July 17, 2017

Allies and alienation

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , at 3:29 pm by chavisory

The last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time baffled and confused about many of the ways that activist communities talk to and about allies.

Until I realized that what “ally” means now…isn’t really what it meant, or what I took it to mean, when I was younger.

Around 10-15 years ago, in the contexts in which I was involved, “ally” had more of a connotation—or at least, I thought it did—of people or communities who were similarly marginalized making common cause, out of recognition that the prejudices against us worked similarly and had similar effects and implications, and that no one was truly free while anyone was not.

When I started having more contact with communities of activists again a few years ago, I was very shocked, for a while, to hear allies consistently spoken of with such disdain because that wasn’t my experience of the concept at all. I don’t know when things changed and “ally” came to mean something rather different.

Finally I started to suspect that this difference in experience as to the concept of allies may underlie a lot of miscommunication and strife, at least in part…

I see things like this, and I think…we may be talking about different things.


Because when one group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t show any anger or resentment that might be difficult or unpalatable to clueless privileged people. Don’t be abrasive. Don’t raise your voice. Be unfailingly non-confrontational at all times. Never tell me I’m wrong.

And people who claim the identity of “ally,” but behave like that, exist. They do.

But when another group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t perpetrate the same forms of mistreatment, psychological abuse, and bigotry against other vulnerable people as both of you have already been injured by. Don’t recycle those very same dynamics into your own communities and belief structures. You can only hurt and alienate people that way who are already hurt and alienated.


I am not an ally*, but yes, I am alienated.

I mean, of course, you shouldn’t be able to alienate allies from their beliefs or support for your cause by not being nice enough because deeply-held beliefs about human rights shouldn’t be based on whether or not an arbitrary group of people is nice enough to you. It should be a matter of right and wrong. If a position on the human rights of a group of people is that easily shaken, it’s not a conviction, it’s just expedient.

So no, you should be able to alienate allies from their positions by not being “nice enough.”

But you can absolutely alienate people from wanting anything to do with you by being addicted to cruelty, by celebrating hatred, by re-enacting highly recognizable patterns of emotional abuse and coercion, by pursuing an agenda of upsetting people for the sheer sake of it, and by an alarming dedication to ends-justify-the-means reasoning.

These are the things that have alienated me from communities that I, at least in theory, belong to. I’ve been alienated by being told that other people know better than me what I think and what I feel and that I need to simply accept that. I’ve been alienated by demands not to use my own critical thinking or judgment or conscience, or to lie about my own life because that would make it more convenient to someone else’s politics. I’ve been alienated by gossip and smear campaigns and hypocrisy. I’ve been alienated by unwillingness to distinguish between missteps and malice and by embrace of the social control tactics of evangelical fundamentalism and outright abuser logic (“the fact that you’re defensive means you’re wrong so just admit it and apologize”).

I’ve been alienated by rules for allies that I can neither follow, nor expect anyone else to, not as an ally but as a human.

If I see women saying they hate men or that men are trash (and garnering social media accolades for it), that doesn’t make me any less dedicated to the equal rights of women. It just makes me profoundly sad. Because I thought we were supposed to be the people who didn’t devalue people for their gender or their bodies. I thought we were the people who didn’t celebrate hatred.

So when I hear you say those things, it doesn’t make me less committed to justice, it just makes me think your values are crap.

These are not issues of niceness to me, but of ethics and integrity and core values.

I don’t actually think I’m a particularly nice person and “niceness” doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. But civility does. Kindness does. Intellectual honesty does. Ethical consistency does. Freedom of conscience and of self-reflection does.

My values are not shaken. But yes, I am alienated.

So I can only imagine how people on the outside, looking at how we treat people and wondering whether they dare wade into engaging seriously with activism or issues of social justice, may feel.

I’m not “worried” about alienating “allies.” I know that the way we treat people has consequences.

I do not believe that the fact of fighting back against oppression, of being angry, of calling injustice what it is, makes us “just as bad” as our oppressors, but I am worried about how we undermine our own supposed values, when our communities turn out to be very, very willing to engage in the exact same modes of abuse and anti-individualism and authoritarian thinking as our oppressors. I think that what we are and are not willing to do matters.

I don’t believe that our rightful anger is hatred, but I see actual hatred being valorized and yes, I worry.

I am not worried about people who only want to be “allies” if it gets them enough brownie points; I am worried about vulnerable people seeking a social justice-oriented community and being told that the price of admission to being a decent person is to accept being treated appallingly.

I worry about who we become when we accept that.

That’s what worries me.

