Talking About Gender Inequality Is Like Throwing a Hand Grenade Into a Cesspit

A010Talking about gender inequality is like throwing a hand grenade into a cesspit: you demonstrate the cesspit’s existence, but get a load of shit flung at you in the process. Or so goes my experience as a writer on issues of economic and political inequality, when I point to gender inequality.  Here is one example of how crazy things get when you point at the patriarchy.

The “Not All Men” Meme

A009It all started simply enough. I was unaware of the “Not All Men” meme, but reading this piece, entitled “Here’s why women have turned the ‘Not All Men’ objection into a meme” – it resonated for me.

In brief, it covers the oft-used rhetorical trick by men (but by no means all…) to avoid feelings of guilt, responsibility or even empathy for issues of gender inequality that impact women to the detriment – domestic abuse, unequal pay, dress codes, language, and so on. They will respond “not all men!” and derail the conversation into how awful it is for men to be stereotyped in this way.

I never have to moderate out (delete) as many comments on my blog as I do when I put up an article that is gendered. By gendered, I mean an issue that primarily affects women and is primarily enacted by men.

Anyway, many other women (and men) had noticed this too, identified a pattern and created a meme called “Not All Men”, where they have a bit of fun deconstructing the nonsense of this position.  I still think it’s a fabulous piece, albeit it very hard to read for many men.

I shared the article on the Scriptonite Daily Facebook page and……boom! It was ‘Not All Men” live demonstration time.  I won’t reproduce the outright offensive, ad hominem attacks…that would just multiply the offense and I tend to delete and forget them instantly.  Instead, some examples of exactly the issue to which the article points.

“You just want the right to generalise about men and that makes YOU sexist!”

A006 - CopyA very simple error.  The piece doesn’t say this, and almost all pieces I read (and every one I write) quantifies the number of men/women, incidents, the size of the matter etc when discussing a gendered issue.  Those applying this argument are saying: if you express yourself differently, the men won;t need to say this.  This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. This again turns the issue from one for men to address, and makes it a problem for women.
  2. It misses the most basic point of the matter – the ‘not all men’ device does not reflect the real content of the gendered discussion, it functions solely as a means to disrupt the conversation from the issue at hand, to placating his upset, ego, sense of identity as a progressive male, need to accept responsibility or all of the above.

If you are struggling with this, here is a better way of understanding how this device works.  Have you noticed those people who, in any conversation you have with them about welfare cuts, have to point out and have acknowledged as true, that ‘well, you have to admit that there are people out there milking the system’?

It’s not that they are inaccurate, but their point only serves to reframe the conversation inside their comfort zone.  Ditto issues of race, people will want to point out ‘well black people are racist too!’…they may very well be, but in the context of a conversation about structural racism this point is just irrelevant. It has no place other than to console the author of the comment and minimize the issue.

The commenter above also provided an example of what is termed ‘mansplaining’, which is speaking to women in a patronising way.  This is inside of the context of gendered conversation.  The original article linked to a study which revealed significant difference in the way interrupt men, and the way they interrupt women (as a rule, not all men remember).  The findings were quantified.  Yes men and women interrupt, and interrupting is rude, but these studies suggest men and women interrupt each other in different ways and men were more likely to intrusviely or combatively interrupt a conversation that a woman has started and seize attention back on himself.  As the piece reads:

On a very basic level, “not all men” is an interruption, and interrupting is rude. More to the point, it’s rude in a very gendered way. Studies have shown that not all interrupting is equal. The meta analysis by the University of California at Santa Cruz was conducted on 43 studies about interrupting. It was found that men interrupted more than women only marginally, but they were much more likely to interrupt with an intention to usurp the conversation as a sign of dominance, or intrusive interrupting. Additionally, a study of group conversation dynamics showed that the gender combination of a group affects the method of interrupting. In an all-male group, the men interrupted with positive, supportive comments, but as women were added to the group, the supportive comments dwindled.

“But…I’ve escaped the prison of male privilege and I should be acknowledged for doing so!”

A007Making the powerful choice to ally with women on gendered issues is to be acknowledged, and is.  But if you feel the need for a pat on the head every time an issue comes up before you’re willing to engage with it….I doubt you’ve genuinely escaped anything.

