"Allyship" - is it crap?

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Joined: 28-06-15
Jun 30 2015 20:54
"Allyship" - is it crap?

In the U.S. left, the idea of Allyship seems to be strong. Is it crap, or is there some merit to it?

The gist of it seems to be that those most severely oppressed by a particular injustice - or at least belonging to the same demographic category as those most oppressed - must take the lead in fighting it, and others should limit themselves to following behind these people as Allies (capitalized to distinguish this from the older, non-activisty sense of the word 'ally').

When cops or Klan/Nazi types are attacking black people, Allyship would seem to require that any counter-attack be left to black people to initiate and lead, however much non-black people might hate racism and/or the cops. Does that make sense? It seems suspiciously like an excuse on the part of the Allies, to justify not taking initiative.

If you see an institution as your enemy, should you not go ahead and fight them, even if you aren't being oppressed by them as much as some others are?

Tyrion's picture
Joined: 12-04-13
Jun 30 2015 22:43

From my experience in the U.S. social justice activist scene, being a "good ally" is more about having some perspective on your own social position and how exactly that relates to whatever specific matter you're dealing with. So, for example, a nominally pro-feminist guy would be a pretty shit ally if, during a discussion with a bunch of women about sexual harassment, he went on about how catcalling didn't actually happen all that much or how it's just complimentary and not a big deal--after all, as he doesn't have that same direct experience of being targeted by these things, how would he really know anyway?

I've definitely seen this extend into more active types of activism. Some people I've known have been very critical of white students at marches behaving very aggressively toward cops or throwing things based on the reasoning that the police violence this brings on will be much more directed towards poorer people of color, really people of color in general in the U.S. context, who may or may not have wanted to get roped into this. I can see the logic here, but on the other hand it seems like there's a certain amount of presumption involved about what some particular group of people involved in a demo want or don't want to happen.

On the whole of it I wouldn't say the idea of allyship is crap, though I'm very unsure whether or how it should be applied in many situations. It does aim to address the very real historical tendency in the left-wing activist milieu of this or that wannabe savior, typically white and male, trying to condescendingly rescue this or they social marginalized group, so I do think it's an improvement over that despite its shortcomings.

AndrewF's picture
Joined: 28-02-05
Jul 1 2015 09:50

Yeah at base its the fairly sensible idea that if you are not part of a marginalised group you shouldn't expect that its up to you to decide how that group should organise, what tactics should be used etc. One of those things thats so obvious you wonder why it needs to be said (but it does).

Like any other idea its one that people will attempt to use in less than useful ways to shore up bad politics thru claims they represent authenticity but sure the left has played that rhetorical game for ever (organisations & individuals claiming to speak for 'the working class', 'communism' etc).

My criticism of it would be more around the inbuilt tendency to separate struggle into lots of separate boxes but overcoming that in a non traditional way is the issue of the age in any case so that's more symptom than cause.

syndicalistcat's picture
Joined: 2-11-06
Jul 1 2015 17:47

what Tyrion describes is a view that has its theoretical basis in what is called "standpoint" theory. This is an actual epistemological theory, highlighted by feminist epistemologists. But it has its origin actually in the socialist movement. Originally it was the idea that the working class has a form of "privileged access" to knowledge about what it's like to be oppressed & exploited, as a class. Feminist epistemologists applied this idea to the situation of women, so that there is both a "proletarian standpoint" and a "women's standpoint". but it's easy to see of course that this could be applied to any oppressed group.

I'm not sure that this is always what "Allyship" means in activist circles. It's part of the newer kind of language that has come to replace older socialist language, as with the heavy reliance on "privilege" as a category of analysis.

DekuScrub3's picture
Joined: 24-01-10
Jul 1 2015 19:42

I'm sure I'm going to get slammed for posting this, but Fredrik deBoer is one of my favorite newly discovered writers. No one else is really taking on the left-wing outrage machine from a left perspective besides him that I'm aware of. Jonathan Chait came at it from a liberal perspective. Jon Ronson, though I haven't read his book, came at it from a non-partisan perspective from what I've gleaned. Anyway....

I don’t know what an ally is. I know what solidarity is. I know what a bloc is. I know what recognizing congruent political purpose is. But this word “ally,” at this point, it seems irredeemable to me. In my experience, it is associated with nothing so much as a kind of deeply insulting, head-patting condescension. What does it say when so many adults — so many of them white dudes posturing as “the good ones” — join your political project without seeming to care whether it’s true, good, or effective? The praise of allies is the participation ribbon of modern politics, substituting real political support for a brainless, aggressive associationism that seems to have more to do with ensuring that the ally in question appears to be on the right side than in actually achieving anything at all. Judgment is an indispensable quality in supportive human relationships. It’s judgment that compels your friends to tell you, out of concern and support, that your current way of doing things isn’t working. What use is a human relationship that has been drained of the willingness to judge and to disagree? Who wants that kind of “friendship?”

I grew up around activists; I was an activist; I have had a relationship to activists and activism for far longer than Twitter has existed. And the way that I show respect to activists is to give them my honest appraisal of how well their political tactics seem to be working. That’s not about enforcing a vision of which political ends are realistic; I won’t get most things that I want, politically, in my lifetime. It’s about noting what an activist wants and whether you think their current tactics can actually achieve it. That’s respect. Not “allyship.” Not the warm milk of people who start throwing hashtags around the second they’re trending. But respect. Respect isn’t the pop psychology bullshit emotional nourishment that we now so associate with left-wing politics in a world of microaggression theory. It’s an adult quality that requires actual critical review if it’s to have any meaning. So I respect activists by telling them if I think their tactics are effective and their analysis is right, just like I respect political writers by telling them if I think their arguments are sound, like I respect researchers by telling them if I think their conclusions are correct, like I respect artists by telling them if I think their work is any good.

Via: http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/04/22/i-dont-pat-heads/

Khawaga's picture
Joined: 7-08-06
Jul 1 2015 21:21
deBoer wrote:
And the way that I show respect to activists is to give them my honest appraisal of how well their political tactics seem to be working. That’s not about enforcing a vision of which political ends are realistic; I won’t get most things that I want, politically, in my lifetime. It’s about noting what an activist wants and whether you think their current tactics can actually achieve it. That’s respect

I overall agree with what you posted Deku, though I also think that sometimes people get hung too much up on semantics. But his points about solidarity versus allyship is a good one. And while I also agree with the bit quoted, I think an important missing point is that sometimes, older experienced organizers/activists, must also let other people make mistakes and learn from them. Often the "honest appraisal" doesn't actually teach anyone anything because it's just words to those on getting the advice.