What Is an Ally?

On Monday, ScientistMother wrote a post addressed to DrugMonkey regarding talking about the challenges of balancing work and parenthood as a male.

You asked why you were brought into the conversation? Because you’ve said you are an ally. You have stated on your blog that you believe that gender equality in science is a good thing. Yet you rarely talk about some of the balancing issues or the parental issues. I have the link up that shows you think its important. Yet outside of that post originally done 2 years ago, you don’t talk about fatherhood or balancing fatherhood and partnerhood with science.

You need to write about balancing your life with your science as you said yourself the The father/PI who is seriously concerned about gender equity in science will go out of his way to exhibit his status.

She went on to clarify in the comments that she understands that he may have good reasons for not wanting to blog about his work/life balance, but that someone male (and preferably several someones) needs to do this and that he, having blogged about the issue in general before, would be a reasonable choice to help lead the way. I’m very happy for the clarification, because the last thing I want to do is argue with ScientistMother. In addition to liking her, it wouldn’t be fair.

The reason it wouldn’t be fair is that her exchange with DrugMonkey crystallized about two years worth of observations for me. ScientistMother doesn’t deserve to have all that pointed at her for what is just the latest in a very long line of posts I’ve seen that demonstrate that we in the blogosphere very rarely seem to understand what an ally is.

I’m not really sure how it happened. 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 don’t demand monolithic behavior.

It’s quite possible the rest of us could learn something valuable from the pros on this one.

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11 Responses to “What Is an Ally?”

  1. June 15th, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    ScientistMother says:

    Thank you for not arguing with me! I don’t think I can take anymore attention and you’re way more articulate than I am. I forget to grammer/spell check/clarity check all the time.

  2. June 16th, 2010 at 5:01 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Oh, I don’t think we’d have argued anyway, just discussed the question. But yes, is doesn’t take many people talking at you instead of with you to make you wish you hadn’t said anything in the first place, does it?

  3. June 16th, 2010 at 11:39 am

    ScientistMother says:

    I admit that I’m not the most articulate blog writer. I have zero time or energy to proofread and analyze the implication of every word I write. It shocks me that some people can come over, get the idea of the post and have a discussion, whereas others get all up in arms over one or two sentences and take a worthwhile conversation off into a unimportant tangent. OMG, how dare, I as woman demand anything. the men don’t like to be given orders….why did I say anything at all.

  4. June 16th, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    That’s the thing I hate most when these discussions blow up–the “Why did I say anything?” reaction. We want people to add to the discussion, don’t we? You said something because you were asked a question. I, for one, am glad you did, even if it took a couple of tries to say exactly what you wanted to say.

  5. June 16th, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    ScientistMother says:

    Yes we do want people to ask questions. Considering this isn’t the first time I’ve had a post blow up on me, I probably will ask questions again. I just get so frustrated with the people who start freaking out about X or Y. I said this one line, and even if I clarify the intent. And then the trolls come out. I think thats what people want. They want us to stop talking/asking questions so that the status quo doesn’t change. If you attack me enough, I’ll just go be quiet and not ask for change….

  6. June 16th, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    D. C. Sessions says:

    They want us to stop talking/asking questions so that the status quo doesn’t change. If you attack me enough, I’ll just go be quiet and not ask for change…

    Or maybe it’s something else entirely, like the greasy overspiced chimichanga they had for lunch. Who knows? Does it really matter?

    That last is the key question: unless you’re planning to manipulate someone specific, I don’t see much reason to get inside the motivational loops of the people you deal with.

  7. June 17th, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I don’t see much reason to get inside the motivational loops of the people you deal with.

    But it could be an interesting hobby.

  8. June 17th, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I collect motivational information about as automatically as I breathe (although I can’t vouch for the accuracy). In addition to allowing me to manipulate others, or avoid doing so thoughtlessly, it can also keep me from being manipulated. But this is one of those areas where I don’t suggest anyone generalize from my experience. I’m one of the more political people I know.

  9. June 17th, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Exactly what I was going to say, but I didn’t want to reveal any motivations or anything.

  10. June 18th, 2010 at 10:26 am

    annajcook says:

    I followed Elizabeth’s link from Sex in the Public Square. Really interesting post and I’ll link back to it in my weekly link’s list this Sunday!

    I’m wondering if there’s a word missing in this sentence?

    They don’t expect perfection, and they demand expect monolithic behavior.

    I think you meant “…and they don’t expect monolithic behavior”? I can follow the meaning of the post, but just thought you might want to correct it for sake of readability!


  11. June 18th, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Thanks, Anna! Fixed.

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