Adventures in Ethics and Science

There were some really good discussions of ally work in the gender in science session led by Zuska, Alice, and Abel and in the race in science session led by Danielle Lee and AcmeGirl.

One of the issues that has become clearer to me is that there is an inescapable asymmetry in the relationship between allies and those (like scientists of color or women scientists) they are trying to support. (I think the discussion at Samia’s blog helped me feel like I got it well enough to put into words.) An ally is someone who wouldn’t have to care about the difficulties faced by members of the group s/he is trying to support; not being part of that group, the ally doesn’t face those challenges first hand. This means the ally is choosing to care — making an effort to take the issues of others seriously.

This is great, but it means that the person who isn’t a member of the group facing the challenges first hand always has the option to stop caring — to decide that, today, it’s just too much work to take on those issues. And, this leaves folks looking at their “allies” wondering whose commitment is robust, which of yesterday’s allies will end up melting away.

Except, sometimes, an ally is paying enough attention to the experiences of members of the group with which s/he is aligning to have a crystalizing moment — a moment of getting it so strongly that s/he can no longer be blind to the injustices. Having had such a crystalizing moment, the ally can no longer opt out of caring. (There is, of course, a gap between caring and speaking up or mounting another effective response to an injustice, but caring is probably a necessary condition for doing ally work.)

You can’t tell just by looking which purported allies have had a crystalizing experience. When people who say they are allies let you down in the crunch (which happens a lot), it’s hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon. Thus, one lesson for allies (beyond the importance of being reliable at crunch-time) is not to be surprised or offended when you’re not immediately recognized as an ally. Saying you are doesn’t count for nearly as much as showing you are.

Also, while allies may have the luxury of treating those who say racist, sexist, ableist, and otherwise clueless things as potentially redeemable, people who have been burned by fair-weather allies during the inevitable foul weather (which, after all, is the reason you need allies in the first place) may have better things to do with their finite reserves of time and energy than attend to the needs of folks who just don’t get it.

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    January 19, 2009

    while allies may have the luxury of treating those who say racist, sexist, ableist, and otherwise clueless things as potentially redeemable, people who have been burned by fair-weather allies during the inevitable foul weather (which, after all, is the reason you need allies in the first place) may have better things to do with their finite reserves of time and energy than attend to the needs of folks who just don’t get it.

    Fascinating. And by this may we conclude that those who may have the privilege of ignoring said clueless idiots’ obnoxiousness in case they are redeemable are themselves proving to be bad allies? Is it letting down in the crunch to fail to come to the same conclusions as those with said finite time and energy?

    I agree most emphatically that nobody has to volunteer to redeem assklownery. The burden should not be forced upon anyone.

    but the notion that extending latitude is the same as perpetuating the status quo in silence is, well, a bit more shaded.

    It would be the very rare person indeed who could not, on honest review, point to the development of their own worldview and identify areas where s/he was once offensive and irritating and obnoxious to some group.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 19, 2009

    DrugMonkey, I don’t think trying to redeem the clueless amounts to being a bad ally. Fewer clueless people is, after all, progress.

    However, there may be moments when scolding people for not being as patient as one is being with the assclowns at least ignores the differentials in effort involved in being an ally and being in the shit all the time.

  3. #3 DrugMonkey
    January 19, 2009

    “scolding”? Hmmm. One thinks that perhaps when one offers a partial defense after being scolded for extending latitude to ‘ssklowns that things get murky quite rapidly.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 19, 2009

    I won’t dispute the murk. Scolding seems to bring it, regardless of whether it’s primary scolding or responsive scolding. (Insert standard recommendations about how much more effective these exchanges are if framed as “When you [whatever it is you're doing or saying] I feel [...]“)

    And yeah, there’s also a divide between what we’re trying to communicate and what people are feeling as though we’re communicating by it, etc. That’s the price we pay for not living in each other’s heads, and I for one think we’re better off this way. But this means attempts at communication will fail even between committed allies. Sometimes this is because of standard communicative screw ups; sometimes it’s because we forget how limited our understanding is of the experiences of others, even if they’ve been explained to us; sometimes it’s because those with whom we’re trying to communicate have been burned before and rationally can’t trust that we’re as committed to their cause and we’re trying our hardest to be.

