I firmly believe that feminism does not need to be “palatable” for it to succeed. Just like all other social movements, it requires giving up our privileges, and disruption of our existing thought processes and institutions, and such change is always opposed by structures that benefit from status quo.
To that effect, in the past, I have vehemently opposed the #NotAllMen hashtag that begins trending every time news of an incident relating to violence against women (VAW) breaks out. This opposition has usually been in the form of outrage and desperate attempts to “reclaim” this space. While I do not want to take away from any of these valid forms of protest, I understand that engaging meaningfully with opposing views (without trivialising them) is just as (if not more) important, especially for changing mindsets.
This post is in specific response to the #NotAllMen hashtag that resurfaced on Twitter in the aftermath of the mass molestation that took place on the streets of Bangalore on 31st December 2016 Here, I am going to specifically offer counters to arguments often offered by defendants of the hashtag.
1. “#NotAllMen is factually true. All men don’t indulge in VAW, and it’s a request not to be blamed for the actions of strangers I’ve never met and can’t control, and therefore don’t appreciate being insulted because I share their gender.”
There are two scenarios in which this hashtag is used – One, in response to victims/feminists portraying that all men are in fact to blame, and Two, in anticipatory defence of oneself.
In response to One; This very rarely happens ya. I don’t endorse man-hating as an ideology and while I understand that some very radical strands do actually support this, there’s been a constant push within feminist movements to distance themselves from such extremist ideologies. We don’t hate you, men, we’d just like you (the ones who do) to not violate us.
In response to Two; I have one thing to say to you – Congratulations. Please take your golden star and go home because this self-congratulatory moral high ground will do nothing to change the lives of women. Not groping someone at the Metro station is normal behaviour, not a great contribution to real change. But this conversation is not supposed to be about you, and we aren’t the ones making it about you, though, you are with your defences ready at hand. When a woman talks about sexual violence, she is speaking from her own experiences which have been caused by unequal, unsafe environments. These environments would exist whether “all men” contribute to them or not. We need to focus on how we can create better societies for women, and whether you are individually part of the problem or not is tangential and meaningless to the woman’s experiences.
2. “Why are you holding double standards for different demographics?”
Double standard 1 – “After a terror attack by Islamic extremists, we actively support Muslims who claim that Not All Muslims are terrorists. Why is that any different from Not All Men are rapists?”
We support Not All Muslims in specific response to Islamophobia, which has been the most common and widespread result of Islamic terror. Islamophobia has some very real institutional harms in the sense that an already marginalised group faces further oppression because of the acts of a few (even if those acts may cause greater harm in terms of magnitude). Not All Muslims, therefore, I believe, is in dire need in a world that has descended to the extent of killing innocent Muslims for simply belonging to their faith. This is especially true in a context where terrorist groups extensively use divisive tactics to instil fear.
Propensity comes into play here. It would be quite silly to argue that men are being severely and institutionally disadvantaged over and above what women currently face for there to be a dire need to jump to your defences every time a woman is attacked. This is simply factually untrue. Men still run most societal institutions, are financially better off, have more visibility in public spaces and political sphere, and therefore have greater power in controlling narratives than women do.
Double standard 2- “Often times, women exclude asexuals / transexuals / black women in their perspectives (for example, Sheryl Sandberg recently apologized for her book Lean In not being intersectional enough). Such criticism for exclusively white feminism or cis feminism seems to pass off as valid.
So why is it okay if women are called out for generalising All Women, but not okay when women are called out for generalising All Men?”
The two demographics being compared here are vastly different, and that is an important distinction to keep in mind. I find it hard to blame women for not taking responsibility for all marginalised peoples all the time in their specific stories. This is especially true given that women do own up responsibility for such oversights and correct them, when possible. At the same time, it is unfair to ask women to have the same level of empathy for other marginalised groups with similar grievances (such as transsexuals) and a broadly oppressive and empowered group (such as men).
3. “If feminists hate victim-blaming on the premise that victims have done no wrong, why is so much of the blame being proportioned to men who have done no wrong and are not the actual culprits?”
