Communication and #NotAllMen

Every now and then, someone makes a statement like “men are socialized to not listen to women”, or “men feel entitled to women’s time”, or “men constantly cross women’s boundaries”, and almost inevitably someone chimes in with “not all men” – not all men are like that, not all men feel like that, not all men do that, etc.

(The hashtag form #NotAllMen is one I’ve largely seen used in ironic or self-aware semi-ironic ways by feminist or feminist-adjacent people, although it started as a serious Twitter hashtag. Apparently it was trending again rather recently after mass molestations in India at New Year’s Eve.)

#NotAllMen is usually understood negatively, as a defensive/confrontative statement (“hey, you accused me of being like that, and I’m not! Take that back!”), or a demand for concessions (“no, not all men, don’t worry, you’re one of the good ones”).

It’s worth noting that it doesn’t have to be. Consider the following exchange:

Alice: “Men do [horrible thing X] to women!”
Bob: “Not all men are like that.”

Alice’s statement can be interpreted in the following ways:
1) All men do X (either descriptive, which is likely in this case, or prescriptive, such that doing X is a defining criterion of maleness).
2) Most/many/some men do X.
3) Men and people of other genders do X, and men do X statistically more frequently than people of other genders.

What motivated Alice to make the statement in the first place, her emotional state, and what response she hopes for/would like to receive is also unclear. Some possibilities are:

a) She associates men in general with X and (sometimes or always) really hates them as a result, and she feels that spreading this association is fully justified and/or good, so she does.

b) She has read about a specific instance of a man/multiple men doing X to a woman/multiple women. She is horrified. She fears or believes that many men do X to many women, and the thought feels like a crushing weight on her chest. She experiences hopelessness and despair.

c) She has read research on the prevalence of men doing X. It troubles her, and she is thinking through social implications of X, of likely consequences this has for people living in this world, of factors contributing to men doing X to women, possible ways to prevent men from doing X to women, and possible ways to help and support women who experienced X at the hands of men.

Bob has no way of knowing which meaning Alice intended or what motivated her to make the initial statement. Depending on his personality and previous experiences with people making statements like Alice’s, his response might be one of the following:

i) He suspects Alice meant (1). Since he has never done X and never would, he feels unfairly accused and angry. He wants Alice to take her statement back or at least qualify it.

ii) He thinks Alice’s motivation is (a), and he wants to publicly disagree, or possibly shout her down and get her to shut up.

iii) He is unsure of what Alice meant. He doesn’t know if she believes all men do X (which he knows to be factually wrong, since he has never done X, and which would cause him to disregard whatever she says next, because she’s obviously not a reliable source of information or the most reasonable person), or if she intended another meaning of the statement – maybe her motivation was (c), and if this is the case, he would be very interested in further discussion. His response is a method to prompt her into clarifying more than anything else – he will form an opinion based on her reaction.

iv) He thinks Alice’s motivation is (b) and empathizes. He wants to let her know that the world is not quite as horrible as she might think in this moment, that she is not alone, and that there are people – including men – who will support her, who think that X is horrible just as much as she does, and whom she can trust. (He does not convey this in the most skillful way possible.)

v) He has been struggling with depression and self-loathing lately, and his distorted thoughts immediately latch onto Alice’s statement, telling him that he is horrible and that obviously everyone else thinks so too. His response is largely an attempt to combat his own mental illness. He may hope that Alice qualifies her statement, which would help him a lot.

With Bob’s response, the ball is back in Alison’s court. Her initial intentions, her experiences with people responding #NotAllMen, and her emotional state will influence how she interprets and reacts to Bob’s statement, and her reaction will in turn influence how Bob thinks of her and reacts back, and so on. Additionally, if the conversation happens in public, other people will have seen the exchange, all of whom bring their own experiences, beliefs, interpretations and emotions to the table. Some of them might chime in as well, further complicating matters and causing chain reactions in even more people.

And this is why communication is horrible!

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