So, yesterday, we talked about problematic art, and how it can be dealt with in a productive and respectful way and not in a way that’s just griping that doesn’t accomplish anything. Hooray! I’m solving all the world’s problems! Now let’s talk about the concept of “allies”.
Like “problematic”, this is a word that gets tossed around so much that it’s tempting to believe it doesn’t really mean anything. That’s not true; it does mean something, and it means something pretty important. But what does it mean? Let’s think back to this very wise thing that Neal Postman once said about the importance of defining one’s terms: he noted that we think that complex words like ‘epistemology’, ‘proletariat’, and ‘patriarchal’ are difficult, when in fact they are quite specific and have clearly defined meanings. It is words we all think we know and understand, like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘true’ and ‘false’ that are fraught with multiple meanings and warring contexts, and which “tangle us in ambiguity”. When we use the relatively simple-sounding word “ally”, we are in fact often mistaking it for another, and very different, idea.
An ally, put simply and used in the context at hand — that of progressivism, of social justice, of the advancement of the cause of equality and fairness — means simply someone who is not in one’s group, but is equally committed to its liberation. I may not be a woman, but I can be an ally of feminism; I may not be black, but I can be an ally of civil rights for blacks; I may not be gay, but I can be an ally of the cause of equal treatment of gays. Because this is easy enough to understand, we like to overcomplicated it, and endless electrons are spilled on how one can be a ‘good’ ally. And this is important! Being a good ally is, after all, only the practical social expression of being a good person. But it’s just as important to understand what an ally is and should be, and what an ally isn’t and shouldn’t be.
First of all, an ally is someone who you have sought to make common cause against a mutual enemy. An ally isn’t someone who you have to agree with all the time; America was able to ally with the Soviet Union, with whom we disagreed on practically everything, because we both found ourselves facing an evil that was even greater. It’s critical to remember that an ally isn’t a comrade; you aren’t in the same club, and you don’t want all the same things. You want only to combine forces to eradicate something you both agree is malignant and destructive. Just because someone disagrees with you on any number of matters, from how and where to identify the enemy to how and why to defeat it, doesn’t make them a bad ally! It only makes them an ally who might want the same thing, but for entirely different reasons. What you have to do is ask yourself: does this person or group’s disagreement with me on this or that issue constitute a rift so severe that I should reject their help, or is tackling our mutual enemy important enough to overlook that disagreement? If you decide on the former, that’s fine! You get to choose who your allies are! But if you decide on the latter, you can’t always be scolding them for failing to adhere to your ethics, because they may not share them. You’re looking for an ally, not a toady.
Second, though, you do have to be pretty sure your ally agrees with you on who the enemy really is. If you can’t agree on that, if your strategic goal is different than theirs, you might want to consider finding another ally. Disagreeing on tactics is fine, but you want to make sure you’re both fighting the same war. And that’s more important than it seems, because, as history has showed us again and again, if a war is ever going to end — and end without being a massive waste of resources for everyone involved — it has to have a set of conditions under which victory can be said to have been achieved. The easiest way to find yourself fighting your own allies is to not have a clear goal about what you’re trying to accomplish.
And that’s another crucial detail: you’re looking for an ally, not a spouse. This relationship isn’t forever. This person may go on supporting your cause for the rest of their life, but you only need them — and they only need you — to achieve your agreed-upon ends. And if you lose them, your chances of attaining those ends gets more and more remote. This isn’t to say that you should never criticize the people within your affinity group, but it’s probably best to do it in private, lest you seem impossible to please at best or authoritarian at worst. Insisting on the moral purity of everyone you associate is a nice ideal, especially if you’re a cult leader or a dictator, but it’s a lousy way to win ballgames. It’s the victories that come first; the chemistry comes afterwards. If you want to be a radical revolutionary, more power to you; it’s an entirely honorable choice. But if you believe in building mass movements for foundational social change, you need people on your side, and there’s no better way to lost your allies than forever berating them for failing to live up to your standards.
There are other little bits of advice to remember about allies: for one thing, believe them. If you fundamentally mistrust your own partners, you probably shouldn’t be in business with them. Respect the fact that their participation in your movement might be part of a bigger struggle for them, and that while your ultimate goals may intersect, that struggle may not be theirs, just as theirs may not be yours. It should probably go without saying that you shouldn’t publicly mock your allies, and it should definitely go without saying that you should pay them what their work is worth; again, you want an ally, not a flunky. In the end, the way you should deal with your allies is not too different from the way you should deal with problematic art: evince some humility before the greater goal, whether it’s the making of art or the realization of justice; and show some respect for the people involved in the process. When you go down into infighting, you are letting your enemy dictate the terms of the fight, and when you do that, your enemy is the only one who will ever win.