Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Two feminists are having a discussion about male privilege when a third party, very probably male, cuts in with a statement that begins with the words “not all men…”.
It’s become the butt of a lot of feminist comedy on the internet over the past couple of years, mostly because it gets at the heart of something that frustrates us: namely, the derailing of conversations about privilege. The basic theory is that if someone makes a blanket statement about men that makes a man in earshot uncomfortable, the conversation shouldn’t simply stop in order to clarify how it applies (or doesn’t) to that one man.
But I think it’s important to remember something about the phrase “not all men.”
It’s often true, even if saying it can get in the way.
So a good friend of mine linked to this article the other day. It’s by a straight male cisgender feminist (my god that’s a lot of labels) trying to explain how he doesn’t get tired of being told “how terrible and awful straight guys are.” But something about it rubbed me the wrong way. I think it can be wrapped up in this statement:
“You can’t be racist or sexist to the people who are in power, because it’s an institutionalized thing.”
I’m familiar with this definition of racism and sexism, but I just can’t agree with it 100%.
Yes, racism and sexism (and the other -isms and -phobias) are categorically worse, in their scope and effect, when they are institutionalized. They are magnified by and play a large part in the politics of power. It is much, much easier for a straight, white, cisgender man to brush off insulting generalizations when they are made about him. This is all true.
But no, I’m sorry, you totally can be racist or sexist toward the people in power.
Some will argue that if you turn the power structure on its head, if it’s white straight cisgender people being painted with a wide brush, it’s not “racism” or “sexism,” it’s just “anti-white bias,” or “anti-male bias.” If you want to split that hair, you’re welcome to, but both are the same thing, with the differences being ones of scope and effect.
The -isms and -phobias are rooted in the unjust idea that it is acceptable to typify a group by one or many of its individuals. That’s how stereotypes work. The traits of the individual can be true or not true, but the application of them to the whole is almost always false, especially when the intent is to malign or insult the group. Sure, we can say that “racism” is “racial bias added to power structures,” but in the end, it’s just dialing “racial bias” to eleven. Both are degrading, to both the intended target and the person showing off their biases, it’s just a matter of degree.
Saying “cis het guys are [expletive] disgusting,” (as the writer cites as an example) is, actually, an unfair and discriminatory thing to say, regardless of who you are. Like all racist/sexist/genderist/etc. statements, it applies insult to a wide swathe of people. The -isms and -phobias are a little like carpet bombing: they hit who you want to hit, sure, but they also get anyone else that happens to be in the general vicinity.
Or, like the old chestnut goes, “all generalizations are false” (hyuk hyuk).
And the thing is, when we generalize in unfair ways, when we falsely universalize, it takes away from the true universals: All men do have privilege in our current society — some less than others, but all have it. You might be hard pressed to find someone in our society without any kind of privilege, but straight, white men definitely have the most right now. As a white male I have a ton of privilege. A metric ton. Maybe even a British “long ton”. So when he rolls around to point number two — “Here’s the thing. Straight guys are kiiiinda the worst” — and follows it up with “I’m sorry, but have you SEEN other dudes? Jesus christ, we’re [expletive] awful,” I try to hold my tongue.
But damnit, we can be feminists without relying on the tools of the patriarchy.
Demeaning whole groups of people based on their sexual preference or gender identity? That’s how the last vestiges of the empowered white, male, heteronormative power structure enforces itself, by abusing and othering without qualification. It’s all well and good to say that “men who don’t contribute to sexism know we don’t mean them,” but that’s not actually how the English language works. “Chickens are awful” doesn’t mean “some chickens,” it means the broad and all-encompassing category of “chickens” with all birds included.
Now I’ll admit there’s also a point to be made in appropriating those tools. That’s why you won’t hear me butt into a conversation that’s not really about me with the statement “but not all [people in my group]…”. That, as I’ve said above, derails important conversations, and as a feminist I very much want those conversations to keep happening. There’s not a little justice in having the tools of oppression and the structures of power turned on their heads.
But, after that conversation is done, I’ll also write a blog post like this, or have a separate conversation about how we can be feminists without being unfairly discriminatory ourselves.
Because I don’t want to be a part of the patriarchy. I don’t want to mimic it or use its tools. I don’t want to inflict harm in that way, or to knock others down just so I can feel taller.
To me at least, feminism is about treating everyone with equal respect, and that begins with the language we use to describe them.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.