All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.
I am not one of these.
Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes. Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…). I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions. I believe in gender equality. I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth. There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.
I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them. You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things. You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps. You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook. My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence. I’m not a member of anything, though.
There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups. Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves. Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.
Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.
Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism. Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods). I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked. What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe. (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)
For another example, look at various feminist groups. Why “various”? Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is. Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.
Let’s talk social justice now. A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention. Twice. Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).
Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease. A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”. How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up? Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?
The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote. I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.
There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think. These include:
- Holier than thou.
- Unrealistic expectation.
Holier than thou
This is the obvious one. Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive. If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment. Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.
Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition. What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games. Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.
Human beings are tribal primates. We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves. We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.
Let’s say we have two groups of atheists. Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs. They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them. One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it. The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.
With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups. The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious. The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”. Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.
This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into. Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic. How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day? Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade. That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.
You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.
This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism. It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly. Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.
See in the real world cultures change very slowly. We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.
Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E. Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.
Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.
(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)
So what does this have to do with being an ally?
At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies. They want useful idiots. I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets. These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.
If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement. You will be shouted down. And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon. You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy. You will be doxxed. You will be harassed. You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own. (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)
What do you do instead?
Me? I work on individuals. I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”. If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit. If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on. If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave. I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.
Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective. And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.
An ally’s life is simply not for me.
Reblogged this on Musings.
Gah, I think this is a terrible article. The author claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:
1. Has a Holier than thou tone
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch from.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings
The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.
There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.
Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.
There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:
1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?
2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.
I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.
The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not a dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.
What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is bullshit. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.
And about atheism and Atheism, the science is pretty much in:
> http://psr.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/02/1088868313497266 <
I read your article long after it was published, but still felt compelled to reply. You hit the nail right square on its head. It’s so hard to explain sometimes that supporting a cause of an idea does not automatically mean you support those who are devoted to the cause. Sometimes, it can mean the exact opposite of that, since advocates and activists often do as much harm and they do good. Well done.
Quite brilliant. The sad truth is that experience and insight are not linked the way that they should be. A woman with 4 kids might still have no idea how to interact with a child, while the childless old woman down the street just gets it; a victim of oppression may mistreat someone weaker when you’d expect they’d know better. The more self-righteous and obtunded an activist is, the more they insist that others ‘shut up and listen’ because ‘their understanding is inherently limited.’ In a fair world, things would work that way. Instead, we have a world where the most confident have the least insight, and where those who say they want to change the world really just want to punish it.