    I guess the bottom line is that a real conversation between allies should be less about trying to win and more about trying to understand. It doesn’t mean all disagreement goes away, but maybe there can be acknowledgment that the view from different places makes different paths forward look reasonable.

  5. #5 steffi suhr
    January 20, 2009

    Sorry to be off topic.. I just tagged you for being an inspiration!

  6. #6 notedscholar
    January 20, 2009

    These kinds of discussions are heavily biased toward the feminist angle because they will not even consider that women might be underrepresented because of something intrinsic, rather than something that is someone ELSE’S fault.

    NS
    http://sciencedefeated.wordpress.com/

  7. #7 bill
    January 21, 2009

    Having had such a crystalizing moment, the ally can no longer opt out of caring.

    This sounds like kum-ba-yah to me. Allies, by your definition, can always opt out of doing something, whether they care or not. They might feel horrible guilt, but they can still do it.

    it’s hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon

    They can’t. I’d like to be counted a feminist ally, but I would be neither surprised nor insulted if female friends decided not to rely on me to be there in a particular crunch — not because I plan to weasel, but because I *can*, so from anyone’s point of view who cannot read my mind, I *might*.

    For the really mission-critical stuff, you need someone who’s as deeply in the shit as you are.

  8. #8 Theo Bromine
    January 21, 2009

    Further complications arise as soon as one starts talking about how to distinguish between who “has to care” and who “chooses to care”. Obviously, no two situations are identical. I was at university in the 1970s, and I have been working in industry for the past 29 years – does that put me in the “has to care” or “chooses to care” category with respect to gender issues in STEM?

  9. #9 Pat Cahalan
    January 21, 2009

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to investigate the whole discussion at the moment, but I’ve seen this sort of conversation before and I’ve noticed that there is one other element of being an ally (as opposed to being “in the shit”) that is often overlooked, so I’m bringing it up :)

    It’s pretty much a given that those people who are under any outside stress are shaped and colored by that stress itself, and the problem of overcoming confirmation bias becomes more pronounced; that is, people who are direct subjects of racial bias (or any other bias, for that matter) can suffer from a marked difficulty in “seeing that which is not there”… or, more likely, from interpreting the larger problem through a lens that has been shaped by their own direct experience.

    Of course, this is oftentimes touted by the people who are subconsciously being racist or sexist as being the actual root cause of the offense, as opposed to the sexist or racist person’s own subconscious offensiveness. Things get murky here.

    One advantage that an *engaged* ally has in this sort of situation is an absence of direct context. If they are in fact engaged and have good domain knowledge of the issue being investigated, they have a level of impartiality that neither the oppressed or the oppressor can claim.

    So, one other thing to take into account when examining an ally is how well they understand the domain, given that they are in fact not part of the problem on either side.

    @ bill, re: they can’t be trusted

    I think this sort of generalization is part of what makes these sorts of conversations difficult. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that in our current social context, a woman is fantastically more likely to experience sexual discrimination in a way that a man simply does not. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that a man who has studied hundreds or thousands of cases of sexual discrimination understands the domain in a different way than most woman who have direct experience but who have not examined the overall domain; simply because they lack that direct experience, they have compiled a much broader picture of the problem than the woman who is relying only upon their own direct experience.

    Obviously the best expertise of any class of phenomena (pejorative or otherwise) is most likely to come from someone who has both direct experience of multiple types of that phenomena and domain knowledge of the class. But that doesn’t mean that both are required, and oftentimes the question of trust is overly simplified to become dependent upon both.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    January 21, 2009

    Maybe I don’t understand the discussion. However, when I ally with someone is is because we are part of the same group. We are all part of a number of different groups; the largest of which is life on earth. So isn’t being an ally just a matter of recognizing that you share group membership with someone or something?