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How do you feel about the concept of 'ally'?

+1 vote
To clarify: by 'ally' I mean one who does not experience a form of oppression but works in support and/or solidarity with those who do.

I've heard people be vehemently supportive and opposed to this idea. At the opposed end I see people who think that 'allies' are just guilt-obsessed privileged people looking to take marching orders from oppressed people to relieve their guilt. At the supportive are those who understand that their own oppression is linked with the oppression of everyone else, and therefore seek mutual liberation by 'allying' themselves with those who are already up against so much worse than them.
asked Dec 30, 2013 by flip (3,970 points)
"by 'ally' I mean one who does not experience a form of oppression but works in support and/or solidarity with those who do"

interesting that you define ally as explicitly related to oppression. seems like a rather narrow definition to me - one that seems to limit the context to typical identity activism.

also, if oppression is the sole context, i would love to know of any person in this world that is NOT oppressed in some way. if you are instead speaking of singular classes of oppression (race, gender, etc), then i guess i have no affinity with your concept of "ally", as i have no interest in the oppression pyramid that comes from that single-issue focus.

2 Answers

+1 vote
i was reading your question and all like "yep, both sides have a point, it's a question of intention" (which i will come back to), but then your "...who are already up against so much worse than them" made the bottom fall out of my balanced, even-handed position.
because people's oppressions can't be weighed and measured like that. to pretend that they can be is inherently alienating and representational.

that said, obviously some people have it worse than other people. but the "worse" doesn't fall cleanly along the identity lines that "ally" implies.

i did anti-racism work for decades, and i am absolutely glad i did; i worked with people who had been doing it for longer than i had, and i learned a ton. but i did it because i don't like racism, because racism and white supremacy make a world that fucks me up.
that perspective is the difference between me being able to be critical of myself and other people based on what i think will make a difference, not based on how dark someone's skin is, or how they talk, or yes, how guilty i feel.

people play cards as ways to get ahead in the world. we all do it, because we all feel and are powerless in various situations. but when the way one does it is institutionalized along these supposedly innate, unchanging characteristics (like class, sexuality, gender, race, etc), then it's too rigid to reflect reality. and it means that people are not bringing their full intelligence and creativity to actually address the problem.

in practice, i frequently think "a pox on both these houses," but the so-called allies do tend to be more self righteous and impossible to talk to (maybe that's just me).
answered Dec 30, 2013 by dot (50,920 points)
"that perspective is the difference between me being able to be critical of myself and other people based on what i think will make a difference, not based on how dark someone's skin is, or how they talk, or yes, how guilty i feel."

Just so I understand: Are you saying that being opposed to racism for your own reasons (its part of the fucked-upness of everything) allows you to be critical of stuff in effort to take down said racism, in contrast to the 'shut up and take marching orders' type of 'allyship'?

Because if so then that's been my point of view for awhile. I'm white and I'm against racism because I know how inherently tied in it is with the shitty stuff I face in my life. But I read or hear a sort of "We Talk You Listen" flavor of criticism aimed at white radicals and tend to become unsure.

Also: what do you mean by 'playing cards'?
yes, that is what i'm saying (re: first part).

playing cards - like, playing the race card, or the gender card, or the youngest child card, or the expert card... there are all kinds of cards; some are developed personally and individually over time and more-or-less in relationship. others are pushed on us by mass culture. the latter are more pernicious, i find.
+2 votes
I tend to point to Machiavelli's words on alliances as having a broader meaning that can be seen in every day life. He makes a general case, in The Prince, that there are times when it is beneficial to make defensive allies, that is to stand together against an attack, or to avoid additional punishment, but,

"And here it is to be noted that a prince ought
to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself
for the purposes of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is
said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes
ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one."

Which at the level of class war I might put forth in this way: If we start from the idea that such things as privilege exist, and the related idea that members of privileged classes have a vested interest, of which they are not perfectly conscious, in maintaining their privileges, then it should be seen that such privileged individuals are incapable of being "good" allies. Their heightened privilege in combination with the subversive force of their class interest implies that they will tend toward one of two relationships with the underprivileged class to which they have declared alliance.

1) Their interest in maintaining their privilege, or more broadly the expression of their class interests, will disincline them from exerting themselves fully toward the elimination of their privileges, or their class. The consequence of this is ostensibly a liberalization of the radical political agenda in question, the "allies" guiding an agenda which cuts them out of power instead toward one which merely renegotiates, that is reforms, the relationship between they and those they oppress.

2) Alternatively, the ally from the more privileged class, that is the more powerful ally, may be inclined to, perhaps consciously, or perhaps through the accretion of many individual actions of benefit seeking, use the oppressed group to which they ally themselves as a platform to advance their own interests. An example of this would be white politicians who advance their careers fighting for racial equality, but plenty of others may be found. It could be further argued that even if they are advancing their own interests, nonetheless they aid the oppressed group in ending their own oppression, but even then, I think there is substantial evidence that this is stymied, in practice, by the tendency of such power seeking individuals to do so using well trod paths that again lead toward the liberalization mentioned in the first condition.

So, I would say that if one is to realize the end to their oppression, they ought to seek accomplices who share their interests and eschew all alliances.
answered Jan 19, 2014 by StrawDog (1,390 points)
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