course, we would probably like to think we’re better than this, and not driven by cost-benefit calculations in our relations with friends and comrades. But the thing we have to understand is that this can be a matter of life and death. How many people do you know who self-harm, or have PTSD, or get severe panic attacks? Nobody is fucking born with PTSD. They’ve been hurt before, and they can’t afford to take any risks. Your hurt feelings because someone doesn’t trust you are going to have to take a back seat to their survival.
I’ll get back to this grim stuff in a bit, but first, let’s knock some easy points out of the way. One: creating the special category of “ally” has, I believe, an effect opposite to the intended one. The whole point of asking “can men be feminists” and answering in the negative is to ensure that “feminism”, as a movement and an ideology, remains under the control of women, and works in the best interest of women. Hence the “ally”, to signify that you are helping, but that it’s not about you.
In practice, however, it just seems to make the “allies” more visible as a distinct group, supposedly deserving of special consideration. The term also contains a preemptive disawoval: sure, I’m “allied” with you, but as soon as things start going poorly, I’m gonna be looking out for number one.
Two: “alliance” seems strangely at odds with the radical leftist notion of solidarity. The latter is just a much stronger claim, with much different historical and political connotations; in particular, breaking an alliance might be strategically advisable, but breaking solidarity is always contemptible.
Three: can we talk for a while about the relation of “feminist allies” to other men? Because there’s a word for that relation, and I never see it used: it’s “treason”. You’re breaking ranks with your supposed peer group, and actively working against its interests (male supremacy); surely that’s not too strong a term? But it rarely, if ever, comes up — and is it really a coincidence that when push comes to shove, “allies” are very reluctant to stand against other men?
I’m not interested in moral failings, like I said. The structural pressure here is enormous. But if you didn’t know that when you were signing up for treason, and are finding that out right now and not liking all this structural pressure, what good are you to anyone?
Four: a vaguely related anecdote. In real life, I lean towards calling myself “a feminist” rather than “an ally”, especially since I have to gender that noun anyway in Polish, so it’s a distinct word from a woman calling herself a feminist. But also because I believe that it’s strategically sound: feminism doesn’t really function in Polish culture the way it does in the US or UK, or rather, it’s marginalized much in the same way, but to a far greater extent, so a lot of people will only have heard of it through some crude caricatures or stupid TV shows. And perhaps as importantly, because I shudder at the thought of putting a degree of separation between myself and a set of beliefs that has been, no lie, one of the most important influences in my life.
But! All that said, some two or three years ago, a bunch of Polish “feminist men” signed some sort of open letter declaring that, well, I’m not sure what they were declaring? That it’s very important to congratulate them on being feminist, I guess? Anyway, one of the points, I forget the exact phrasing, went like “We believe that more women in politics will lead to more compassionate and nurturing policies”.
I was like, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Even if you do believe that having more women in the ruling class will somehow improve the living conditions of working class women (spoiler: it won’t, it never does), what a fucking sexist way to phrase it, right? And this from a bunch of journalists and professors and other self-important liberal and “leftist” bigwigs! So that’s why I’m not so sure about calling myself a “feminist man” in public: I’m worried that someone will associate me with that letter and the shitheads who signed it.
So, with all of the above in mind, let’s go back to the worrying part. Is there any use for “allies”?
Well, as people who support a cause contrary to their material interests because they think it’s the right thing to do, probably, yeah. As long as we’re brutally honest with ourselves about what that means, and don’t expect anyone to hold our hands or “support” us. We’re the one doing the supporting, in this instance. As long as we master the art of knowing when to shut up, too, and a bunch of other tricks about not taking up all available physical, emotional and discursive space. You’ve heard it all before; the trick is to put it into practice, and then keep doing it all the time. Especially when you don’t feel like it. And so on, and so forth.
But that’s a lot of ifs and as-longs and oh fuck it let me just say it again: we’re not necessary. The oppressed can free themselves just fine — in fact, only the oppressed can emancipate themselves; history bears this out. So if we’re not necessary, and we still want to help out, we’d best be making double-fucking-sure we’re actually welcome and actually helping.
“Allies” as a concept, and a distinct group, though? Based on experience alone, I’m unconvinced.
Bottom line, though, dudes, whatever you call yourself, just do your thing, don’t turn it into a goddamn personal brand. That way lies Tim Wise. Nobody likes Tim Wise.