Debates about inequality of any kind tend to be quite frustrating. In conversations that can get quite emotionally charged, it’s important to remember that each of us is coming to the conversation from an entirely different set of experiences. We are all influenced by our personal experiences as well as the way we were raised. It’s a simple idea but an easy one to forget and it’s one that’s pretty important to remember. A person’s gender, ethnicity, age, appearance, or any other number of socio-economic factors can all play a significant and complicated role in how someone experiences a situation. Those experiences change how we respond to specific situations too. It is factors like this that allow inequality in all of its forms to continue and thrive. So as we enter into the meat of this topic, it’s crucial to remember to listen to the voice of others and consider their experiences. Just because you may have experienced something one way does not mean that another person didn’t get a different treatment in the same situation.
One of the most challenging things about discussing inequality is that often those who need to hear the messages the most are often the most reluctant to be open to the conversation. People do not generally like to see themselves as contributing to the problem so if something implies that they part of the problem, people can get defensive very quickly. Conversations that are trying to discuss potential changes or the need for changes can become quickly derailed by arguments such as “not all men”. Not only do statements like that fail to add anything useful to the conversation but it can have a damaging effect overall.
Why Even Say “Not All Men”?
So if “not all men” doesn’t add anything useful to the conversation, what makes people even say it? And what do they mean by it? Typically this phrase, and phrases like it, come from someone who is in a defensive position. People who feel the need to make a point of it are trying to distinguish the good men they know or consider themselves to be apart from the men who excuse abusive and bad behavior.
Our society has a lot of examples of bad behavior among men. We all have heard, read, or know personal stories of men who have been knowingly or unknowingly physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. In some more extreme situations, there are men who are all three. When compared to these extreme, and sadly common stories, it’s a no-brainer to say that men who do not contribute to the cycle of abuse are good men. In most cases, when someone is using the argument of, “not all men”, they are trying to put some distance between groups of men who perpetuate abuse and those who do not.
People Rarely Mean All Men
When we are looking at arguments and objections like not all men, the first thing we need to consider is that whatever triggered this “not all” reaction was a general statement or argument.
By definition, a generalized statement is “a broad statement or an idea that is applied to a group of people or things. Often, generalizations are not entirely true, because there are usually examples of individuals or situations wherein the generalization does not apply.” (https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-generalization.html). Most things in our world fall on a spectrum where various individuals will fall anywhere in the range of that spectrum. When someone makes a generalized statement, no one ever means every single individual with no exceptions ever. So if someone makes a statement like, all men are jerks, or something much more colorful and I’m sure you or I have read online somewhere, it’s pretty much a guarantee that very few people actually mean every single man on this planet. It is a generalized statement. And should be treated as such.
We all want to be thought of as nice and good people. Very few people think of themselves as bad person or aspire to be one. Even bad people tend to rationalize away their nefarious actions to justify why they did those things. It’s pretty common for people to immediately jump to the defense of something that threatens their sense of character. People want their goodness to be validated. And they want it to be validated in the eyes of others. In so many cases, this is the need that drives the impulse to speak up with, “not all”. Now some people argue that this doesn’t need to be a problem at all if people would just acknowledge exceptions by deliberating saying it’s a general statement. To say, “most guys are jerks” instead of “guys are jerks”, for example. So why shouldn’t more people just be more careful with their words? In many cases, it’s because general statements do not need qualifiers. Most people grasp the concept of a general statement and there is no need to qualify it. Also when general statements are made about men, it’s because women are angry. Women have been hurt, continue to be hurt, and there are many problems on a societal level that still contribute heavily to the normalization of violence against women. At this point in time, there are enough men and enough things in society that enable men to continue inequality and all abuse to continue to make a general statement true.
“Not all Men” Equals “Not My Problem”
The other major problem with the “not all men” objection is the attitude that tends to come with it. When the general statements statements are softened, many men just simply ignore them. It’s becomes a, “that’s not my problem because I’m not like that” reaction and they feel that their goodness has been validated and therefore no attention or help is given to combat the actual problem… because it’s not seen as their problem.