Furthermore, whether or not you view yourself as a member of a privileged group, be that one of gender, wealth, social status or whatever, has zero impact on your membership.  You can’t escape, ever, until the inequality no longer exists.  While it remains, you have benefited and will continue to benefit from its existence…and you must factor that into discussions with those on the opposite side of that transaction.  Interrupting their conversations to remind them you are a victim of all this stuff too…no, just no.

This is what that looks like in an exchange between a feminist woman, and a man objecting to the issues.

A006His response? Not all men…

A007I had this issue vividly illustrated to me as a 21 year old in Palestine.  The fact that I felt disenfranchised by neoliberalism and made strides against it, was not comparable to being held under occupation and frequently blown half to smithereens as part of it.  We were allies, yes.  Were they happy we were there? Yes.  But I got to understand quite quickly that remembering my privilege was critical.  The facts remains that I am also, as a Brit, a beneficiary of this system in ways they were not and likely never would be.

“Oh look! A chance to insult you but say it’s ironic!”

A005 - CopyThere were a whole load of these, many I just deleted. Someone is likely to pull the ‘free speech’ card about that, to which I say:

“You can say what you like in the world, but I promise a safe space to my page members and the moderation policy is published on the blog…follow the rules, or talk elsewhere”.

Back to the point in hand: the above comment is the lowest form of response.  It dismisses the whole complex topic outlined by the article as “women want the right to generalise about men”…and responds “oh yeah, well what if we generalise about women?! How would YOU feel?!”

Gee, I wonder what it would be like if lots of men were going about generalising about women…oh, hang on.  We live in a gendered society that categorically subjugates women…and it gets better and worse around the globe, but nowhere on earth is there a male population subjugated by women.  That does not exist as a thing.  Men can be impacted in horrendous ways by patriarchy, yes.  No one is denying that.  We’re here calling for an end to that damn patriarchy, so you bet your ass we understand it. But patriarchy is designed by and largely works for men.

“I have a vagina, you don’t speak for me. Leave the lovely men alone!”

A009Some women feel the need to weigh in on the side of the men…perhaps to alleviate the tension, act as peacemaker/mediator, or simply conform to the approved behaviour communicated by the dominant group.

This sounds weird until you check out a bit of history, like the House Negro, or the police, or the train manager!

I often hear women say “I have been more oppressed by women than I ever have men”…this might actually be the evidence that presents itself, but it cannot be viewed outside the context of structural gender inequality that creates it.  This is nothing new, oppression is often indirect.  The subordinate group are kept in line, held back, criticized, knocked into shape by their peers, at the behest of the dominant group.  The dominant group offers approval and perks to members of the subordinate group for acting in this way.

You will have experienced this as a member of the working class, middle class, a cis man/woman, a trans man/woman, a worker, a person in receipt of benefits, you will know what that feels like – to want those who you know are being subjugated to join with you and stand for better, but they either do not recognise the oppression or they accept it – either way, they aren’t backing you up.  So it is with Feminism.  The difference here being one of scale, not content.

It’s Good To Talk

A005I loved that comment.  It’s just so much easier to own our stuff!  No one is attacking anyone for making a mistake unwittingly.  We all do that, as members of different power groups in different contexts (again, these exist whether you consider yourself a member or not).

As a writer who is a woman, of colour, and gay, I liked to think I was a prejudice-free zone.  Who the hell was I trying to kid? Of course I am littered with prejudices.  However, every time I get one pointed out, my commitment is to listen, take time to let my urge to defend myself pass, and learn.  This has happened over and over.  I don’t regret any of it and I shudder at the narrow person I would have remained if I had chosen a different path.  So when you find yourself invited into a conversation about inequality, of any kind, how about making your starting point “How can I learn from this?” and not “How can I defend myself from this?”

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10 thoughts on “Talking About Gender Inequality Is Like Throwing a Hand Grenade Into a Cesspit

  1. “[…] Of course I am littered with prejudices. However, every time I get one pointed out, my commitment is to listen, take time to let my urge to defend myself pass, and learn. This has happened over and over. I don’t regret any of it and I shudder at the narrow person I would have remained if I had chosen a different path. So when you find yourself invited into a conversation about inequality, of any kind, how about making your starting point “How can I learn from this?” and not “How can I defend myself from this?””

