In San Juan Capistrano, California, there is a summer camp for disabled children that pairs each camper with a counselor who attends to their needs, a one-to-one ratio that makes it possible to give them a day at the beach, trips to amusement parks, outings on horseback, and other treats many wouldn’t otherwise experience.

The counselors are mostly teenagers, many of them fulfilling the “service hours” required at nearby parochial high schools. Like most 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds, they aren't particularly reflective about how lucky they were to be born without cystic fibrosis, or muscular dystrophy, or autism. But they almost always become great friends to the kids with whom they're paired. They give love and encouragement. They are diligent about seeing to the safety and medical needs of their camper. They are protective, and when they return to their high schools, they tend to instinctively object if they hear anyone dehumanize people who are disabled.

In short, they are fantastic allies to a group that needs them.

* * *

At Scripps College in Claremont, California, a publication called The Unofficial Scripps College Survival Guide is made available to all students. The most recent edition was edited by two students from the class of 2017 whose names I am withholding. They expended great effort to create a resource for their peers that runs to 217 pages. I read through the book as part of my ongoing inquiry into the culture and beliefs of today’s college students. I stopped short at a page titled, “How to Be an Ally.”

The advice offered is similar to ideas I’ve run across on a number of college campuses. And seeing them summed up made me realize how emphatically I disagree.

Here is the full text:

Being an ally is not a badge you wear or something that you can call yourself; it is a verb, not a noun. Enacting a life of accountability and ownership over your own domination and privileges is the only way you can exhibit allyship. In order to be reflective on the ways in which you collude with systems of domination, you must look within. We cannot look at the world and say it is messed up and fix it without working on ourselves. The whole point of coming to college is to learn and grow. What's a better way than to start by looking inward?

To be clear, I don't object to college students looking inward. They ought to reflect on their privileges, their flaws, and their place in the world.

But the surest path to being a good ally is looking outward; it’s possible to look at the world, say it’s messed up, and help fix it without “working on ourselves;” and there are many ways to “exhibit allyship,” most of them more important than inwardly claiming “ownership over your domination,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

The high school volunteers mentioned above and the special-needs community with whom they allied are both better off for the fact that service to others through outward action was emphasized, rather than inward reflection on privilege. What a pity it would’ve been if someone would’ve discouraged the counselors from going out into the world to help people until they “worked on themselves.”

* * *

A few miles from the Claremont Colleges, there is a soup kitchen that serves the homeless; a large community of immigrant laborers who would be better off with a bank account than patronizing the Checks Cashed establishments that proliferate nearby; and plenty of people, many of them black or Hispanic, who’ve filed excessive force complaints against the L.A. or San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments. Even modest effort to remedy any of those problems would, it seems to me, be more valuable than turning inward to reflect on one’s privileges.

Because I attended Pomona College as an undergraduate, I've known and interviewed a lot of people at the  Claremont Colleges who regarded themselves as good allies. Some began a campaign to unionize dining-hall workers and to raise their wages. Others pushed the City of Claremont to investigate the death of a young black man named Irving Landrum, who was killed by the Claremont Police Department. Still others volunteered at that soup kitchen in downtown Pomona. Some of my peers who fought for those causes were inwardly reflective. Others not so much.

All were all better allies than many people I've known who frequently made mention of their privilege, or "owned" the legacy of oppression perpetrated by other people who share their race, gender, or religion, but never lifted a finger to actually help anyone, or fight any specific injustice in a concrete way beyond "calling it out."

In adult life, I’ve known a lot of libertarians who regard concepts like "white privilege," as conceived on campus, with suspicion; reject the ideology of campus social-justice progressives; and dedicate their lives to fighting for the release of wrongly imprisoned people, reforming the criminal justice system to end excessive incarceration, suing on behalf of the marriage and adoption rights of gays, fighting for the civil liberties of Muslims, and otherwise helping marginalized people.

Am I to believe those libertarians aren’t allies because "enacting a life of accountability and ownership over your own domination and privileges” is “the only way” one can exhibit allyship? On reflection, I find that narrow definition preposterous. If you were wrongly imprisoned what approach to allyship would you prefer?

* * *

How did the tenets of social-justice ideology spread on college campuses? How did this highly particular, contested definition of “ally” wind up before Scripps students?

For an answer, I reached out to the editors of The Unofficial Scripps College Survival Guide, praised their altruism and hard work, set forth my thoughts on allies, and asked if I was missing something about their argument, or mistaken in my reasoning, or if they had any thoughts at all they wanted to share.

They responded quickly, clarifying that as the book’s editors, they didn’t personally write the page on allies, or necessarily agree or disagree or take any position at all on ideas set forth on a given page of the lengthy, collaboratively produced project. “As the piece you're referring to is not one that we personally wrote, we don't want to speak for the author,” one of the editors wrote. “That piece was submitted by SCORE (Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment).”