When people derail an argument about equality by making an issue of the use of generalized statements, it sends the message that that person only sees it as a problem when they are considered part of the problem. If they actually wanted to be involved in the discussion and part of the solution, then they would be. They wouldn’t feel the need to enforce the “not all” qualifier because the discussion would be centered around root causes and ways to address them. The reality is that violence against women, sexism, and gender inequality are a man’s problem and men are literally the only people who can solve it. It is the responsibility of those with more power to do what they can to create spaces of equality and lift of the voices of marginalized groups.
“Not all Men” is Dismissive
In times of inequality, we need to elevate and empower voices of minorities, especially when they are saying things that are difficult or uncomfortable to hear. No voice is, or has ever been, lifted up by telling them that they are wrong, or to repackage their message to be more appealing, or that someone would only listen to their message if it wasn’t so offensive …. Taken from the wisdom of spiderman and all those other comics, and practically ever hero story ever…. With great power comes great responsibility. When the issue of “not all” is forced, it says to everyone involved in the discussion that the person forcing it cares more about their own ego, personal feelings, and self-esteem than they do about the bigger issue or the pain of the person or group making the original statement.
Many of these statements are voiced out of anger, frustration, pain, or to raise awareness of what is the reality of women. Some are deliberately worded this way to provide an outlet to those intense feelings or to deliberately try to shake off the indifference of so many men. When someone takes the “not all” argument, it becomes extremely dismissive to the problem voiced in the first place because it doesn’t nothing at all to address that problem. It also does nothing to support the voice of the minority. In fact the only thing it actually accomplishes is to validate the ego of the person saying “not all”.
“Not all Men” Reinforces Oppression
Our system is currently built on a patriarchy that is oppressive. It’s been highly oppressive in the past and continues to be oppressive in many ways. If it was not, then our society would look very different than it does right now. This is a whole topic on its own and beyond the scope of this particular article but it is a fact in the lives of all genders that are not cis-hetero men.
The reality that many women face is that any man, good or not, has the potential to be violent because violence in men is heavily normalized. It’s so heavily normalized that men are expected to be brutes. Bad and abusive behaviour is glorified in many areas of society. We see this easily when we look at things like locker room talk, certain forms of media such as music, TV shows, movies, etc. All these mediums show or encourage the idea that men are apparently only real men when they are extremely aggressive, prone to temper and violence, and dominating and possessive of women.
When men are featured this way, it sets the bar really low for what makes a good man. In this light, To be a good man, the man simply has to be respectful and supportive in the most basic way. To fulfil the most basic requirement to being a member of a social group. Generally that’s all it takes to be considered a good man. It’s common for men who fall into this trap to still contribute to the same things that perpetuate the image of men that is the cause of violence and abuse of women. They may not be throwing the punches, violating consent, or abusing women but laughing at sexist jokes, indulging in locker room talk, absorbing media that glorifies violent men, and remaining silent on the issue and realities of the abuse of women just feeds into the system of violence and oppression.
So saying, “not all men” is not enough because very few men do much to actually contribute to the end of the problem and many men benefit from having it continue.
There Are Better Ways Than “Not All Men”
It’s important to distinguish between people who contribute to the cycle of abuse and those who do not; however, there are better ways to do this than simply saying a “not all” statement. It’s important that those in positions of power are supportive and empowering of minorities. Actions speak so much louder than words and the simple act of listening, and acknowledging the struggles of someone can be extremely powerful and healing. If someone finds themselves wanting to say, “not all” in response to any type of general statement, it’s a crucial time to reflect what triggering that impulse. What is bringing out that defensive thought? It’s also important to remember in that moment that the general statement is not about them as an individual. It’s not a personal attack that needs defending and if it is… are you really on the right side of that defense?