The idea of allyship, and the lack thereof, has been on my mind since a controversial tweet by Planned Parenthood that linked to a cartoon attributed to Victor Entrepuertas. The cartoon features several caricatures of male feminist allies and seems to suggest that those who call themselves allies have a serious hypocrisy problem.
I spent more of the last weekend than I’d like to admit following conversations between Carl Beijer and Amber A’Lee Frost, and even participated a bit. We laughed a bit about the aforementioned cartoon as well as the harshness of the SJWiki’s article on “brogressives.” In social justice circles, there’s a heightened suspicion of anyone who claims to be an “ally” that can often look like overkill.
I began writing a post about this “prove your an ally or else” trend among social justice warriors/advocates both on and offline, and began creating an alternate cartoon that I think is more realistic.
But, after reading an excerpt from a new book on Abraham Lincoln, I changed my mind and decided to look at this topic from a different angle and ask a question that’s probably more important than “why such a fixation on masculine liberals?” And this question is: what IS an ally, anyway?
The gyst of the aforementioned excerpt in Salon (by Harold Holzer and Norman Garfinkle)is that Lincoln’s motivation for ending slavery was primarily to benefit white Americans, rather than to benefit black Americans. Sure, he cared about the oppression of slaves, but he cared more about the bleak future that poor whites would face in a continent dominated by the Southern oligarchs.
The best way to describe Lincoln’s relationship to abolitionists is: he wasn’t one, but he was an ally in the fight against slavery.
If your primary goal was to further the cause of respect and dignity for black Americans, his allyship would have come into question, with his occasional support for the back-to-Africa movement, and his general prioritization of white concerns.
But Lincoln and the abolitionists had a clear goal in common, which was ending slavery in the American South. Therefore he was an ally.
If Lincoln were not committed to fighting the most violent war in American history for this cause, and just paid lip service to the idea of ending slavery, he would have been like the “allies” in the cartoon.
Thinking about it that way, it seems odd to call those male ally cartoons allies at all. There’s nothing inherently wrong about two groups being opportunistically allied with each other, as long as they both get something out of it. But if an ally fails to help your cause while generally hanging around, that doesn’t make them a bad ally. It makes them annoying and useless, which makes them no ally at all.
Abe Lincoln didn’t have the same values as the abolitionists, but was a true ally to the cause. If a dude who calls himself a feminist is hurting feminists, don’t keep him around and call him out for being a bad ally. Kick him out for not being an ally at all.
Shared emotions & values are rarely the basis of an accomplished alliance. Economic libertarians and progressives are allied in favor of decriminalizing prostitution. On that front, they face an alliance of so-called radical feminists and social conservatives who oppose decriminalization. The USA and the USSR once had a utilitarian alliance against the Nazis and the USA and the Taliban once had a utilitarian alliance against the USSR. And so on.
Alliances between strange bedfellows are what tends to make the world go round. Contrary to what you’ll hear from the Amanda Marcottes of the world, dudes who vote in favor of women’s rights primarily because they want women to have birth control are not harmful to women. In fact, having selfish skin in the game might make someone a more consistent ally, not a worse one.
The current paradigm surrounding allyship not only discourages the kind of strange alliances that often get things done, it also discourages the interesting dialogues that can happen between different people with similar goals. It also encourages an idea of solidarity based more on what one says than on what one hopes to accomplish.
When looking at the “Male Ally” cartoon with this in mind, it becomes clear that the “alliances” referred to aren’t about a specific cause. Planned Parenthood may have shared the cartoon, but this cartoon isn’t about male allies in the fight for reproductive health; if it were, most of these guys’ weird comments wouldn’t be relevant.
With references to “leaning on female friends” and “going to the social justice reading group,” it appears that it’s referring to “allies” in the sense of dudes who generally say that they are feminists, as opposed to dudes who support particular battles. Their status as allies doesn’t come from what they do to fight workplace discrimination or to fight against the destruction of women’s healthcare. Their status comes from what they say. This kind of allyship isn’t a series of actions or a plan of actions — it’s just an identity.
With this in mind, the cartoon’s popularity among the social justice-sphere takes on a new light. When you consider what the word ally typically means, as opposed to what it means in contemporary identity politics, these caricatures start to look like a type best described as “not allies at all.” They start to look like the type of ill-intentioned men who say enough of the right things to impress or disarm women.
Let’s go back to Lincoln for a moment. If you’re a support and discussion group for black American issues, and Lincoln comes along and says “hey guys I support y’all going back to Africa but I want to hang out with you anyway,” don’t just call him out — kick him out.
If this hypothetical Abe Lincoln isn’t waging the Civil War for you, he serves you no purpose.
You don’t owe self-identified allies anything at all — but you do owe it to yourself to stop calling them allies. Calling them allies and then calling them out for their bad ally behavior may occasionally be satisfying, but it’s not worth it.