Internet discourse about gender cannot get any worse than it is right now. Personally, I find the issue rather uninteresting, but it’s hard not to be bombarded with it wherever you look; people are becoming unhealthily obsessed with it and it’s doing practically nothing to change anything for the better. It seems the only product of this strange preoccupation is that everyone seems to hate each other more than they already did.
Vox has published a very poor article by Kelsey McKinney about the “not all men” meme. I said I find the issue uninteresting (and I do) but regardless, I still enjoy poking at whatever I consider faulty reasoning.
In the style of a high-school homework assignment, McKinney starts by defining ‘man’.
A man is an adult male of the species homo sapiens
So far, so good.
- A man is someone who pays his female employees less.
- A man is someone who interrupts a woman when she’s in the middle of saying something.
- A man expects his wife to do all the cooking and cleaning.
My answer to this is “not all men”. If a man is someone who interrupts women, then I’m not a ‘man’, and a woman (using the definition I use) who interrupts a woman is a ‘man’. That is absurd; the definition clearly doesn’t apply to all men, and is therefore false.
Fortunately, McKinney anticipated my objection:
What’s that you say? Not ALL men pay their employees less? Not ALL men interrupt women?
Thanks for pointing that out. You’re who this meme is about.
Her post is about me! I like this defence; by objecting to the claim being defended, I am inadvertently proving the claim true! If I had agreed to it, then it would have also been true:
McKinney might offer a better response by claiming that the “A” in “A man” is an existential quantifier rather than a universal quantifier. That would at least take care of “not all men”. The trouble is, you could substitute in so many different predicates that the exercise is practically pointless; not to mention that it’s poorly and confusingly worded, e.g. “a man is someone called John.”, “women like shopping”, “an elephant is something that has a trunk and no tusks”.
McKinney laments the inevitability of “not all men” cropping up in comment sections:
Let’s say a post is written on the internet about how men do not listen to women when they speak and interrupt them more often than men, an observation borne out by empirical research. At a blog or site of sufficient size, it’s practically inevitable that a commenter will reply, “Not all men interrupt.”
I can imagine. If you write an article about how philosophy is dead and science has fully replaced it as a method of inquiry, I’d say it’s pretty inevitable that you’ll get a lot of angry philosophers telling you “not in all categories”. I suppose in that case McKinney would say that proves the anti-philosophy article was right all along.
This phrase “Not all men” is a common rebuttal used (most often) by men in conversations about gender in order to exempt themselves from criticism of common male behaviors. Recently, the phrase has been reappropriated by feminists and turned into a meme meant to parody its pervasiveness and bad faith.
Well good to know that feminists are changing the world for the better! Sorry, not all feminists are that childish. Why does McKinney think “not all men” is about exempting oneself from criticism? If I say “not all men” you’re welcome to come back at me to show me either how I’ve missed the point or how, yes, it really is all men. What I’m doing is objecting to a claim made by someone, a claim that I don’t fully agree with. Simply disagreeing and explaining one’s reasons isn’t the same as trying to exempt oneself from criticism. I’d say making memes to try to mock and ‘discredit’ a common objection is an attempt to exempt one’s ideas from criticism.
How does McKinney defend the dismissal and mocking of “not all men”?
When a man (though, of course, not all men) butts into a conversation about a feminist issue to remind the speaker that “not all men” do something, they derail what could be a productive conversation. Instead of contributing to the dialogue, they become the center of it, excluding themselves from any responsibility or blame.
We’re never told why this is the case, but I suppose there’s no point in providing reasons if nobody is allowed to disagree. “Not all men” is not derailing, since it’s a direct response to the claim being made. If someone finds it cropping up a lot in their blog comments, perhaps they should think about writing and arguing with a little more clarity.
McKinney is defending sexism. Yes, sexism against men isn’t as historically harmful or prevalent, but it’s still sexism and it’s still wrong. If you understand why sexism is wrong, you’ll attack it no matter the gender of the target. To illustrate how McKinney is defending sexism, take this instance of sexism against women, documented by David Futrelle. Briefly, someone is claiming that because is was mostly men who participated in the landing of Curiosity on Mars, therefore we should celebrate it as an achievement by men. This commits the same error as those who receive comments saying “not all men”. Even if the majority of those who did x were men, it doesn’t justify us saying “x was done by men”. One could reasonably respond with “not all men” or “not just men”.
McKinney then starts clutching at straws:
On a very basic level, “not all men” is an interruption, and interrupting is rude.
Blog comments are not interruptions, so it fails to apply to those at all – in fact it only applies to verbal conversations. These “meme-filled gender wars” are largely confined to the online world, so this is a rather weak, somewhat contrived justification. Verbal interruption is often rude, yes. I’m always getting interrupted, and often find it hard to impose myself in conversations with more than one other person; I find this frustrating, so I can fully understand. There are times, however, when interrupting is a good idea. If someone is claiming or arguing for something, and you disagree with or fail to understand some fundamental point, it is best to ask about it or point it out as soon as you can, so that they aren’t just talking past you for the rest of the monologue. What’s the point of listening for a few minutes if you’re just thinking “your assumptions/premises are mistaken/unclear”?
“Not all men.” Fine. But pointing out individual exceptions doesn’t help us understand or combat behaviors that really are mainly committed by men, from small things like interruptions up to domestic violence and rape. Not all men beat their partners, but people who beat their partners are mostly men. Pointing out that you’re not one of them doesn’t help us figure out how to understand and deal with that problem.
Now McKinney is really clutching at straws. Of course someone pointing out that it doesn’t apply to all men doesn’t help figure out how to to understand rape. Neither does saying things like “a man is someone who commits rape”. People say things like “not all men” because they take offence at (or just want to gently correct) lazy, sexist generalisations; not every comment on the Internet must be a step forward in rape prevention efforts (something almost impossible to provide in a fearful and hostile online climate).
So no. If someone says something where “not all men” is an appropriate answer, I’ll answer “not all men”. I’m not going to hold back because someone who brooks no dissent made a couple of unfunny pictures and tweeted them. Deary me.