#NotAllMen, But Applauding Men For Not Abusing Women Is Probably Not The Way To Go

Posted on June 18, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks

By Kabir Sharma

The hashtag campaign #BlameOneNotAll that came up recently on an Indian media site was a sad reminder of how many people remain insensitive to the issues with #NotAllMen and its connotations.

The photographs in the #BlameOneNotAll campaign are absolutely shocking. They essentially imply that men who haven’t abused a woman they know are a righteous few, and should feel good about themselves.

Indirectly making the point that abuse is part of the general norm of society, they provide a comfort zone to men who do abuse. They also raise the question whether men who do not assault certain women, do not because their acquaintance is established, or because they have the minimum amount of humanity it takes to not abuse another human.

Sexual abuses against women are established, recurrent phenomena. It is not as if these are stray, isolated incidents with nothing in common. Every day, and all across the world, cases are reported. 35% of women worldwide experience sexual violence in their lifetime. In Europe, more than 85% women do not report their most serious incidents of violence, and things are much worse in India. One in five women on our planet will become a victim of rape or attempted rape. Most cases of rape against women, and indeed men too, are perpetrated by men. And there are many, many more forms this oppression takes.

It is therefore, a systemic problem, with systemic reasons, which go down to the very roots of our society. What we see as reported cases are the tip of an iceberg: there is plenty under the surface that goes into making them so disgustingly recurrent. The deep rooted structures and mental models of our civilization.

Conversations on the topics of sexual abuse, sexism and patriarchy are not personal attacks to wiggle out of with individual retorts like #NotAllMen or #BlameOneNotAll, in the process derailing the debate; but something to think about very deeply.

#YesAllWomen, made in response, expresses some of this sentiment, pointing out that all women are affected by sexism and abuse, even though (and everyone knows this) not all men perpetrate violence.

It is a huge problem that women worry about protecting themselves all the time. And men feeling the need to absolve themselves (online or offline) is a problem in itself. What are they protecting, and why? Looking Back #NotAllMen has a long and confused genesis. The phrase first went viral (without the hashtag) in Shafiqah Hudson (twitter handle @sassycrass)’s brilliant satirical tweet in February 2013:

Every time a #NotAllMen response has come up, before or since – and it has a lot, threatening any thread discussing objectionable male behaviour- it has done the exact, frustrating thing that Hudson highlighted.

Thankfully, humour has kept things balanced. Hundreds of memes and comics have made us laugh about these pointless interjections, including:

The Jaws shark bursting out of the sea yelling;

http://notallmen.tumblr.com/post/81217265249

the Kool-Aid man breaking through a wall;

http://notallmen.tumblr.com/post/81482111815/allisonkilkenny-via-ann-boobus

the Robin slap, and Matt Lubchansky’s massively shared brilliant comic- the “Not-All-Man” barging in at the slightest indication of such a conversation to play devil’s advocate.

Lost Somewhere Along The Way…

It turns out that the phrase was brought into twitter by feminists who felt sexism was harmful for men too. It was a plea then to have more male inclusion in the fight against patriarchy; not the exclusion which the hashtag began to indicate later.

But going back further to the source of the phrase, the whole thing becomes starkly ironic. It has its origins in the 1980 novel by Joanna Russ, ‘On Strike Against God‘ (The name referring to a strike held by thousands of women in 1909 to ask for better pay and working conditions, demands labeled by many to be against the wishes of God).

In the book, there is a big dilemma the protagonist, Esther confronts, having just walked out of a party where she tried to talk about the sexual abuse she had faced from men. She cannot fathom what the right way to deal with the topic is. She knows many men objectify women, control the high offices, earn more than women, belittle women, make obscene comments, pinch their secretaries’ asses, and rape women: not all, but not just a few either. Who should she blame? Who should she speak up against? Each such man individually? Wasn’t there a pattern to it all? Doesn’t it come from the man-woman power structure of society itself?

She breaks down and begins to weep in a lawn.

In all of the high spirited hashtag hurling, the sad part is that often the central issues are forgotten: the trauma of women facing sexual abuse, and the urgent and overdue need of addressal of the psyche that perpetrates it.

In a sense though, the hashtag absurdly represents some sort of a progress, as Jess Zimmerman very interestingly argued. It could be that more men have finally begun to accept the fact that female abuse is indeed an issue, a step ahead from the earlier ‘but what about male issues?’ rebuttal dismissing any such story. Yet, it distances from the problem and does nothing to raise questions.

To solve a problem, the first step is to listen, and accept. There are various ways in which the male and female identity is conditioned in society. We need to be very aware how this is done, and choose whether or not to be part of it, based on our own informed rationalities.

Many things accepted to be harmless and normal, and assumed as such, aren’t harmless or normal at all.

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