“Why are you arguing with me? We’re on the same side!”
I’ve heard this a lot, from so many different groups–from feminists, from Christians, from progressives/liberals, and from LGBTQ circles.
It’s often accompanied by similar phrases like, “Let’s focus on the real enemy here,” and “We’re wasting our energy infighting!”
It’s interesting how many people from how many different groups assume I’m on “their side.”
I don’t like this phrase.
I don’t think everyone who uses it has malicious intentions. I think most people who use it just have a knee-jerk reaction against conflict of any sort. That’s understandable in a way. Conflict can be tough. It’s tempting to wonder, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Unfortunately, there are reasons why we can’t all just get along. Because of those reasons, conflict is sometimes necessary (I’ll talk about that in a moment).
Whether the person insisting that “we’re on the same side” has malicious intentions or not, this phrase can be dangerous. Whenever I hear it I am reminded of Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear, where he talks about the concept of forced teaming.
The website SafePlace sums up de Becker’s idea of forced teaming as follows (emphasis mine):
An effective way to establish premature trust because a “we’re in the same boat” attitude is hard to rebuff without feeling rude…The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists.
Not everyone who uses forced teaming is intentionally trying to manipulate you, but that does not mean it is not a manipulative tactic that we should be careful to avoid using and be aware of when it is used on us.
Don’t assume that just because someone uses the same labels you do [progressive, Christian, feminist, queer], or just because they share a few similar experiences with you [sexist discrimination, for example] that means they are on your team.
Years before Gavin de Becker wrote The Gift of Fear, bell hooks was talking about the phenomena of forced teaming (though she did not use those words) as it cropped up in feminist circles. In her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks responds to the concept–popular among some second-wave feminists–of Sisterhood among all women.
Many (usually white, upper-class) feminists hailed the idea of a Sisterhood among women, rooted in the idea of a common enemy–Patriarchy. All women are “on the same team!” All women “want the same thing!” All women “are in the same boat!”
These women’s idea of Sisterhood allowed them to ignore the ways in which they were complicit in racism, classism, and other oppressions.
bell hooks has this to say (emphasis mine):
Sisterhood became yet another shield against reality, another support system. Their version of Sisterhood was informed by racist and classist ideas about white womanhood, that the white “lady” (that is to say bourgeois woman) should be protected from all that might upset or discomfort her and shielded from negative realities that might lead to confrontation. Their version of Sisterhood dictated that sisters were to “unconditionally” love one another; that they were to avoid conflict and minimize disagreement; that they were not to disagree with each other, especially in public. (pg. 46 of the paperback second edition)
Yet, even among folks who all ultimately long for a more liberating world, there are “barriers to solidarity” (hooks’ phrasing–pg. 50) that keep us from truly “being on the same side.”
Ignoring our differences–our different standpoints, goals, experiences, and needs–in favor of cheap peace, forced teaming, and shallow “allyship” does not challenge those barriers. It only reinforces them.
According to hooks, women–and all those concerned about justice–“need to have the experience of working through hostility to arrive at understanding and solidarity.”
Many of us, myself included, need to improve in this area in one way or another. When we erase differences and claim to be on the same side as other “liberals,” or other Christians, or whatever, this keeps us from having conversations we need to have. When we dismiss anyone who denies being “on the same side” as us as being divisive and shaming–as if divisiveness were an inherently bad thing (hint: it’s not)–we build up these barriers to solidarity.
We need to resist the temptation to assume that everyone is on the same team and fighting the same enemy.
If you are a white woman, don’t assume that you share a common enemy with women of color who are fighting both racism and the unique ways that sexism is expressed toward women of color. If you are a gay man, don’t assume that you are fighting the same enemy as a transgender lesbian woman just because because you’re both lumped in together under “LGBTQ.”
These are just a couple of examples.
We cannot accomplish anything by pretending these differences don’t exist. To do so only excludes and harms those most vulnerable in our society. Justice that does not include those who need it the most is not true justice.
Who are you stepping on in your effort to reach the glass ceiling? Who are you leaving behind to sweep up the pieces after you break it?
No, we’re not all on the same team. At least not automatically. Not just by saying “I’m a Feminist,” or “I’m an Ally,” or “I’m a Progressive Christian.”
But if we can learn to listen to one another, even when it’s uncomfortable, maybe we can be in solidarity with one another.
Solidarity > Unity.