I don’t think any responsibility is unfairly imputed here in the first place. At best, one can argue that society as a whole is complicit in the acts of individuals because people are products of the environment they grow up in. For example, if our education system is producing men who abuse women, it is a societal failure in producing effective schooling.
But more importantly, beyond societal culpability, there is definitely an argument to be made for culpability through neutrality or silence. NotAllMen implies that I am not to blame for the actions of others. Let us not pacify our conscience by the delusion that we can do no harm if we take no part or express no opinion. Culprits such as sexual offenders need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
If we view the world through a veil of ignorance (a method of morality proposed by John Rawls in 1971), it will become increasingly clear that any given wrong can befall any individual. If it does not befall you in status quo, it is simply a function of privilege (either in the form of talents, gender, class, economic status, etc.). The idea is to carry out only those actions which you would under a veil of ignorance, so you make choices based upon moral considerations, over self or class interest. For example, for a society in which 50% of the population is females subjected to sexual violence, it follows that in such a society there is a 50% likelihood that you would be a female subjected to sexual violence. In this scenario, would you still choose to remain silent?
Beyond that, blame is not mutually exclusive. Other than some politicians who do blame women and their clothing for VAW, it is fairly well understood (or at least efforts are being made in that direction) that culprits are specifically to be blamed. The reason it is important to still observe the above arguments though is to move towards a world where more people don’t become such culprits.
4. “By saying NotAllMen, what I am really saying is that I am not among the men you should be afraid of, and that you are not alone outside of your gender.”
If that’s what you’re really trying to say, there are tons of better ways to say that without being offensive, while preserving the catchy nature of a hashtag. Try using something to the effect of “#IAmASafeSpace” or “#HeForShe” instead.
You may ask why men need be extra-careful with their phrasing instead of women. Well, firstly, again, I don’t think this is a response to what women say, as opposed to an anticipatory defence by most men. But more importantly, we perhaps need to re-evaluate how we assign responsibility. I, for one, find it hard to blame women for not taking responsibility in their specific protests against a broadly oppressive group that has a responsibility to reduce institutional privilege even if not directly causing harm.
5. “It’s just a hashtag, this is a trivial problem. Feminists should prioritize more important things in the domain of violence against women.”
Firstly, I don’t concede that the mass popularity of such a hashtag is a trivial problem. If anything, it is a reflection of a societal mindset. Patriarchy (or any other dominant system of social control) depends on the entrenchment of certain attitudes or biases to sustain itself; it creates the “truth” that provides justification for its structures, resulting in objectively undesirable effects. Any societal system need not be visible to exist, but it must subliminal, affecting the mind to work. Hence, to weaken or end systems of social control that are disempowering, it is beneficial to challenge anything that influences attitudes that sustain oppressive structures. In this way, dealing with Twitter trends is not trivial.
But also, regarding prioritization of issues by feminists – feminist movements are not political manifestos to prioritize one issue over another. However, I will concede that there are other important questions we should also focus upon. And if we are to agree that such hashtags to an extent derail from the actual conversation of countering VAW, I also want to use this space to bring some of it to light. We should also be asking questions such as –
How can a virtual army of people amass in this fashion to violate women?
Why has there been no action taken by law enforcement agencies yet?
How badly are we treating victims of sexual violence that women are so afraid to report violence when not a single woman has come forth with a complaint following the incident?
Why has this discourse become so polarizing that politicians will side with criminals?
We should also treat this as a law and order issue because it is one. It’s more important that people be able to exercise their legal rights and that’s a cause no one can argue against meaningfully.
So, men, sure, Not All Men are rapists. We already know that. The problem is that enough men are rapists for it to be a social problem, and not just a personal one. So, the next time a woman is speaking about her experiences of sexual violence, please remember, this isn’t about you, or how many men it is. There are things you could do to make the situation better – listen to her, be sensitive, and don’t be so bothered about who did it, as much as whether she needs help. Chiming in #NotAllMen is not one of those things.