It is customary within feminist discourse to treat the response #NotAllMen as something akin to a logical fallacy, which, once identified, can then be simply dismissed as an error of reasoning. Unlike genuine logical fallacies, however, there has never been any convincing demonstration or rationale provided for why it is erroneous. In fact, it is not. The principle of not making negative generalizations about a whole identity group is never a fallacy, but a defining feature of liberalism, humanism and civil rights movements.
Frequently, a feminist will make a generalizing statement beginning, Men do/say/think <something harmful to women>. She (or occasionally he) is then met with multiple responses that point out that most men do not engage in this harmful behavior, say this obnoxious thing or hold these objectionable values. These responses comes mostly from men, who deplore the behavior being associated with their sex—but often also from women who object to negative generalizations about men, either on principle or on behalf of the men they love or both. The feminist then becomes very frustrated and insists that she never said all men and that, because she didn’t use the word all, it should be assumed that she knows that not all men are guilty of the harmful behavior. She will say something like: If it doesn’t apply to you, it’s not about you. She will then often attribute the not all men response to men, accusing them of making it all about themselves and their feelings, instead of listening to women’s experiences. This misses the point.
Yes, it is upsetting to have negative generalizations made about your whole identity group, which is defined by immutable characteristics. Why wouldn’t it be? It is unjust and unkind. We all see the problem with black people commit crime, even in areas where they are overrepresented in crime. Simply, the vast majority of black people do not commit crime and so this claim is prejudice. We easily see the problem with women lie about their babies’ fathers even though this happens and, when it does, it’s women who do it, 100% of the time. Most women in exclusive relationships are faithful to their partners and completely honest about their children’s parentage, so this claim is prejudice. We see the problem with Muslims are terrorists, even though Islamist terrorism is a real and alarming phenomenon. Nearly all Muslims are not terrorists, and associating the entire Muslim population with religiously motivated violence is prejudice.
These examples reveal a pattern, in which generalizing negatively about people by their identity groups is regarded as unethical, erroneous and hurtful. When the identity of the group being associated with negative traits is considered to be a marginalized one, this principle is consistently upheld. We see the generalization as the ethical and reasoning failure it is, and we call it prejudice. Many activists make a practice of searching out prejudice—and will scrutinize the representations of women and racial/religious/sexual minorities in movies for the slightest traces of the negative stereotyping of even a single character. In these cases, they make no allowance for explanations such as I never said “all” or if it doesn’t apply to you, it’s not about you. If one woman is represented as irrational, sexualized or helpless, this is argued to be an indication of a negative stereotype about women pervading wider society. This type of search can be highly subjective and ideologically motivated, but the principle underlying it is a good one: it is wrong to impose limiting or negative stereotypes on individuals because of their identity.
If we genuinely oppose prejudice on the grounds of identity, rather than seek to elevate certain identities and disparage others, there is no shame and much worth in pointing out when negative stereotypes are applied to men. The argument that such prejudiced statements do not matter much when the group has (or is perceived as having) more power in society is unconvincing. We can certainly be more concerned about the impacts of prejudice on some groups than on others, if some groups are more vulnerable than others, just as we might be more outraged when a poor pensioner is mugged than when a wealthy businessman is. We can still hold the principle that mugging people is wrong. To be inconsistent about the principle of not judging people by their identity category can only undermine this principle as a social norm. This cannot end well.
If an appeal to ethical consistency is not persuasive on its own, there is also a practical problem with blanket claims about the values and behaviors of men: they make it very difficult to actually tackle real problems.
Let’s break this down by taking the most serious accusation made against men:
Men commit sexual violence against women.
What does this claim mean exactly? Is it just a claim that people with XY chromosomes have committed sexual violence against people with XX chromosomes? If so, then this is simply true. However, people with XX chromosomes have committed sexual violence against people with XY chromosomes too, so it doesn’t tell us much. In fact, this would be much more fairly covered by the statement people have committed sexual violence. We know that sexual violence exists, and this is why we have laws against it and special registers for perpetrators. Clearly, the statement means something different.
