The problem with–not all men–not all white people–not all whatever

You’ll have to excuse me as this one is maybe not fully thought out. It’s one of those thoughts I’ve had in the middle of the night that I want to express, one of those I normally wouldn’t write, but this time I’m expressing it anyway because I don’t want to forget it. I need to get it out there.

So on Friday night I told my son I’d been robbed, and unfortunately the first thing he asked was, “Was it a black guy?” I had to explain to him that the colour of the robber was irrelevant. It was a black guy, but here’s the thing: I’ve been held at gunpoint back when I was in my early twenties and worked part-time in a bank, by a white guy. And I’ve been mugged before, by other guys who were neither white nor black. This is Africa, where the majority of the population is black. If the criminals merely follow population demographics there are bound to be more black criminals than others. Anyway, my son is only 12 and I know he didn’t think that the robber being black somehow makes a statement about all black people. But it did get me thinking… That’s the problem with the “not all white people” or “not all men”, or whatever.

If somebody writes about men who did something bad, for example rape culture and how men enable rapists, and your knee-jerk reaction is “not all men”, that says something about you. It doesn’t say something about what you think of other men; it says something about what you think of women. Likewise, if somebody writes about white people in terms of racism, and you respond with “not all white people”, that says something about what you think of black people.

That’s what makes it such a horrid defence mechanism. If you see a statement about white people and take it to be a generalization about all white people, even though it isn’t, your reaction tells me that you make generalizations about black people. Because to a racist, one bad black guy makes all black people “thugs”. To a misogynist, one crazy woman makes all women unstable. The only reason people take those statements to be hasty generalizations is because those people make such generalizations themselves.

To assume what is true for one member of a group is true for all, is a fallacy of composition, of course. But that’s not the point. Take a hypothetical typical white male who is a racist, a misogynist, and Christian, as an example… The typical profile of the “not all men”, “not all white people”, “not all Christians” response. Such a person has no problem taking one black criminal to represent all black people, but would never, upon reading about a white person shooting up any group, take it to mean all white people are bad. That’s why I find the “not all whatever” knee-jerk reaction so perplexing… These people do realize generalizations are bad, but only when they see something about their own group, and suddenly group-think (or is it tribalism?) becomes more important than calling out the bad individuals, to the extent of even defending the bad ones. The irony in this is that it might not be all members of the group, but you who say “not all members” are one of the bad ones.

In fact, here’s a weird one for you: Racists don’t always know they are racists. But a good measure to tell if someone is a racist is that they make such generalizations… for example as mentioned earlier, to a racist, one black criminal makes all black people dangerous, one Muslim extremist makes all Muslims bad, etc. So since we are mostly not self aware enough to recognize our own prejudices, ask yourself: Do you make such generalizations?

Edit: Maybe I should have called this A problem with “not all …” because it isn’t the only problem. I’m considering it from the POV of the person making the statement, considering why it is logically wrong and the psychological meaning behind it as well as what it really says about such a person, not from the point of view of the victim of oppression/trauma who is grossly insulted by the response.

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