Not All Men

by James Lileks
A meme we can do without

The phrase “Not All Men” started popping up in my Twitter feed, usually with baffling pictures attached. I had no idea what it meant until a Washington Post writer tweeted a link to Vox, Ezra Klein’s new site that explains the complex world to the dim and befuddled. It’s BuzzFeed listicles for grad students. Title: “Here’s Why Women Have Turned the Not All Men Objection Into a Meme.” Keen to learn the alchemic mysteries that turn objections into memes, I started reading.

Over the past few weeks, the meme “not all men” — meant to satirize men who derail conversations about sexism by noting that “not all men” do X, Y, or Z sexist thing — has exploded in usage.

There’s a graph that shows it had, indeed, exploded in usage. There’s usage all over the place; mop please. What is the “not all men” meme, you ask? It’s a sarcastic way of depantsing the plaintive bleat of some men who respond to generalizations about men by saying “not all men do that.”

Well, we can’t have that.

Without reading any more, I suspect that the meme “Not All Men” has exploded in usage because there are a lot of people who don’t want anyone to carve out exceptions. The article lays out the basics:

A man is an adult male of the species homo sapiens. To clarify, “adult” here does not mean someone who’s able to pay their own rent, or treat others with respect. Adult simply means that this male has gone through puberty and is no longer a boy.

Some additional notes about men:

• 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.

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.

Most men, at this point, have no interest in being beaten about the head with reminders of their awfulness, and move along to Jalopnik, where like-minded individuals are criticizing cars. But not all men. Some men read on with excitement, anxious to learn how they are not like all men because they don’t say “not all men.” There might be a prize at the end! A candy-flavored ball-gag, perhaps.

But let’s just stop right here and get our terms straight: The “additional notes” defining men are gross over-generalizations, yes? An objection to these notes would be correct — empirically, factually correct, right? Is the problem that some men hear someone say these things and have the audacity to demur?

Ah, but I said empirical. That was a mistake.

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.”

Let me interrupt — sorry! It’s in my genes. The article links to the empirical research. If I may quote:

Fed by the advances of civil rights in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement also gained momentum. At the same time, sociolinguistics provided mechanisms for the scientific investigation of language variation on the basis of both socio-economic and gender factors. With respect to a number of sociolinguistic factors including gender these studies investigated linguistic features such as phonological variability of male and female differences. The goal, on the one hand, was to determine the stratification of these variables and, on the other hand, to find support for a mechanism of synchronic change.

Repeat until tenured. A sample of the supporting synchronic-change mechanism, or whatever:

Eakins/Eakins (1978) report that status seems to be a factor in the pattern of interruptions. While males initiated more interruptions than females in their study of faculty meetings there was a clear ranking along status lines. The chair of the department, for instance, suffered the least number of interruptions. Nevertheless, the most interrupted person was a woman.

1978. There are some studies from the ’80s and ’90s as well. The data don’t seem to take into account the 21st century, but if you presume nothing changed since Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman,” I suppose that’s fine. But it would seem that status matters most when you’re gauging interruptibility, and perhaps the most interrupted person was a woman because she had lower status in the college department in 1978.

Anyway:

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.

Exempting themselves from criticism! They buy their gall by the gallon, these brutes. So: Gainsaying a sexist, over-generalized assertion is bad faith. What’s more, using one’s self as an example would, I assume, be bad faith — even though we’re told that the personal experience has a validity that makes it equal to, if not superior to, generally assumed facts.

Again, I haven’t read the whole thing, which is part of the fun. Maybe I’m wrong! It happens.

Let’s keep going. Here’s how the meme started, according to the article:

Did that happen? I’ve no idea. But (a) it doesn’t matter because it went viral, and (b) it doesn’t matter because it is felt to communicate a greater truth. Which, in this case, was tendered in good faith.

The article then displays examples of people using “not all men” in humorous ways with the Kool-Aid pitcher and a shark, because Internet. As they say.

What’s so bad about it? the author asks, and explains:

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.

Who says he’s “butting in”? Couldn’t this be a response offered calmly after a broad mischaracterization? If someone says “all blacks are” or “all Asians are” and the person who demurs happens to be black or Asian, have they derailed a conversation, or offered a counterpoint? Since when does disagreement mean you aren’t contributing to the conversation? Are only positive reinforcements contributions? If speaking up to correct what one perceives to be an erroneous statement makes one the center of the dialogue, then pointing out that the sun does not revolve around Saturn makes one the center of the solar system.

But those are irrelevant points. The main problem is that The Interrupting Man has excluded himself from responsibility or blame. Expert time:

“Men who just insist on you having that little qualifier because it undermines your argument and recenters their feelings as the central part of the dialogue,” Hudson says.

Okay. A woman says, “All men at heart are rapists.” A man responds: “Not all men. In fact a damned small percentage.” This does not recenter his feelings, it corrects an error. And it’s hardly a little qualifier.

On a very basic level, “not all men” is an interruption, and interrupting is rude.

It is an interruption if, indeed, you interrupt. If not, it is a response. If you consider a contrary argument posited in the give-and-take flow of a conversation as an interruption because it doesn’t contribute to the untrammeled compilation of assertions, then you consider “breathing in” to be constantly interrupting breathing out.

“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.

By carving out the possibility of an exception, you’re not helpful. Saying “Not all men beat their partners” doesn’t address the problem, which is combating behaviors that range from interruptions to rape. You have to love the spectrum there, a continuum that almost defines an interruption as micro-rape.

Pointing out that you’re not one of them doesn’t help us figure out how to understand and deal with that problem.

Actually, pointing out that you’re not one of them would indicate that you’re not the problem, and hence are part of the solution.

Then there’s a segment about how replying to a broad assertion about men with a contradictory assertion is like “mansplaining,” and this is a real thing, you guys, because it has its own meme traditions, one of which is helpfully provided as evidence, because Internet audiences get nervous if there aren’t pictures or GIFs every few paragraphs.

The “not all men” interruption could be considered a subset of mansplaining, because it attempts to redirect a current conversation in a way that privileges mens’ perspectives over women’s. Also, like mansplaining, it’s rude.

It’s not the act of privileging a certain perspective over another that rankles; that’s permissible if the objecting perspective holds the proper rank on the hierarchy of Valid Viewpoints. But it seems a man’s perspective cannot be “privileged” over a woman’s if the subject is himself.

I suppose this is useful information for men who want to have tendentious arguments about male perfidy with the sort of person who might want to put a “trigger warning” on Winnie the Pooh because a reader might have a honey allergy, but most men don’t. In fact, most –

Oh, never mind. Why state the obvious?

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.