Content note: this contains as much as I have the spoons to discuss regarding the Elliot Rodger case. So gendered violence, mainly.
There’s a lot of discussion about the derailing effects of men responding to statements about misogyny by retorting that “not all men” are like that. It troubles me on some level to exclude recognising the existence of men who work at being better, or who genuinely don’t feel a particular way about a particular gender issue. This piece is mostly written as if addressed to cis, het, male-identified persons, particularly those who identify as men (I don’t, but people tried to make me one and it had its effects).
Full disclosure, I remember using exactly that line, “not all men”, when I was 18 (literally half my lifetime ago) and being dismissed for it online by a girl of similar age. neither of us, I suspect, had enough of the theory to explain cogently why I was wrong. Or maybe I just didn’t want to understand.
The problem is, for just about any example of misogynistic behaviour, you can find examples – even, a substantial number of examples – of men who don’t do that particular type of behaviour. But we live in a society in which the messages of patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement, and rape culture, permeate the media and social interaction. Regardless of intent or specificity, for the group “misogynistic words or actions” yes, all men will do some subset of that group. No specific member of that set is true for all men, but for any man* it is true that some elements of that set are true.
Heck, I saw a photo of my nephew’s infant school class photo today and said, “Hey, he’s a real success – a blonde on each arm!” In that one comment I assumed he is, and will grow up to be, straight and cis, and I implied that access to women is a marker of (male) success. Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt shame at my failure. And yet, I want to claim, “not all men”? Get real! Yes, it was a joke, but a joke that depended on the social norms of patriarchy and did nothing to confront them.
I believe the rhetorical negation of “not all men” is most useful when we talk directly about the messages in society about gender, and how men are supposed to be and act. It is easy to claim, “I didn’t do X therefore not all men do X”, but it is much less sustainable to claim, “I never heard X, therefore not all men hear X” when it comes to the lessons of gendered roles, since they permeate our media so totally. One of the key messages that are transmitted is that men must punish other men for not being manly enough. Failure to do so means that you must be punished as well. In fact, a lot of masculinity is about correcting the behaviour of others. Not every structure of masculinity teaches physical violence as the first resort to do this, but they do all use emotional violence, social exclusion, forfeits and other disciplinary measures to make people fit in. If you’re male-assigned-at-birth then objecting to these techniques of “toughen you up” and “teach you to be a man”, and telling you to “man up”, merely legitimises further abuse: to punish you for not being a proper man.
All men learn this, either by being the ones dishing out the punishments (one definition of the vile “alpha male” construction), being one of those in the middle (anxious to conform and avoid punishment, and thereby anxious to find others to punish to prove their masculinity), or being at the bottom (not punishing, but always seeing punishments happen, often to themselves).
In the game of male hierarchy, women are rarely even on the board. Instead, they are tokens used to keep score. If women don’t play by the rules, and award themselves to the “wrong” people (i.e. choose to have sex with men who haven’t “earned” it according to the rules of masculinity, or with each other instead of with “worthy” men) then they, too, must be brought back in line. (Men who prefer sex with men also break this system, and have to be expunged.)
Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement”. One of the more challenging lessons of the New Testament. If we apply that to gendered violence, Jesus says here that if you have ever thought of a woman (or a gay man, for that matter, if that’s your preference) as a “bitch” because she turned you down, if you have ever felt indignation that you’re a “nice guy” who “finishes last” because women won’t agree to have sex with you and reward you for your niceness, then in your heart you have committed murder, just like Elliot Rodger.
You might not actually pick up a gun and start shooting people, but the same motivation, the same impulse, is in you as it was in him. You may have a better filter on your actions, or not feel quite as badly or desperately about it, but actually, yes, all men. You may think you’re different, you’re immune to the attitudes and urges. You may believe in equal rights, be against violence towards women, and so on. But under it all, however much you might shout down that voice in your mind that said “bitch!”, if that thought occurred even briefly, then yes, you too feel those impulses.
And so do I. Because I have, on occasion, thought, “Bitch!” at a woman who was less accommodating than I might have wished or felt I “deserved” (whatever that could possibly mean). Heck, I even talked about one example in my last post (see under “not getting a dancing partner”). I shouted down that voice, castigated myself for the thought, but I am dishonest with myself if I do not understand that the violence of patriarchy has claimed a small fragment of my self. My job is to tell it to go fuck itself, not to ignore its existence or pretend I am any different. So is yours. It’s our duty to not let it out into the world.
Because deep down inside, yes. All men. Now, let’s try to change that.
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* Actually, all women too. I have seen some women use very violent rhetoric about women who step out of line – sometimes even by feminists. The difference is, it’s just rhetoric, or else they try to get the law to do their dirty work for them.