In response to injustice against members of various communities, those affected rise up, thank goodness, against the injustice accompanied by their allies from outside the community. Thus, the black community has white allies, the gay community has straight allies, women have male allies, and so on. I want to join all these communities in the struggle for justice, but I’ve never felt any connection with the word “ally.” Perhaps I over think things (I’ve certainly been told I do), and I can see why some people would see an “alliance” as a good thing, but I really think the idea of an ally preserves the concept of division and otherness.
The source of most oppression comes from this concept of otherness. Simone de Beauvoir told us, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, she says, “In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.” It is the distinction between One and Other that is the source of the problem. If the One becomes an advocate for the Other, does this change the balance of power? I argue that it does not. The ally speaks from a position of power on behalf of the less fortunate, often with the expectation that the weaker party will feel and exhibit an overflowing gratitude. At least, that is how it feels to me.
All the same, we can’t ignore our differences from others. It is important to preserve cultural distinctions, for example. Only the Deaf community fully understands the special problems faced by deaf people. Only the Native American community can understand injustices against Native Americans. And so on. What unites us in our struggle, though, is that we all are able to understand what injustice is. Those of us who are outraged, disgusted, and revolted by injustice, will react with those feelings every time we see it, regardless of the specific circumstances or characteristics of the victim. At least this is what I hope. When I react to injustice, I don’t do it because I feel someone deserves my sympathy or respect. I do it because I am offended by injustice. The specific qualities of the victim are not the source of my outrage.
This isn’t to say the specific qualities of the victim are not relevant, especially regarding discussions of how to understand and address the injustice. We need to have conversations so that we can understand each other. As Kwame Athony Appiah put it in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “We take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.” We must also understand the experiences of others. Through conversation, stories, art, music and language we can share experiences and enhance our ability to imagine the lives of others. By understanding the experiences of others, we are better able to understand that their experiences are morally inexcusable.
Affirming justice requires us to see the common humanity we have with others. Those who harbor feelings of innate superiority are easily enticed to barbarous behavior. David Hume notes that Europeans had such feelings of superiority over natives in America that it “made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even humanity, in our treatment of them.” He goes on to describe similar treatment of women, owing to the fact that men “have in all countries bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny.” Those who are able to disregard the humanity of others and have the power to force them in to submission feel entitled to exercise their power. It is my contention that the person who does not carry feelings of entitlement will be sickened by the abuse of others. When we recognize our shared experiences with others, feelings of entitlement dissolve. When we feel an innate superiority, entitlement is cemented in our psyche.
The people who are most able to recognize their common humanity are those who have experienced injustice or at least recognized the possibility that they might. I don’t mean those threatened by the loss of their own power or privilege but those who recognize that we are all inferior in someone else’s eyes. The rage against injustice against other races or citizens in other countries is a rage against injustice that could befall anyone at any time. Often marginalized and oppressed groups recognize the oppression of other groups before the privileged can see. Declaring that someone is privileged, however, has its own hazards. A person’s oppression may not be readily apparent on his or her face or skin or other aspects of personal appearance. Religious, sexual, gender, and cultural differences are not always visible on the skin, but these differences often lead to extreme oppression and violence.
Occasionally, people are unable, flawed as we all are, to recognize their common humanity even with those with whom they have no discernible differences. Consider the bitter conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a 1996 interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, Professor George Izangola described the lack of differences between the two groups: “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” (I’ve taken this quote from PBS here.)
If some of us can deny the humanity of those who look almost exactly like us, then “otherness” is a phenomenon that goes beyond race and gender. We either recognize that we are part of humanity or we do not. One way leads to freedom and the other to fascism. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir declares that we are each in a subjective struggle for freedom but that we are defined in our relationship to others. Our struggle for our freedom entails a will for the freedom of others. She says the activist “exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.”
For Beauvoir’s activist, the constant push for freedom is a push for humanity. In this sense, an injustice anywhere is, indeed, a threat to justice everywhere, as the saying goes. The existence of injustice itself destroys the condition of freedom. Resistance is, she says, the annihilation of injustice. In an apparent paradox, I struggle alone but alongside and in relation to others. As your struggle is yours alone, my struggle is mine alone. Rather than acting as an ally seeking justice on your behalf, we must work together to secure freedom on our own account, which requires freedom for all.