I've been thinking a lot about the term "allies" as it is used in social movements these days. I particularly think about it as used in the sex worker rights movement, in the LGBT rights movement because of the way that "ally" has become an identity term instead of a political description. Then I came across this statement about allies in an entirely different context and wanted to share it here. It says almost everything I've wanted to say and been unable to find the words for:
Allies in the culture wars aren’t appreciably different than military or political allies, but somehow, the meaning of the word has changed online. We’ve gone from “In everyday English usage, allies are people, groups, or nations that have joined together in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them” to the assumption that the act of alliance comes with specific obligations and that people are “bad allies” or not allies at all if particular things are done or left undone.
This isn’t true, of course. There is nothing about an alliance that requires that one of the parties give up its sovereignty, or there would be many fewer alliances. Alliance is not allegiance. We do not set aside our own concerns and our own marginalization because we care about someone else’s. We don’t let someone else set the terms of our participation in the public sphere, simply because they call us allies, without going through the tricky act of negotiation. We don’t give up our autonomy as allies any more than we would, by giving aid that isn’t wanted or needed, usurp the autonomy of those we aim to help.
Student groups and others who are working to recruit allies understand this. They talk about the behavior of “ideal allies,” presenting aspirational goals and actions that can be adopted by allies. They recognize that learning will need to occur, and continue to occur, throughout the experience of being an ally, saying, “Ask lots of questions and talk honestly about what you do know, what you don’t know, and what you’d like to learn.” They don’t expect perfection, and they demand expect monolithic behavior.