Of Generalizations and Men: by a Retired General of the Not All Men Army

Oluwafemi Sawyerr
Feb 18 · 6 min read

“Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth.” — Bryant McGill

I don’t remember what the context was the first time I read the phrase “Men are scum.”, but I do remember my reaction being more visceral than it was logical. A simple “Not all men.” That said, there was some logic underpinning my reactions. For most of my life I have been a scientist, trained to be cautious about making absolute statements and generalizations, especially when such statements are made without caveats. My pushbacks to any discussions that involved statements of the myriad variations of “Men are scum.” leaned towards that training.

“You definitely haven’t interacted with all men individually, so how can you make such a generalized statement?”

“How can you judge all men based solely on your personal and/or anecdotal experience?”

“What data is this conclusion based on? What was the sample size? What were the controls put in place when the sampling was being done?”

If the scientific approach failed, then I would give a good old it’s-my-word-against yours reply like:

“I’m definitely not one of the men who believes such things, so why should I be painted with the same brush?”

The other reply that I resorted to at other times was “Scum has no gender”. Essentially pointing out the fact that the individual behaviors being called out were human failings in general, and not the sole preserve of men as a gender.

I say all this to establish the fact that as far as the #NotAllMen Army goes, I was a self-proclaimed senior officer. As far as I was concerned, I was fighting valiantly for the voice of logic and sound arguments and all those women (and eventually men) were wrong to make such generalizations. Alas I was ignorant. It took a lot of listening and even more introspection to come to a place where I both wasn’t offended by #MenAreScum but could also sympathize with women when they say it. I hope by the end of this article it makes you open to accepting this paradigm shift like I did.

I suppose a great place as any to start is with the question, are men scum? To properly answer that, it’s necessary that we unpack what #MenAreScum means. Personally, I believe there are two broad interpretations:

1. All men, individually, are scum

2. All men, as a collective, and the (patriarchal) systems that enable men, as a collective, are scum

Is every single man on this planet scum? Honestly, I don’t believe that. Are men and the institutionalized systems we have as a society that enable men scum? Heck yes! Although I will admit there are a few instances where the first interpretation is implied, most of the conversations I have come across where #MenAreScum is used in a serious manner typically involve the second interpretation. Also, while I will concede that the pushback examples I have given above might be valid against the first interpretation, I do not believe they are relative to the second interpretation. Ergo, I will spend the rest of this post talking about why “not-all-menning” is redundant, distracting, and harmful to progress as we strive for a better society for everyone and women especially.

Firstly, in regular conversation when we label collectives, for the most part we’re recognizing that while there may be exclusions the aggregate can be represented by that label. This is especially true when that collective is backed by a system that would also be appropriately labelled by the same tag. For example, when the average person says “The Nigerian Police is corrupt.” you would be hard pressed to see anybody say “Nah. It’s only some policemen that are corrupt” (I’m going to assume I don’t have any #BlueLivesMatter people reading this). It is implied that the statement isn’t referring to the members of the police force who are doing their job right. Moreover, if the corruption is at an institutional level, then the statement is even more valid without the implied exclusions. We accept that both the police force as an institution and the aggregate attitude and performance of police officers is corrupt. We don’t need to add the caveat that there are good police people, it’s implied. So, employing a #NotAllMen approach in this instance would be pointless. Why do we not apply this same logic to actual #MenAreScum conversations?

Additionally, why is the only time we have problems with collective labels (that don’t necessarily represent us individually) when they’re negative? For example, a very common thing we pride ourselves on as Nigerians is our ability to excel in academics. However, considering the statistics on exams like WASSCE, NECO, and JAMB I’m pretty sure that there are more Nigerians who do NOT excel academically than there are that do. Yet, why don’t people say “not all Nigerians” when such comments come up? If generalizations are truly the hill you want to die on, then why aren’t you keeping the same energy for positive ones as you do for negative ones? Seems a tad hypocritical to me.

But beyond these two points though, is a more salient point. It is a question of what your #NotAllMen contributes to whatever conversation it is added to. Typically, we use that rejoinder to other ourselves, to signal that “I am different. I’m not like those guys who you say are doing bad things. So, whatever you’re saying isn’t really my problem.” By doing this we’re letting our egos take center stage. We’re also shifting a conversation that essentially should be about how we (as men) can do better AND push the needle in improving aggregate male behavior and making it about our hurt pride caused by the semantics employed in the conversation. For instance look at the uproar surrounding Gillette’s “The Best A Man Can Be” ad. I found it ridiculous how so many people ignored the message of the ad — that men can do better and should do better than we’re currently doing in our society — and went on (nonsensical) tangents that were based on semantics and optics. It was disappointing but not surprising. Now, even though I understand that “words mean things”, and I’m a strong advocate of arguments being just as sound as the conclusions they lead up to, my thrust here is if you’re not adding to a conversation by making it better or disputing it (neither of which #NotAllMen really does) then you’re being an obstacle, because you’re deflecting from the pertinent issues at hand. And if you’re being an obstacle to a conversation that could help our society progress then you are in fact scum.

To end this, here are a few things that have helped (and continue to help) me be more understanding of #MenAreScum conversations:

1. Listen to women with an ear to learn AND help, not an ear to contradict and criticize. Empathize and sympathize with women’s shared experiences first before you jump to poke holes.

2. Question your reactions. If your immediate reaction to something is defensive, critically question why that response is elicited.

3. Acknowledge the fact that you’re also a flawed human who needs to consistently unlearn things that are toxic. We all do, some are just further ahead on the journey than others. Finally,

4. Recognize that the society we live in is a mess that requires fixing. For example, holding women to higher standards of propriety than we do men (like fathers not getting any flak for leaving their children at home and traveling abroad to be chilling on the beach, while women are denigrated when they leave their baby in another person’s care for a night out); regarding women as lacking agency; rape culture and the systems that enable it predominantly affecting women; toxic masculinity affecting both women and men; society generally being unsafe for women in situations where men don’t even think about safety. A LOT of the things needed to fix these issues will require men to not only shift our mentality but to also change our behavior. This will not be a comfortable or easy transition, but it is one that must happen nonetheless, or we are screwed.

Finally, here’s this tidbit that helps me stay grounded.

“Personal growth is not a matter of learning new information but of unlearning old limits.” Alan Cohen

Mensplainr

Mansplaining, but to men.

story story...once upon a time...there was a man...

Mansplaining, but to men.

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