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The "Not All _____" Defense is Not All that Effective

Updated on October 3, 2014
Panel from the comic titled "Save Me."
Panel from the comic titled "Save Me." | Source

If you live on the internet, whether in the geek-o-sphere or the realm of the socially just, you're probably familiar with #NotAllMen already. The argument behind this hashtag is basically that not all men are sexist and that they are unfairly viewed as such because of the actions of a minority of jerks. There have been a lot of responses to this, from Twitter's #YesAllWomen to the spectacularly point-missing #YesAllPeople, but, in the end, "Not all _____" has basically become a punchline. It's a meme. Reading an article about deforestation? "Not ALL woodsmen!" How about a creepypasta? "Not ALL Slendermen!"How about a tweet criticizing the "Not all ____" defense? "Not ALL people who use the 'Not all ____' defense are just whining!" Right or wrong: this is a thing that has happened.

It's no wonder, really, that this thing has been memified. There's always some form of controversy brewing online. As we all retreat into our separate corners to shout at one another, we realize that some of the people on our side are slack-jawed idiots or prejudiced jerks or outright sociopaths. In an effort to keep your cause out of their sticky little hands, the rallying cry of "Not ALL fill-in-the-blank-here" sounds! Heck, forget the internet; there are jerks everywhere, even in the most benign of movements and they tend to be very, very loud. Anywhere there's controversy, you're going to find this defense. Which is sad, because it's an incredibly ineffective tactic.

Let's tamp down the all-too-easy taking of sides on this one. This isn't about choosing between MRAs and feminists, or Democrats and Republicans, or Reddit and Tumblr, or *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys or whatever issue from the most vital to the most frivolous. Our minds want to organize things—to put people in neat little categories that don't necessarily represent their full beliefs. Nuance complicates things and details are so fiddly that painting with a broad brush is inevitable. Movements have stereotypes attached to them; I will be using those stereotypes to illustrate my points. I am not agreeing with these stereotypes or picking winners and losers. Let's just take some time to talk about this particular reaction—and why it doesn't achieve its desired effect.

We're at war. Pick a side.
We're at war. Pick a side. | Source

It's a Natural Response

Look, first off: I get it. I don't for one minute question why people use this defense because I've done it myself. Someone is calling you a man-hater or a woman-hater or a sappy teenager or a callous monster or anti-LGBTQ and you're not. When you feel like you're under attack, it only makes sense to be defensive. You may feel insulted; you may have every right to get angry; and if you just want to let off some steam, posting a diatribe about how unfairly characterized you are might make you feel better. However, if your goal is to actually convince anyone that: 1. You are not what they're calling you; 2. Your movement isn't really like that… Well… "Not all ____" is just not all that effective.

Show, Don't Tell

You know, I'm really a very nice person.

Do you believe me? Probably not. You don't believe everything you're told. Why would you? Anyway, why would I ever possibly have to tell you that I'm a very nice person? If that's really what I am, I ought to behave in a nice way. That old "show, don't tell" advice your creative writing teacher gave you? It works in real life too.

So don't campaign. Be. If you are all you say you are and none of the things you say you aren't, that should come across to anyone who pays attention to you for even a moderate amount of time. If you are taking action against something, you're probably not going to be accused of supporting it.

Basically? If you're awesome, just continue to be awesome. It's the best counter-argument against your foes and the best advertisement for your ideals. Let your light shine so that everyone can see it. It might sound corny, but it works.


Scenario: You are a pro-marriage equality, pro-choice Christian. Your church has a rainbow flag in front of it and you're choosing to shop at Michael's ever since the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. You see someone online venting about Christians and their right-wing agenda to demonize gay people and push back women's rights.

You have a right to your hurt feelings.

Scenario: You're a guy who's got some problems with feminist criticism in media that you love. You're a firm proponent of gender equality, but you think there are a lot of cases where film, tv shows, video games, and books are unfairly labeled as sexist. Someone calls you a misogynist, insults your choice of headgear and comments on the unshaven state of your neck.

You have a right to your hurt feelings.

The two issues at play here are: 1. Your hurt feelings and 2. The problem someone has with aspects of your movement. By responding primarily to the attack on your character, you are putting your personal feelings and reputation above that problem. The problem remains unsolved.

…And sometimes, the problem is kind of huge. Harassment, pedophilia, death threats, loss of liberty… If you put your own personal hurt feelings above an issue that is truly serious, you not only don't solve the problem, but you come across as uncaring. That just digs you and the rest of your crew into an even deeper hole.

You're Not Getting Rid of the Trolls; Your Covering For Them

If you spend more of your time not-alling your critics than confronting your trolls then you're just giving them a fertile environment to grow in. They can harass as much as they want and use your legitimacy as cover. At the same time, your defensive stature can keep you from addressing real, internal problems in your movement.

Sometimes you've got to take a break and fight the real enemy.

You'll Say Something You Don't Mean

"Can't this b**** see that I'm not sexist?"

"How is this cis-scum going to even pretend they're the oppressed one?"

"Yeah, like I really even need to defend myself to someone with a Fluttershy avatar."

…I don't think I'm breaking terribly new ground here when I say that: when you get angry, you're likely to say something mean. When you surrender to your hurt feelings and go the "Not all ____" route, this kind of lashing out is usually not far behind.

Now, I'm sure we all know that there's times when saying mean things can be really, really fun. However, if your goal is to convince the person you're talking to that you're not a jerk and that your ideology is not run by jerks, then being a jerk is kind of a bad idea. If that isn't your goal and you just want to be mean for fun, then you're probably a troll and I'm just wondering why you'd even read this far?

People Know There Are Exceptions, No Matter What They Say

You know that whole "saying things you don't mean" business? It cuts both ways. I tend to make rash generalizations when I'm mad. If you don't, then you're a stronger soul than I.

Deep down, we all know not all men; not all women; not all liberals; not all conservatives; not all Christians; not all Atheists; not all GamerGaters; not all Social Justice Warriors; not all… I don't know, Slytherins.

But sometimes you have that day where you've got loads of Potions homework to do and Snape took points away from your house and Malfoy is being a real git, so you log on to Wizard Twitter and just let loose with a passive-aggressive "What's with Slytherins anyway? Does being ambitious really mean being a tool? Blimey. #VoldysHouse"

Five million points from Gryffindor.
Five million points from Gryffindor.

Maybe you'd deserve the "ACTUALLY not all Slytherins are like that. They're mostly super nice and I'll have you know a Gryffindor was mean to me Charms once, so how 'bout you stop being a tool, huh?" But that wouldn't really convince you that Slytherins are actually nice or that you are, in fact, the one that's being a tool.

Whereas: "Sorry someone from my house gave you a hard time :( Need any help with that crazy essay on eye-of-newt?" Might help you to calm down and realize you were generalizing unfairly.

It's not easy. Sometimes people make themselves very hard to be nice to. But if you're talking to someone that you actually want to convince, being civil is a must. Ain't nobody ever won hearts and minds by not-alling.


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