Announcing on Twitter that all women are bad drivers or that all Muslims are bombers in waiting is likely to lead to a suspension. Moreover, it could have serious ramifications for one’s career and reputation.
In our hypersensitive era, disapproval on social media can quickly escalate into calls for cancellation. There are exceptions, however. Gross generalizations about heterosexual men are acceptable. In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s death, allegedly at the hands of a forty-eight year old policeman, it is being said that predation is a common male trait. This testifies to the way in which a political goal can often take precedence over evidence. If the data doesn’t fit, it can be ignored or distorted to support a pre-existing belief.
A racist might imagine that all Muslims have explosive devices in their rucksacks. Such paranoia can arise in response to terrible events, such as the terrorist attacks in Manchester and Paris. This kind of perceptual distortion shapes how others are seen, bringing about exaggerated fearfulness. As a consequence, the anxious person may support an extremist party that demands repatriation of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. However, a calm consideration of the facts reveals that only a tiny percentage of Muslims advocate jihad and fewer still have contemplated becoming a suicide bomber.
The same principles apply to unwarranted concerns about female drivers. Not so long ago, it was wrongly supposed that women cause more car accidents. The notion was entrenched enough for even the most level-headed of drivers to vent misogynistic rage on encountering a woman on the road. Actuarial evidence clearly shows that young men are more likely to be a danger behind the wheel. On a motorway, however, there isn’t time or opportunity to consult data sets. Consequently, when a man has been cut up, he may resort to honking his horn or changing lanes to avoid driving behind a woman, wrongly believing that she is liable to apply the brakes for no good reason. Here again, emotion is not the best determinant of truth.
Almost everyone should be able to appreciate that these are examples of poor quality thinking. Yet, where straight men are concerned, such thinking has become commonplace. When bluntly stated, the syllogism is easily revealed as fallacious: one man commits murder, therefore all men are potential murderers.
The trope that all men are potential rapists was popularised by radical feminists, who believed that certain gender traits, such as the male proclivity for aggression, are inherent. Change the parameters of the argument and it becomes chilling. All gypsies are potential thieves, therefore they should be put in concentration camps. All human beings are potential carriers of Covid and should therefore be permanently locked indoors.
This is not merely a matter of sloppy logic. On 10 March 2021, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb declared that men ought to be placed under curfew after 6pm. Although the peer later admitted that this was an over-reaction, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, had already offered his support. His retraction the following day was understandable. After all, Senedd Cymru (the Welsh parliament) elections were on the horizon and losing nearly half of Welsh voters wouldn’t do him much good. In defence of Jones and Drakeford, UK democracy has entered some seriously dark times. When people are being arrested for visiting elderly relatives in care homes or having an ice cream on the beach, totalitarianism seems more natural.
In response to this absurd misandry, the Twitter hashtag #notallmen began to gather support (including among this magazine’s editors). Ellie Gibson, co-founder of the organisation Scummy Mummies, proposed a shark metaphor in rebuttal. Gibson explained that, of the five hundred or so species of shark, only three are killers. At first, this seems to suggest that only a tiny minority of men will ever commit violent acts against women. But this was not Gibson’s point—but rather that you’d be “dense” not to make a rapid exit from the water on spotting an approaching fin.
As is often the case, scrutiny would prove detrimental to this analogy. Social media users responded that aggressive sharks have clearly distinguishable characteristics. This is a distraction though. In a state of panic—encircled by fins—identifying species would be no easy matter. Everyone has suddenly become an expert in the behaviour of sea life, while the real danger of the comparison has been ignored: it encourages women to think about the public sphere in the gloomiest possible way, to believe that they must be in constant fear, constantly on guard.
The metaphorical waters are not infested with sharks, but people. Women interact with men on a daily basis—not as some distinct species, but as their fellow human beings: friends, colleagues, husbands, brothers, grandparents and uncles. The vast majority of men want no harm to come to anyone of either sex: they are as shocked and appalled as the women who held vigil on the common. Indeed, someone with outdated, stereotypical ideas about gender is also liable to think that women need to be protected. Watch the footage from outside Dewsbury Court in January 1981—an era in which sexism was far more widespread—and you will see anger evenly distributed between the sexes. If anything, working-class men were the most vehement, hammering on the police van containing serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. The Yorkshire Ripper was seen not only as a threat to women but to the community in general. Men thought that they had let women down.
Believe you are swimming with sharks, a few of which are deadly, and your apprehensiveness will be greatly increased. In such a condition, you are less—not more—likely to be able to read the danger signs. Being triggered by every ripple of a wave, by the shadow of every seagull reduces the ability to discriminate between danger and safety. Such paranoia is liable to damage the cause of equality. Anyone who thinks that the public sphere is inherently dangerous will be disinclined to participate in it and this may hamper them: make less willing to voice an opinion, less likely to demand better working conditions—especially if they think it is sharks they are up against, not men.
As we emerge from an abysmal lockdown, women may feel disinclined to take their rightful place in the world—which is not restricted to the domestic sphere. The argument that the dangers are real and widespread is premised on disputed data. It is said that the number of violent attacks on women justifies the shark analogy. Dig deeper, however, and this becomes less apparent, not least because legal categories such as assault have been widened.
It pays to consider the context. There is now a tendency to see a house on fire—a tragedy for those concerned—and to hastily conclude that the entire world is about to go up in flames. When society is highly emotionally charged, the truth can be lost. We can wrongly conclude that all women drivers are a danger, that all Muslims are jihadists. All it takes is for someone to say the wrong thing and social media goes into meltdown because this or that person has tweeted something untoward or a TV show from an earlier decade is deemed racist. Overreaction makes us less capable of dealing with real tragedies when they occur. We become poorly calibrated.
We should be thankful that Sarah Everard’s alleged killer is on trial. We ought to have faith in the justice system. In the 2000s, when violence against women and minorities was more widespread, a spate of homophobic attacks took place in Manchester. It had little to no effect on behaviour, thankfully. Canal Street wasn’t empty at the weekends. Instead, gay men and women were more vigilant than usual. It was accepted that the attacks were in all likelihood being carried out by a lone individual. No metaphors blaming straight men were in circulation and a spirit of defiance prevailed, a refusal to allow the statistically low possibility of being assaulted to keep one from having a good time. That was a different age, of course.