Is it a misstatement of the evidence that men commit much more sexual violence against women than women do against men? This seems to be irrefutable and consistent among primates. It is almost certainly the result of a combination of factors, including the fact that men are stronger than women and typically have higher sex drives and a greater propensity and capacity to take what they want by force. Because of this disparity, when a man is psychopathic or psychologically/neurologically damaged in ways that impact his empathy and morality and/or produce rage or hatred, he is much more physically dangerous to women than similarly dysfunctional women can be to men. This fact cuts both ways, however, as, in men who are mentally and psychologically well, it tends to serve as the basis for a powerful protective role with regard to women, other men and society.
Or is it a hypothesis that committing sexual violence against women is a defining characteristic of men or a commonplace and culturally accepted practice? This is how it clearly comes across to many in context, since the response is so commonly not all men. People don’t respond not all unless it seems clear that all are being implicated. The statement sex offenders hurt, terrify and violate women will not result in a claim that not all men do so because men have not been implicated as the guilty parties. Men hurt, terrify and violate women will and this is because it is factually wrong and indicative of prejudice. This claim is easily disproved by the fact that the vast majority of men commit no sexual violence against women, abhor sexual violence against women and have been instrumental in bringing about legislation to make this illegal and punishable by a lengthy incarceration, in which the sex offender typically has to be separated from male perpetrators of other serious crimes, for his own protection. Indeed, it is one of the least tolerated crimes that a man can commit. Under these circumstances, a rejoinder of not all men isn’t merely accurate. When made by men, it’s often an assertion of their abhorrence of the sexual assault of women. This is a positive thing, which should appeal to those who believe that masculinity is culturally constructed above all. Yes, please do say, No. Sexual violence does not define masculinity and I will strongly oppose any suggestion that it does.
All of this means that a focus on men as the problem is likely to be unproductive of solutions. The hypothesis men commit sexual violence against women has failed because of the evidence that nearly all men do no such thing and condemn it utterly. There must be another variable here and discovering it is important if we want to fix the problem. If we blame men for the problem of sexual violence—rather than sex offenders—the problem is obscured and likely to be irresolvable. We cannot ethically reduce the number of men in society, nor does anyone who is not a crazed ideologue advocate doing so. Everybody claims to want to reduce sexual violence and, if this is the case, we need to look at why a tiny minority of men and even fewer women commit sexual violence, how they can be intervened upon before they do so, how we can protect ourselves against them, and how we can prevent re-offending.
The response not all men to blanket statements about the harmful behavior of men is not a selfish and defensive evasion of the important issue of sexual violence against women or of any violence, harassment or anti-social behavior. It is an attempt to point out the simple truth that these are not defining characteristics of men and to redirect the blame away from an entire sex, most of whom commit none of these things, to the cause of the problem, while objecting, on ethical grounds, to prejudice against men. This is reasonable, accurate, moral and humane.
Men and women who love men (nearly all of us), are perfectly justified in objecting to prejudice against men for the simple reason that this is unethical, illogical, unfair and hurtful. Male tears may be derided by some feminists, but—for humanists, liberals and anyone with a sense of fairness and compassion—callous indifference or mocking glee about the psychological effects of the socially acceptable demonization of any identity group is despicable and unacceptable. Fortunately, most people are humanists in this sense and such behavior is likely to turn them against, not men, but feminism.
If you are one of the few who lack such humanist impulses and genuinely cannot feel empathy or compassion for half of the human race or apply your sense of fairness to them, at least consider whether your behavior is likely to help women. If you make the problem men—rather than sex offenders, violent offenders, harassers and boors—you can never solve the problems of sexual crime, violent crime, harassment and anti-social behavior. If your motivation is to enjoy tribal hatred of easily identifiable social groups, you will not care about this. If your motivation is to tackle violent and sexual crime and reduce harassing and antisocial behavior, you should.