    Indeed, and I believe this is the main positive thing to take out of this story. As a white straight man I used to define feminists as “painfully tiresome hate preachers”, since I was mainly exposed to the most radical voices (see below). Then I once went to a talk about the relationship between humans and nature. When the lady who was the first speaker started to talk about “patriarchy”, my mind almost immediately went into “oh no, not one of those” mode. But, “how can I learn from this”, I asked myself, and I kept listening. I discovered that the woman in question was open to a very inclusive feminism, which aimed not at vilifying men but at finding a better balance by working together. I was very touched by her talk, she was someone who made me want to be involved. Maybe it was my “not all feminists …” moment :)

    By “radical voices”, I mean that kind of stuff: http://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/in-their-own-words/ . Does anyone really believe that men will not try to defend themselves listening to such hateful rubbish? Chosen quotes:

    “The man “makes hate” to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation.” Gail Dines
    “One can know everything and still be unable to accept the fact that sex and murder are fused in the male consciousness, so that the one without the imminent possibly of the other is unthinkable and impossible.” Andrea Dworkin
    “When a woman reaches orgasm with a man she is only collaborating with the patriarchal system, eroticizing her own oppression…” Sheila Jeffreys
    “I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them.” Robin Morgan

    If feminists want men to take individual responsibility for their gender’s general attitude towards women, they also need to take responsibility for what happens within their own clan. I have learned not to tar all of them with the same brush, but many men will only hear the hate speech and make their own conclusions, which is a shame since there is so much to do in the field of gender equality. I will keep listening to the sensible voices out there who actually look for a way to make things better, and I will keep ignoring those who are simply looking at a convenient scapegoat to direct their anger to. In that way radical feminists are no better than UKIP, although I am not sure either of them would appreciate the comparison :)

  2. I like this article and agree with it.
    But, I still feel uncomfortable to hear generalisations yesallmen yesallwomen notallmen. I still think they are unhelpful.

    I understand that I shouldn’t, but it is the kind of instinctive response that is difficult to overcome.

    I’m a white middle class man. How would I know if my feelings are due to some sort of collective repressed guilt at my privileged position, or genuine dislike of the terminology?

    Practically it brings out everything that is wrong with identity politics. It creates a false dichotomy. You’re either with us or against us, and since your a man, you’re against us. It’s not surprising it turns many people against the movement.

    Notallmen has derailed discussion even further off topic, than notallmen comments did. Is that ironic?

    To understand the meme you either need to be familiar enough with the issues already or to make the effort (like I did) to read around them.
    You’re either propagating an amusing ‘in joke’ or consciousness raising a few (already) receptive people.

    For people who miss it, you’re mearly reinforcing a gender devide. Adding to a stereotype that says. ‘Feminists hate all men’.

    I don’t see it as constructive…
    But, now I understand the meme. So I guess it is patronising to other men to suggest that it hasn’t helped others too.

  3. I still can’t see that “not all men” is inevitably such a useless proviso as you seem to suggest. All discrimination depends on the stereotyping of groups – “blacks/gays/women/men are like this” and “behave like that” – and it’s these stereotypes which are then used to justify subjugation of the entire group.

    So I don’t really have a problem with bringing people up short with a corrective statement when generic claims are made about particular groups (not on this blog, I hasten to add), though I can well believe it could be an irritating intervention.

  4. I have a real problem with people who go around demanding compassion from others who show no compassion towards the people they are placing the demands on. More importantly these people claim to fight sexism while attaching sexist preconditions to how we go about having these conversations as if when two people are speaking of different sex some sort of magical power is exerted by one over the other. If we were to talk about cultural biases then for sure it would be the female and not the male whose opinions about men would be given more weight in a culture where feminist narratives dominate often at the expense of men’s concerns and feelings that have been dismissed for decades on end through fallacious assumptions of ubiquitous privilege along with some deeply ingrained hatred of women which ignores the interdependent and loving natural bond between the sexes that have sustained us throughout human existence.

    Love is not a feminist invention nor just another cultural trait. We do this naturally just like we desire social bonds with one another naturally. Too much of the rhetoric I see here is nothing but activist trying to protect their moral authority by mocking, shaming, or silencing those who disagree with them or dare to demand they treat everyone (as in innate groups) with equal respect.

