Not All Men Are Like That

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Not All Men Are Like That.  A phrase which appears so frequently online it has been abbreviated to NAMALT.  In discussions of men’s violence towards women, or the sexism throughout society, you can bank on someone declaring that they’re very shocked by this story, but we should bear in mind that not all men are like that.

As the #yesallwomen hashtag pointed out, not all men need to be like that for women to be abused, intimidated or disadvantaged.  Pointing out that “not all men are like that” is a sign that we’re more interested in talking about how we’re good people than talking about the violence and discrimination women face.  It essentially asks women to stop talking about themselves so much, and concentrate on us.  It’s a tactic we don’t hear so much in other contexts.  “Not all hurricanes devastate cities”, “not all cars fail their MOT”, “not all hammers just smacked your thumb” would all be regarded as unhelpful responses by most people, and as bizarrely missing the point.  But “not all men rape women” or “not all men are violent to their partners” are somehow reasonable.

Beyond that, I want to ask why so many men default to this response when women talk about the problems they face.  I recognise the impulse – in fact, I’ve said similar things in the past, and looking back, I wish I hadn’t. It’s a powerful urge, and I’ve been thinking about why that’s the case.  On a basic level, it surely has to do with the desire to live in a just universe.  We like to think the world around us is basically ordered and run on fair principles (even when we admit that is manifestly not the case.)  Just as we have to assume that gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, friction, and other bits of physics I don’t understand, are going to continue applying when we start a car each morning.  Or how we need to believe that economic and industrial structures are going to keep being generally comprehensible in order to work all week and then spend our wages.  On some level, in order to make moral choices and carry out ethical judgements, we need to believe that there is some sort of justice in this world.

Except, for many people, that’s a luxury.  A small proportion of the world’s population gets to pretend that the world is more fair than it is unfair, and a lot of them are men.  Various overlapping categories of people – women, working class people, ethnic minorities – are regularly faced with the kind of social injustices which call into question the white, straight, male assumption that this society is rational and broadly fair.  When they start pointing this out, it’s inevitable to feel defensive.  We want to insist that those injustices, whether they take the form of violence, discrimination, or a range of other harms, are outliers.  They’re exceptions.  They don’t question the basic system.  “Not all men” is one way of saying “please stop talking about these issues” because they’re incidental. They’re bugs, not features.

We have a lot of investment in believing that this society is not systematically unjust.  Facing that would make us question whether the success and happiness we have – in whatever form, and to whatever extent – may not be rightfully ours.  That the job we landed would have gone to someone else in a fairer world.  That the education we received wasn’t ours by right of our intellectual superiority.  It would question the straight white man as the rational, objective measure of all things.  Because not only would there be things in our world we didn’t deserve, but there would be parts of that world we didn’t understand.  Women discussing their lives and experiences calls into question the notion that we can know everything, and stand in objective judgement on the world, without being judged and called into question ourselves.  “Not all men” is a way of pushing that threat away, by facing women with an apparently objective “fact” which discredits their suggestion.

More personally, “not all men” often sounds like an attempt to protect our own identity.  Our sense of self is so bound up with our notions of gender that we want to save the idea of being a “good man”.  Not simply a good person, but a good man.  It’s something we’re taught to strive for and to emulate in other men.  Many of us will have role models, who present us with an image of how a man can embody skills or virtues which we want to achieve.  He’s likely to embody them in a specifically male way.  Boys are often taught that lying, cheating or bullying is not what a “good man” does.  We don’t go quite as far as calling them “unmanly” in a Victorian way.  But there’s a strong tendency to suggest that boys try to be “good men” rather than “good people”.  “Not all men” is an attempt to save our vision of ourselves as good because we are men, in some sense.  A belief that we are doing manhood right, and that manhood is in itself somehow intrinsically praiseworthy.

That’s understandable, given the way our society glorifies masculinity.  Who wouldn’t want to be associated with the kind of qualities stereotypically grouped around men: strength, intellect, daring, perseverance.  But there’s something more, I think, in this desire to save the idea of the “good man”.  A dim awareness amongst men that there’s more space and possibility in being a “good man” than there is in being a “good woman”.  The former implies all sorts of active virtues, the latter tends to be associated with thrift, purity and self-sacrifice.  It’s clear who gets the better model.  And there’s certainly more space in being a “good bloke” than a “good girl”.  The one is cheery, rambunctious, well-liked, the other is quiet, obedient, uncomplaining.

Not to mention that a “good bloke” can get away with a lot of things without giving up that title.  “He gets a bit grabby after a few drink…”, “He doesn’t really pull his weight…”, “He likes a scrap at closing time…”, “He doesn’t like women telling him what to do…” can all be finished with “…but he’s a good bloke.”  Protecting the category of the “good bloke”, by insisting in the face of stories of harassment and abuse that “not all men are like that” offers men a moral flexibility which is not available to women.  It protects our privilege.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, we insist that “not all men are like that” because we don’t want to admit how much we benefit from a system in which some men are like that.  We hate to think that the men who degrade and abuse women are indirectly connected to us.  But they are.  When women are discriminated in the workplace, it makes it a little easier for us to get a better job.  When women can’t give their opinions on art or politics without getting a torrent of anonymous abuse and threats, it makes our voices louder.  When girls are taught to be pretty and obliging and emotionally available to men, it makes our lives a little smoother and less hassle.

We may not believe this is right, but we have to believe it is true.  As men, we are complicit in the violence which is carried out in our name.  And in this society, that is an enormous amount of violence, day in and day out.  “Not all men are like that” is an attempt to distance ourselves from the abuse and disadvantages which women face, and which makes our lives easier.  It’s an attempt to “opt out” of the system which we know is wrong but which still continues to benefit us.  It’s understandable, and it even springs from our own moral awareness that injustice is inherently wrong.  But we can’t use it as a way of deflecting our own involvement in a culture which hates women.  We are – to twist John Donne’s words a bit – all involved in mankind.

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