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I am not your “ally” (or am I?)

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Today’s blog entry is a stream of consciousness rather than a finished entry with an introduction, middle and conclusion. It’s something that has been puzzling me for sometime, trying to work out why the term “ally” discomforts me and yet, not really coming to a firm conclusion. So I thought I’d explore it through a blog entry and would welcome anyone’s input to help me clarify and refine my own thinking and either embrace or reject the term.

Anyone that knows me, knows I love reading and of course, I love words. I love to play with them, say them, write them, discover new ones and trace the etymology as far as I can. Equally, I do not hide the fact that I try to understand the world through both pacifism and feminism. This makes me rather susceptible to interrogating and challenging the things that I see around me, including the written and spoken word.

The most obvious place to start when exploring words, is a dictionary, and this blog entry does similar. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary the term “ally” has three distinct definitions:

“a country that has agreed officially to give help and support to another one, especially during a war”

“someone who helps and supports someone else”

“someone who helps and supports other people who are part of a group that is treated badly or unfairly, although they are not themselves a member of this group”

Now for obvious reasons, I find the first definition problematic, put simply for me, war is a crime. The act of waging war includes multiple violences, some individual, some institutional, some structural and all incredibly harmful decades, or even centuries later. Definitions which have roots in the military and warfare leave me cold and I hate the way in which they infiltrate civilian discourse. For example “the war on drugs”, “the war on poverty”, “officer to the meeting” and the reshaping of the term “ally” for the twenty-first century” I definitely don’t want to be the “ally” described in that definition.

Definition two is also problematic, albeit for different reasons. This definition seems far too broad, if I hold the door open for you, is that me being an ally? If I help you carry your heavy bags, can I say I’m your ally? This seems a nonsensical way to talk about everyday actions which would be better described as common civility, helping each other along the way.Should I say “thank you kind ally” every time, someone moves out of my way, or offers their seat on the bus? It seems evident that this definition does not help me explore my reservations.

The third definition appears to come closest to modern usage of the term “ally”. This term can be applied to many different groups (as can be seen from the badges below and these are just some of the many examples). “whilst I identify as cisgender, I’m a trans ally”, whilst currently heterosexual, I’m a LGBTQ+ ally”, despite being white, I’m a BLM ally” and so on. On the surface this is very positive, moving society away from the nonsense of people describing themselves as “colour-blind”, “gender-blind” or such trite phrases as “we all bleed the same”, ignoring the lack of equity in society and pretending that everyone has the same lived experience, the same opportunities, the same health, wealth and happiness. Buying into the hackneyed idea that if only you work hard enough, you will succeed, that we live in a classless society and the only thing holding anyone back is their own inertia.

However, maybe my problem isn’t with the word “ally” but the word “I”, and the fact that the two words seem inseparable, After all who decides who is an ally or who is not, is there a organisation somewhere that checks your eligibility to be an ally? I’m pretty sure there’s not which means that that “ally” is a description you apply to yourself. After all you can buy the badge, the t-shirt, the mug etc etc, capitalism is on your side, provided the tills are ringing, there’s every reason to sign up. Maybe a tiny percentage of your purchases goes to financially benefit the people you aim to support, for example the heavily criticised Skittles Pride campaign which donated only 2p to LGBTQ+ charities (and stands accused of white supremacy and racism). Of course, once you have bought the paraphernalia, there is no need to do anything else, beyond carrying/wearing/eating your “ally” goods with pride.

All of the above seems to marketise and weaponise behaviour that should be standard practice, good manners if you like, in a society. Do we need a special word for this kind of behaviour or should we strive to make sure we make space for everyone in our society? If individuals or groups gain civil rights, I don’t lose anything, I gain a growing confidence that the society in which I live is improving, that there is some movement (however small) toward equity for all. Societies should not make life more difficult for the people who live in them, regardless of religious or spiritual belief, we have one opportunity to make a good life for ourselves and others and that’s right now, so why seek to dehumanise and disadvantage other humans who are on the same journey as we are.

Ultimately, my main concern with the use of term of “ally” is that it obscures incredibly challenging social harms, with colour and symbols hiding inaction and apathy. Accept the label of “ally”, wear the badge, if you think it has meaning, but if you do nothing else, this is meaningless. if you see inequality and you do not call it out, take action to remedy the situation, the word “ally” means nothing other than an opportunity to make yourself central to the discussion, taking up, rather than making, room for those focused on making a more just society.

I still remain uncomfortable with the term “ally” and I doubt it will ever appear in my lexicon, but it’s worth remembering that an antonym of ally is enemy and nobody needs those.


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