    Going out of your way to rationalize and justify abusing people or negatively stereotyping their innate group is not the sort of social justice we should be proud of nor propagate. The rational being applied simply doesn’t work because the context that would make it permissible no longer exists. We’ve long given groups fighting for equal rights a pass on lashing out against the dominant, majority, or hostile forces aligned against them. Such conditions do not apply to the state of gender relations between the sexes today and activist must learn to evolve beyond relying on shaming those who reject being abused by them. Demands for sensitivity apply to both the activist and the people they are speaking to when whatever objective the activist is pushing for has already risen to the point of mainstream acceptance.

    The problem today of sexism from activist claiming to fight sexism is serious and it applies to both sexes. Over reliance on negative or positive stereotypes about one or the other lead inevitably to a sexist dialogue.

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  6. “How can I learn from this?” and not “How can I defend myself from this?”
    Beautifully put, I keep trying to explain to other male friends who immediately go on the defensive that you don’t have to feel guilt for a system you didn’t create, you have to stand up and say “I refuse to live in a world like this”

  7. Wonderful post. We are all (in some form or another) the beneficiaries of prejudice in one form or another due to been part of a particular group that is near the top of the hierarchical structure that society has created. I am a black man and while I would not call myself either sexist or racist, I have benefited from been a man as we live in a patriarchal world. By the way, I feel that this hierarchical structure does holds us back when discussing discrimination in society, as instead of seeing all discrimination and educating people in that sense, it is placed in a pyramid structure (Racism seen as worse as sexism which is seen as worse than homophobia). Until we see discrimination as all encompassing and not just as separate types, this problem will continue.

    All of us at some point in our lives, regardless of how mufti-cultured our point is, have shown prejudice towards another group in some form or another, simply due to lack of understanding if seeing that particular group for the first time. It is no point denying this. We should, as the article points out, simply pause for breath, learn about each other and then form an opinion on the different types of people. Saying comments such as ‘not all men’ and ‘but some people milk the system’ as though it’s a general thing is not only erroneous to some degree, as this tend to be a minority, but is also used as a device for the person saying it to stick to their own myopic view, as their ego is too fragile to develop and grow and learn about each person individually instead of basing one individual on the stereotypes their group belongs to.

    We need to be mature enough to recognise this and allow our cognitive thought processes to be malleable not rigid.

    • As a black man myself I detect you to be the sort who is ignorant about the realities affecting black men in our society or utterly indifferent to them. The perceived benefits to being a ‘man’ are not outweighed by the draw backs which disproportionately affect black men. Issues like ‘mass incarceration’ don’t get attention by pandering to women’s activist addicted to getting attention for themselves and their pet issues. You undermine the cause of blacks and other minorities by insisting we rely on this white feminists constructs of preferencing issues of gender above all else because that paradigm would downplay their apparent advantages over other groups which in turn undermine their victim status.

      The issues of gender are far less significant statistically and I doubt you know anything about that. Notice we’re not talking about #notallwhites because people of color’s voices aren’t privileged and they can’t control the conversation on social justice. The last time that happened was the civil rights movement which was squashed into obscurity by a women’s rights movement dominated by privileged white women who have always had the white man’s sympathy and ear. Too many young people who don’t realize how we have gotten to where we are are speaking out their ass. While majority people of privilege complain about pettiness the masses of poor who are disproportionately minority become even more marginalized by having to compete with masses of whites claiming victim status over issues of far lesser significance than those devastating the underclasses.

      Let’s see you challenge these white feminists silence themselves to avoid dominating the conversation on social justice in America. That would be nice but it won’t happen because as a minority you are utterly dependent on white approval in white circles to gain acceptance in our cultural/social mainstream where most of the power resides.

  8. Many women expect, demand and respect patriarchal behaviour from men as it allows them to fulfil the role they learned from their mothers. This can be as much a prison for men as it is for women. This needs to be addressed if feminism is going to make progress. Unfortunately most vocal feminists have escaped the tyranny of that part of our culture and appear not to get it.

    • Women and all oppressed groups experience ‘internalised oppression’, ie they take in, believe and act on the oppressive behaviour and attitudes which come at them because of their gender, and take those behaviours and attitudes out on themselves, and other women. They learn from their mothers, who were also oppressed and acted out internalised sexism in our sexist culture.

      I tend to think that men’s reactions to gendered arguments demonstrate how insecure men are. A large part of the problem is that in our sexist society women do most of the childrearing. It’s a vicious circle and means that when adults oppress or mistreat young people, this early mistreatment and controlling comes from mothers more than fathers. Women having power over their young sons sets women up to be blamed by men in adulthood

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