Why I define myself as a feminist – rather than an ally

In a lot of liberal parlance there is this idea of being an “ally” which I find just a wee bit less than satisfactory.

The thing about an ally is that they’re not there because they actually believe in your cause, but because they feel they can benefit in some way.

Hence for example during WWII the US and the USSR were allies – even though for most of the rest of the century they were on the brink of ending the world over each other’s continued existence.

Allies are not friends; they’re people who seek mutual benefit in order to achieve strategic goals. That is an important distinction when we talk about social justice.

When we say we’re being good allies, what we’re actually saying is that we’re going to paint ourselves as being in favour of a cause basically for some sort of benefit to ourselves.

To be an ally to feminism is that to not so much embrace the idea that women are equal to men and should be afforded to the same rights and general treatment as men, but to say that the movement that says that is in some way useful to me.

And allies come with demands. A lot of digital ink has been spilled in the atheist community over being good allies to various other communities, but this comes with an inherent idea that those communities would owe us in some way for basically being minimally decent human beings.

And I cannot do that. I cannot say that racism is wrong because that aligns me with a movement that will pay me back some day for saying that, I say it is wrong because it is wrong.

And as an anti-racist, I will accept the leadership of those impacted hardest by racism in the battle against it, because I recognise that they are the ones who know best what they’re talking about.

I do not do this uncritically, anymore than I would do so with any other sort of expert, but rather with an understanding that I have inferior knowledge.

The same thing goes with feminism. I do not define myself as a feminist ally because I do not believe that those fighting for gender equality are potential useful assets to my other causes, I believe that they’re right hence I call myself a feminist.

I am happy to accept the leadership of women in that fight, because they know much better than I do what they’re talking about.

And that is an important point here. Men like me can end up overpowering voices that actually are much better suited to the argument, voices whose authority is layered with lived experience and data that I easily miss because my frame is fundamentally informed by the accident of birth that rendered me male in a male dominated world.

So I have to learn to shut up and listen, something which is not exactly in my nature in most cases. The ability to recognise my own incompetence is a difficult one to master, and I have not fully done so yet.

But I have no better label for my beliefs than to say I am a feminist, not as a mark of pride, not as a member of a movement I seek to dominate, but as a statement of what I believe to be true.

I cannot call myself an ally, because that is not what I am. This isn’t some sort of transaction to gain myself some sort of benefit.

And simply believing feminism to be correct – is no guarantee of personal perfection. Too often people like me like to say we want to hear a variety of voices – but all singing from our own song sheet.

Saying that I am a feminist is not saying that I should not be criticised for my sexism, but that I should listen when such criticisms are made. I’m a slow study, but I have the duty to learn.

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