That’s why I’m alienated.

*Yes, of course I believe in working to understand intersectionality and standing against injustice and battling oppression in all its forms, but the designation has acquired too many terms and conditions that I can’t consent to, so I will not use it for myself.


  1. Zoran said,

    It’s not about niceness. If you’re opposed to sexual discrimination, then “I hate men” is just as wrong as “I hate women.” If you oppose racism, then “fuck white people” is just as wrong as “fuck black people” or “fuck brown people” or “fuck green people” or “fuck purple people”.

    When people say things like that, they aren’t alienating others because they’re not being nice; they’re alienating others because they are revealing themselves to be exactly the sort of bigoted arseholes those others oppose on principle. For the others not to respond to such statements would be hypocrisy on their part and a betrayal of the ideals they hold.

    If people are allied because they support racial equality, then revealing that one is a racist will alienate them. If people are allied because they support sexual equality, then revealing that one is a sexist will alienate them. There’s no reason why anyone’s expression of bigotry or prejudice should get a free pass.

  2. danjodea said,

    I would like to echo Zoran’s comment.

    Yes, I’m white. Yes, I do have some residual prejudice because of when I grew up (the 1960s). I don’t like that part of me, but I have to admit it’s there and remember each time I have a thought from that upbringing the thought must be evaluated.

    Recognizing one person is being a jerk and saying, “I don’t like them” is acceptable. Taking that dislike and applying it to a group of similar people you don’t know is wrong; that’s what prejudice is.

    Timothy McVeigh and Randall Terry are white, Christian terrorists – but you don’t hear people say “Oh, a bomb got set off – must’ve been a white, Christian man.” That’s how it should be; the perpetrator is named but their actions are not projected to a group.

    On the other hand, when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot up two military installations, we heard, “Muslims are terrorists.” No, they bloody aren’t; Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez was, but you cannot extend his actions to an entire group.

    Or Trump’s campaign talk that “Mexicans are lazy, they’re rapists, criminals…” Are there individual Mexicans in the drug trade? Sure – but that doesn’t make ALL Mexicans drug lords.

    And hey – those of us on the spectrum are individuals. We’re not all the same. We face the same sort of prejudice: “Oh, you don’t look autistic.” “Well, thanks; you don’t look normal.” (I hate the word “normal”; I prefer neurotypical and atypical. I use the word there to illustrate the point.)

    Being non-judgmental does take some effort; God help us, we might even have to stop and think before responding or making a judgment about someone. But it’s also something we can all do, and really, it’s not all that hard. Judge an individual by their actions – but don’t extend that judgment to all people of the same country, skin color, or faith, because that’s ethically and morally wrong.

  3. […] on “alienating allies”, and how there are two different things that phrase can […]

  4. Emma said,

    Thank you for expressing this so eloquently. I’ve run smack into this issue lately, and it’s alarming to see how many people from all walks feel it’s “their turn” to “dish it out,” as though cruelty and rank prejudice is some sort of privilege you earn through suffering.

  5. Carlos said,

    Thank you for writing this. This is how I feel sometimes, and because I don’t truly fit in in any movement (all because of small disagreements) I’ve become more cynical, fully embracing the term “independent” (and not just regarding parties) and have kept any movement at arm’s length, longer if necessary. I like to say that it’s just a matter of time before you get stabbed in the back and thrown under the bus the moment you disagree with people you thought were your “friends”, not just allies. I found that out the hard way (suggestion: never make friends on Facebook because you agree on ideology, that’s what I’m referring to).

    Humans are humans, and will give in to their faillings including hypocrisy and twisted logic. As someone said we’re all perpetrators and victims, and we must never forget that lest we want to start digging out graves early.

  6. Carlos said,

    Also, continuing what Emma said I think such behavior is an early indicator of extremism. One of the characteristics that I think all extremists share is a desire for revenge, to “get even” with their oppressors, be it the Patriarchy (in the form of men), Westerners destroying Islamic countries, and so forth. I think you just saw some of that in action.

    I may be a feminist “ally” but I sometimes wonder if concepts like intersectionality have their limits and can be used to oppress others, or at least silence them. I’ve gotten that impression after the Chicago Dyke March fiasco and the allegations of anti-Semitism, and not surprising I’ve seen worry that such anti-Semitism is present in the feminist and progressive movements in general, considering it’s a bit hard to classify Jews as a minority (let alone an oppressed one). I sometimes wonder how a (relatively white) Hispanic like myself fits in and whether eventually I’ll receive a similar treatment, that I’d become the new WASP to be scorned at by activists.

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