Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

A Place and a Role for Allies

This is part 3 of ? of a recurring series on approaching debates with a mind toward actually changing minds and the world.

[ | | ]

I've got some things to say in upcoming posts about how to fight the good fight re: identity politics, but first, I think it'd be useful for all of us to get a huge disclaimer out of the way. (This post had a bit of scope creep, too, and I ended up saying lots of standalone-important things.)

I'll get to it obliquely, by way of background first:


Connor Harris posts on Facebook:

Connor Harris: It is easy for progressive students at politically homogeneous colleges to forget that there exist self-consistent arguments against same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and any other progressive policy you should care to name.

Thomism, for example, is nothing if not self-consistent. One can reject the premises of these arguments (I do), or think that they're logically weak (I think they mostly are), but they do exist and some people find them compelling.

Nevertheless, left-wing rhetoric tends to assume that opponents of progressive policies are motivated by bigotry for which these arguments provide only a thin intellectualized veneer. This is undoubtedly true of some; I will be the last to deny that bigotry still exists.

But still, a lot of opponents of LGBT rights, feminism, and such hold them for reasons that to them seem rational. They can thus be reached by rational counterargument. You should generally assume that arguing with such people is superior to shouting them down, if not for reasons of Kantian universalizability, then for rationally selfish reasons of maximizing the number of people who agree with you and minimizing the number of people who resent you for assuming bad faith of them. (excerpted)

Jackson Okhun, whom I do not know, comments:

Jackson Okhun: I would like to point out though that the standards of rational discourse are hard to maintain when your opponents are aggressively denying the legitimacy of your sexual/racial/gender identity or your lived experience as a member of an oppressed minority.

...to which I reply:

Ross Rheingans-Yoo: Jackson, you've got an entirely valid point (which does not necessarily mean that Connor doesn't). At a bare minimum, though, I think that most of Connor's suggestions are very important for allies (who, if they cannot engage well, are being suboptimally useful as allies) to keep in mind, since it is presumably easier for them to maintain higher standards of discourse when not personally under threat. Given that (unfortunately) a significant fraction of the noise re: identity politics comes from allies, it's still an important thing to keep in mind.

The question of what to expect of people intimately engaged with issues on the level of personal identity is, of course, more complicated, and will differ from person to person, of course, though I think that rationality is, in most cases, a standard to which most should aspire and none will actually attain.


There are standards of discourse that it are unreasonable, if not outright cruel, to expect from people very personally involved in issues at hand. Not everyone has the same lived experience, and so we should be extremely biased against demanding adherence to certain ideological norms, lest we in so doing exclude some of the most valuable conversational participants from the fora that most affect their lives.

However, allies are another thing altogether. Allies' comparative advantage[?] lies in not having lived experiences that complicate their efforts to engage in discourse about important issues -- and while this is at times a problem, it can be, at others, a useful strength.

For example, it is useful, in attempting to change the mind of a Thomist opposed to homosexuality, to be able to respond in a way uncomplicated by personal history with "opponents denying the legitimacy of your sexual... identity". This is a time when charity and rationality is called for, and if it is a lot to ask of the victims of oppression themselves, it is the least that their allies can do to oblige and assist.

This implies that allies aiming to do the most good for their cause should make explicit effort to strengthen the thing they are best able to contribute -- their ability to communicate to difficult-to-communicate-with people. To fail to do so, e.g. by adopting the discursive stance of the personally affected, forces the people who find it most difficult to engage to take on the task of engaging in the most difficult situations, which is obviously suboptimal for themselves, their friends, and their converational partners.

This is not to say, of course, that their charitable, mediating discourse should be elevated in every sphere above the personal expression of people with personal stake in the issue at hand. But to deny that it has its occasional uses is, at best, bad strategy. (Of course, it's not the place of allies to engage in the place of others who are well-capable of doing so, but recall Jackson's comment above.)

Allies are privileged. The thing you do with privilege is to use it as a tool to fight the good fight. Allies should learn to use their privilege of a lack of a history of the oppression at issue to best fight the oppression at issue. As Fredrik deBoer puts it, don't be an accelerant:

However, while white leftists like myself have a responsibility to recognize that our tactical emotional remove is a luxury not shared by everyone in our coalition, that responsibility cuts the other way as well. We have a responsibility to recognize that we have the ability to inject more anger into the situation without having the same personal stakes as members of outgroups.

And that responsibility really is profound, because too often these days, self-professed... allies inject emotion into inter-left debates in a way that is an artifact of their privilege, without considering the inherent superior need of the oppressed for political victory. This is my problem with the... accelerants. (...)


I am an ally to a lot of things. I do not have a lived experience of oppression re: very many things. And these two things tend to define my social location re: the vast majority of identity-politics things the social justice community cares about. It might be a lie to say that I'm getting good at being an ally at this point, but it's certainly true that I'm developing lots of thoughts about how to do it.

In coming posts (and a few past ones), I'm planning on talking at length on things I'd like to see more of in various social justice movements, either in general, or in particular. I am, in large part, speaking to and for those who enjoy the privilege of being able to choose, intentionally and with lightness, their modes of discursive engagement. I am not speaking to and for everyone (see: "unreasonable, if not outright cruel") involved.

To recap: it is occasionally useful and important to have allies able to engage dispassionately when dispassionate engagement is called for. It is good for everyone involved that allies be able, willing, and accustomed to doing so. (This is true for non-ally movement members, but is not always reasonable to ask, and in any case, their comparative advantage[?] often lies elsewhere.) In this and future posts, I have things to say about and to allies and people looking to take up the task of communicating optimally with people who disagree with us from the right, and am generally not speaking to people whose speech is policed enough as it is.

Clear? I'll try to remind you often.


The question of allies is not a small issue on the fringes of movements. A friend recently noted to me that the social justice zeitgeist has moved, in the past hundred years, from women (50% of the population), to blacks (13%) and other minority races (15%), to LGBs (3-4%), to trans*s (0.5%), and only shows signs of focusing on even slimmer segments of the population, as the issues of the larger groups are, to some degree, acknowledged and met.

This means that, assuming that there are core members of the social justice community that will end up on the left of each of these issues regardless of the smallness of the group oppressed, the proportion of allies to the personally affected will grow over movement shifts. And, as movements have more allies, it becomes more and more important for them and those allies to develop a coherent, intentional, strategic theory of allyship.


As the accepted perspective on social justice shifts from the isolated critique to intersectional models, it becomes accepted that everyone both enjoys certain privileges and is subject to different oppressions. Put another way: In the future, we're all oppressed along some axes and allies on others. And so it's important that we understand how to be good allies when our friends need us to be allies.

Because, at some point or another, we'll all be better off if we all learn how to be allies, and learn how to be allies well.