That’s an office under the umbrella of student affairs at Scripps––in other words, Scripps staff or administrators contributed parts of The Unofficial Guide to Scripps College.

The SCORE office’s mission: to provide “support and resources to empower student organizations so that they may further promote social and political awareness, specifically with respect to issues of class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexuality, and sexual orientation.” At the suggestion of the Scripps students, I emailed SCORE’s assistant directors to engage them on their reasoning about allies.

Victoria Verlezza is the assistant director who replied. She is, according to her LinkedIn profile, a student affairs professional “who aims to infuse social justice practices in my work and life.” She is “a graduate of Social Justice Training Institute” and has  “a certificate in Social Justice Mediation in addition to my undergraduate and graduate degrees.” Surely she could help explain why ally was defined that way, or at least direct me to scholars or articles that gave rise to a definition that passed through Scripps college to an unofficial guide made available to students.

She declined to do so. “All requests need to go through the Office of Marketing and Communication,” Verlazza wrote. “Thank you.” It was just like reporting on a corporation. This may well be an institutional policy rather than evasiveness from a staffer.

This isn’t someone with tenure, after all.

When I wrote the Scripps Office of Marketing and Communication to formally request permission to correspond or talk by phone with the relevant Scripps staffers, I was thwarted by Karen Bergh, Associate Director of Media and Public Relations, who politely insisted that I pre-submit all questions through her. She claimed, to my annoyed skepticism, that this would help me get the answers I wanted.

So I emailed her to ask who wrote the “unofficial guide” page on what it means to be an ally, repeated my request “to speak by phone or correspond with that person in a spirit of intellectual inquiry and conversation,” and added that if she still insisted that I submit my queries through her, my questions for the author were:

  • Are there any particular scholars, authors, or thinkers whose work informed the definition of ally set forth on the page in question?
  • How did you come to your position on ally-ship?
  • The page asserts a very particular view of what it means to be an ally. Were the assertions being offered as the opinion of one person? The position of an office within Scripps? A distillation of an ostensible scholarly consensus? As statements of fact?
  • Were any competing views on ally-ship solicited or discussed?
  • How would you respond to someone who put forth a competing viewpoint––that the truest and most useful way to be an ally is looking outward, not inward?
  • How would you respond to someone who argued that there are ways to be an ally that don't require one to believe in one's own privilege or domination?

My request for an interview was rejected again, and the Office of Marketing and Communication effectively evaded most of the rest of my questions, offering only this:

Hi, Conor:

The Marketing & Communications Office can confirm that students drew from a variety of sources, including readings for coursework, training materials supplied by the SCORE office, and literature from a range of activists to produce the guide. Because the guide is a student conceived and student authored publication not included in the official communications the College sends to admitted students, the College defers to the students who co-authored the guide regarding any questions, intent or background of the guide's contents.

I hope this helps,

~Karen

That’s exactly what it feels like to correspond with corporate communications offices. Don’t blame Bergh. She’s just capably doing exactly the job she was hired to do.

Corporate image management and intellectual inquiry are simply at odds.

If there is an individual who stands behind the definition of ally offered in the book at Scripps, or is willing to engage in dialogue on the subject, I cannot find them. I remain curious about the logic behind the assertions the document sets forth, and I’m starting to wonder if anyone believes in its substance enough to defend it.

Maybe the words were drafted by institutional inertia.

John McWhorter has compared social-justice ideology to a religion. Some religious people believe a life well-lived requires the faithful to carry out good acts in the world. Others believe inward reflection and faith in sacred truths is “the way.”

Social justice “bureaucrats” increasingly seem to favor the latter approach. This may prove useful to administrators who want student activists to be docile. Don’t  go chain yourself to an administration building to protest lost scholarships for injured student athletes or protest a food vendor that operates private prisons. Start by looking inward.

How did this particular, contested definition wind up before Scripps students? The fact that there’s no answer forthcoming serves to thwart the intellectual back-and-forth that is ostensibly the purpose of a residential college. The altruistic students who spent so much time and effort assembling a multi-faceted resource for their peers are, I think, basically blameless here. It is the administration and faculty of Scripps College that should safeguard and model intellectual accountability, modesty, and scholarly rigor, rejecting the modes of an opaque faith that hands down ostensibly definitive texts of mysterious origins.

If any Scripps faculty members, staff, or students would like to bypass the Marketing & Communications Office and defend the passage in question, I’d welcome their input.

Meanwhile, I hope college students will go forth, outside the campus bubble, and help people. The relationships they form will generate orders of magnitude more wisdom and understanding about people unlike themselves than any social-justice dogma.

Faith in dogma is overrated. Do good works!