A Considered Defense Of “But Not All Men/White People/Straight Folks Are Like That!”

An advocate who chooses to say “not all” is very different from a peanut gallery dweller who tromps around the internet in their “not all” boots.
Publish date:
May 22, 2014

The words “not all” are having something of a moment. Not necessarily the kind of moment they might want to have, but it sure is a moment.

All across the internet – on Twitter (of course), but also well-known and less-known blogs, among cartoonists and meme producers, at Jezebel and Vox and even at Time magazine – activists of all stripes are decrying and/or mocking the whininess of people who announce (often quite loudly) that Not All men/white people/straight folks/what-have-you are “like that” – whatever the “that” might be. Racist assholes. Misogynist jerkwads. Homophobic douche-nozzles. And the like.

And I see the point, I genuinely do. Oppression and bigotry are daily, often deadly struggles, and the idea that we need to watch out for the delicate emotional states of people who (consciously or unknowingly) benefit from the fruits of oppression and bigotry can be flat-out ridiculous, not to mention adding insult to literal injury.

But look. I’ve been a social justice activist my whole life, around issues that tend to make people very angry, in particular gender violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trust me when I say that I have more than a little experience with people saying truly horrible things, and expecting me to explain away the horrible things that other people say or do. I’ve been mansplained, Jewsplained, Arabsplained, Gentilesplained, OppressionOlympicssplained, and then mansplained again for good measure, ad nauseum. And yet I am forever producing some version of “not all.” Even if through gritted teeth.

I do so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s straight-up tactics. For example: not all American Jews equate opposing Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism, but it’s my job to call out those who do – particularly those with institutional power. When I slide a “not all” into that conversation, I’m addressing several problems in advance: I’m saving my editors (some) flack from those who say I demonize my own people; I’m neutralizing a smear tactic; and I’m making it harder for the people who want to dismiss my argument on a technicality.

Does “not all” entirely defuse each of these situations? Of course not. But it lowers the frequency with which they pop up, and that is, in and of itself, a blessing. I don’t know about anyone else, but I only have 24 hours in my day and some other finite quantity of energy. I’d rather expend as little as possible of either on pointless battles.

Then there’s the unavoidable fact that not everyone is on the same page as me (yet -- I’m sure everyone will come around). A lot of people don’t know what I know about rape statistics, for instance, or the male gaze in popular culture. A lot of those people are well-intentioned and amenable to new information. One little “not all” cracks the door open just a smidge, allowing space and maneuverability for folks who are grappling with the Previously Unconsidered. We cannot organize people where we want them to be – we can only organize them where they are. I want my words to provide enough room for people to be able to move in that space.

Also (and not at all incidentally), “not all” allows a corner in my (generally fairly angry and/or enraged) writing for my community. When I say “not all,” I’m acknowledging and honoring all the Israeli and American Jews, all the Palestinians, all the everybody who has fought for a just and durable peace in the Middle East for decades. When I say “not all,” I’m acknowledging and honoring men like my husband, my son, my beloved friends, and many, many men I’ll never meet but who plan anti-sexual violence trainings, or write to Congress about fair pay, or simply tell their boys to step off when harassment starts. All of these people have contributed mightily to the battles that matter most to me, and I want to show them my respect. Even if it’s only with a few, very small words.

Of course, I only rarely express “not all” with the words “not all.” Most often, they’re the unspoken flipside of some other word or phrase. Maybe it’s “many” (“many Jews prefer not to know about the impact of Israel’s occupation”) or even “far too many” (“far too many men fail to grapple honestly with the toll that rape culture takes on girls and women”) – but even though it’s small, even though it comes surrounded by anger, these constructions allow for at least a tiny corner of esteem. A space where people who hadn’t thought about all this before can nod their heads. A place to shelter from the countervailing winds.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to view oppression, or what to say to the people who mete it out. I’m not here to tell anyone how to advocate, or how to build community. And I’m certainly not here to grant absolution to people who would rather talk about their special snowflake status than address the problem at hand. An advocate who chooses to say “not all” is very different from a peanut gallery dweller who tromps around the internet in their “not all” boots.

All I’m saying is that “not all” is a useful tool, and occasionally even an expression of love. Don’t reject it out of hand – and may I ask that you not judge too harshly those of us who use it. Not all of us are traitors to the cause.