Once upon a time there was a tree, who was living in a lovely forest surrounded by hundreds of their friends. One day, a human came along and started chopping down some of the trees. They were horrified by the deaths of their friends, and after several years, very few trees were left. Then a little rabbit came along and told the trees about a movement called Environmentalism, and about how it was helping trees all around the world from being cut down by humans. But the tree said to the rabbit, “Oh, I don’t think I need Environmentalism, because not all humans cut us down.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, I’m not exactly talking about environmentalism. This analogy pretty well sums up the contradictory nature of the hashtag/Meninist-school-of-thought “Not All Men”. As a backlash to the feminist narrative that generalises patriarchal oppression as the result of All Men’s actions, Not All Men seeks to alleviate well meaning men from the damning guilt that feminists insist they carry.
And at first this makes perfect sense. Men who abuse women are in the minority, and it seems unfair to dump the responsibility of a world-wide rape culture on the large number of men who have never harmed a woman. There are male feminists and male rape victims, and it is true that not all men have committed outright acts of misogyny. But claiming these examples of male allyship to silence feminist discussion fails to fundamentally understand how oppression exists in this world. So I’ll break it down:
“Institutionalised oppression” is a phrase often thrown about, but it is extremely important to characterise specifically how sexism – and racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia – take their shape. One woman who is abused by her partner is tragic, yet ultimately an isolated incident. Thirty percent of women experiencing sexual harassment or abuse in their lifetimes and the subsequent millions of women afraid to walk alone at night is institutionalised oppression. One Asian Australian denied a job offer they were otherwise worthy of is a single instance of bigotry. However People of Colour facing an employment rate 10% lower than white people who completed the same tertiary education degree is institutionalised oppression. It isn’t the actions of one random guy creating a literal world of problems for minority groups, it’s the pervasive machinery of everyday society itself. It’s the underlying ideas conditioned into all of us that women’s primary function is to give sex, or that anyone who appears Asian can’t speak English well. And because the problem is so widely and so subtly perpetuated, it is impossible to pinpoint who exactly is responsible for telling people that women should give sex, or that Asians can’t speak English.
The answer is: Everyone (with privilege). Even if a man has never raped a woman, he has been born into a world where he is implicitly encouraged to ignore female bodily autonomy and take women’s sex as his due. Even if he has never told a rape joke, or laughed at one, or pulled on a girl’s pigtails in grade two and expected no retaliation, he nonetheless instils fear in the woman walking in front of him on a poorly lit street. Why does he need to take responsibility for this? Because he benefits from sexism. No matter how great of an ally, no matter how dedicated a feminist, every man benefits from sexism. Just because he writes articles for an intersectional feminist magazine, doesn’t mean he ceases to gain a promotion in the office over a slightly more qualified, yet “obviously fertile” woman. Just because he has never hurt a woman and would never dream of doing so, doesn’t mean he loses his potential power in a bar, surrounded by drunk girls. The same applies to white people – All White People are responsible for the fetishisation of Asian women because every single white person benefits from a society which characterises them as more worthy of autonomy and individuality.
The importance of insisting “All Men” goes further, and forces individuals to reflect on their own past and potential future contributions to oppression. When we allow people to say “Not All Men”, we allow (pretty much all) men to think “well at least it’s not talking about me”. Pushing people to seriously think about the implicit messages in their everyday lives is the most effective way to end oppression from the ground up, and we certainly won’t achieve a constructive mindframe of self-critiquing if we phrase our mottos in ways that allows people to think it’s not their problem.
Sexism is an issue that All Men need to worry about, even if not every single man is directly responsible for the abuse of women. This society is geared from its core to benefit men, and the seemingly innocent actions of All Men implicitly benefit off the oppression women. It’s not a reason to feel guilty, being born as a cisgender man is not a ticket to damnation, but the benefits of living as a man in this society require considerable effort to ensure responsibility is being given where due, and measures to reduce implicit biases are taken when needed.