There was a time, years ago, when I used to start many responses with those three words.
“Men commit rape.”: “Not all men.”
“Men are violent.”: “Not all men.”
“Men hide their feelings.”: “Not all men.”
This is a defensive response that refocuses the discussion. It’s also highly patronizing: Few people who say, for instance, “Men are trash” really mean “Every person who identifies as a man is trash.” They mean “Many men are trash” or “Most of the men I’ve dealt with in my life are trash” or even just “My boyfriend is really getting on my nerves right now.”
We could choose to listen to the person’s complaints and process how they’re feeling, which is the route of compassion and empathy. Or we could decide that they’re making a blanket generalization, and rush to the defense of all the men to whom the generalization applies.
Thus making it about us and our feelings, instead of the very real feelings that led to someone expressing frustration or disappointment.
By the way, if you’re a man and you’re talking to someone who truly believes that every person who identifies as a man is trash, you’re not going to get far in the conversation. Walk away. Don’t embarrass yourself by engaging in a pointless argument.
And of course, I wasn’t really defending all men. I wasn’t even seriously defending other men who, like me, weren’t engaging in whatever behavior was being criticized. I was defending me and me alone. It was all about how my feelings had been hurt at the prospect of being seen as “that sort of man.”
One of my anthems at the time was Rollins Band’s “Wrong Man”: “I’m not all men, I’m just one man, I’m not that man!”
At some point, I came to realize that a serious response of “not all men” was annoying and counterproductive. Women did not rush to my side of the argument, realizing how they’d hurt my feelings with the blanket generalization.
Instead, people mocked me, rolled their eyes at me, blocked me, ignored me… because I’d made a conversation that wasn’t about me about me.
I started using “Not all men” ironically. So people could make sure that people knew I was joking, I would insert a smile emoji after it, or put it in scare quotes. See, ladies? I know it’s not a valid thing to say!
I know it’s what an annoying man would say right now to make it about him!
I’m not really saying it, so you can all see that… I’m… not… um.
I was making it about me again. On one level, I was being even worse. I was engaging in a microaggression. I was saying, in effect, “I could make this about me, I could be one of those fragile men that needs conversations to be all about him, but… I’m not going to. I’m just going to remind you that I could. I choose not to, but now I need your validation or maybe I’ll go back to my old ways.”
Sadly, I didn’t realize this by myself. It took someone else staring me down and telling me they weren’t going to tolerate it. Tolerate what? I’m joking! See the smiley! Hahaha!
I apologized. I stopped making the comment, even ironically. I haven’t made it since.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “not all men” or its cousin “not all whites.” Last week, after all, I wrote an article called “Not All Masculinity is Toxic.”
The main problem comes from using it as a response. All lives matter, sure, but if the only time you feel like pointing that out is when someone says, “Black lives matter,” then you’re missing the point. Likewise, if the only time you feel like distinguishing yourself from misogynists is when someone suggests you are one, that’s a problem.
So now, when someone complains about men, I don’t even feel the need to defend myself. By freeing myself from “not all men,” I’ve given myself room to truly listen to what’s being said. I can express proper sympathy. I can keep the focus on the person having a problem, instead of pulling the spotlight onto me.
On the flipside, I also feel like men should be careful with casually saying things like “Men suck” or “Men are trash.” For one thing, some of us men, including myself, have a history of cookie-seeking behavior, where we deliberately distance ourselves from “our kind” in order to curry favor with others. For another, I used to toss such comments (or “white people” equivalents) fairly freely, but it started to feel fatalistic: If men are trash, if white people suck, do I really have a chance of rising above the stereotype? Did I really need to punch myself in order to prove something?
Now I include qualifiers: Some men do this. Men have certain unfortunate expectations. Toxic attitudes about masculinity encourage men to do these things.
So let’s talk about what men can be. Let’s be better men. Let’s take other men to task for their misogyny, their casual violence, their emotional distance…. Not all men are like that, which is good. Instead of trying to convince women that we “not those men” exist, let’s try to convince other men that we exist, and that they can be like us, too.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.