Men and the ‘Not all Men’ Syndrome.
Privilege is that kind of a thing. If you are born into it, if you have benefited from it, if you are wittingly or unwittingly propagating it, then you are likely to deny it. Occasionally, as the most ungracious form of indulgence, you will even make a claim to the opposite. Play the bully as a victim card. Being born into wealth, for instance.
Being a man is that kind of privilege, too. It matters not what kind of a man you are. If you are straight, white, male and of American/European/Scandinavian ancestry, you enjoy – by default – the highest amount of opportunity. If you are straight, male and brown, that opportunity is more limited, yet it’s there. If you are straight, black and male, even less so, but it’s definitely better than being black and female.
While the absolute and extreme version of this privilege being exercised is unmissable and easy to call, a milder variant affects a lot of otherwise well-meaning, decent men. One that I suffered a lot from and continue to do so – in hopefully decreasing strains. One that makes men appear defensive, small – and frankly, petulant.
It is what can be called as the ‘not all men’ syndrome. Not all men are violent. Not all men are sexist. Not all men are misogynists. Not all men are homophobes. Basically, whenever men think or say that ‘not all men’ are like this or that.
At the heart of the ‘not all men’ argument lies a deeply-held belief that some men try hard to consciously be respectful, mindful and sanguine with and of women, or for that matter, of people with different orientations. That we fight dearly for equality and fairness. Of course, we do.
We frequently point to the amount of progress that has been made where attitudes to women and the opportunity on offer is concerned. And yet, if anything, that should only tell us of the magnitude of the battle on hand, and that this progress is merely a good start.
Women know that not all men are sexist. And yet, this co-exists with the fact that all women – without exception – have to navigate a world, which looks, feels and is experienced like a devil’s obstacle course of the real kind, every single day of their lives. One that is, at the very least, different and decidedly difficult from what men experience. That’s the mess they are stewing in. That’s the fault line they deal with.
What we perhaps fail to understand is that this is not personal at all. That this not a failing or weakness, or even the lack of trying on the part of men.
The thing is, not one of us is immune to the sexism or patriarchy that is hardwired into us. The kind that was bequeathed as a legacy when we were young and not paying attention. The kind that is embedded in the air that we breathe, the systems we interact with and the institutions we are a part of.
Even as we are making the right noises, the everyday sexism, the everyday misogyny, the everyday condescension and the everyday mansplaining continue.
Elsewhere, even the best of us have difficulty in understanding what constitutes abuse, and what is tantamount to shaming. And what constitutes harassment or not?
This week, yet again, I have found myself in conversations with multiple women/men of other orientations and the challenges that they have and continue to face. A new app has added to the topicality of it all. This piece is dedicated to their collective wellbeing.
To be in denial of these everyday small and big battles that women fight – simply because they are women – is both churlish and silly, and well, being more privileged. We will never understand it, because we don’t have to ever face it. And if you are actively not doing anything about dismantling it, then you are propagating it.
It is not enough if you are not being discriminatory yourself. If you are doing nothing about its existence, you are part of the problem. Yes, a bit like the classic ‘Bushism’ – if you are not with us, you are against us. Only this time, it makes sense.
The point is we may not be sexist in some ways, but we continue to be sexist in so many other ways. You can be blatantly sexist or subtly sexist or subliminally sexist, for instance.
Look around. No slang or slur, worth its salt, is ever directed at a man – or any role he occupies. In every language, the ‘bad language’ is always about mutilating a woman’s genitals – whether she is a mother, sister or daughter.
Or the one statement that I heard thrown around a lot while growing up – ‘Don’t cry like a girl’. Look at what that innocuous-looking statement is loaded with:
a) Crying is not acceptable behaviour.
b) If you cry, you are a lesser being.
c) A girl is some kind of lesser being.
And then people question why men have issues with crying! This is just one of the many cultural memes that have been passed down to us – of the sheer toxic masculinity that surrounds us.
Perhaps you wouldn’t find a more stunning or heart-breaking example of this than with our attitude towards rape.
Consider this. Rape, first and last, is an act of violence – and in a non-sexist, non-patriarchal world, it would be dealt with as such. And yet, look what we have done to rape by equating it to a woman’s honour, respect, dignity and modesty. In one fell swoop, we have subverted the paradigm.
Whether the man gets punished or not, the woman in question will be shamed every single day of her life. The scar will be deepened, and the trauma reinforced. The last vestiges of self-respect and self-worth desecrated. That’s patriarchy for you. Embedded in the very amber of our collective consciousness.
That’s how the power equation remains unchanged. By making the world believe that a woman’s honour lies in her vagina, men control women and limit her agency. And until that is dismantled, no man has any business saying ‘not all men’.
Finally, at the end of this piece, some men may question my manliness, or accuse me of being a wimp or girly, and that’s the whole point – kind of. Notice, however, that nobody will threaten me with rape.
And that is my privilege.