A tendon hammer tests the patellar reflex, the knee jerks, swinging forward.
All, probably, is okay. All is as it should be. It’s involuntary, something we don’t choose to do.
This involuntary knee jerk is fine for knees, but someone whose response to a discussion is equally involuntary, is nothing but a jerk themselves. Growing up, especially in the mud of adolescence, gives us a deep repertoire of knee-jerk reactions, our emotions set around insecurities, doubts, and anxieties — any time we feel threatened — and it turns into some form of immune system. Anytime someone comes close to one of those insecurities or anxieties we flare up, our knee jerks, our foot flails wildly into a conversation.
We don’t stop to consider what’s central, what matters, we become reactionary.
That’s all I hear when someone says or writes ‘Not All Men’, ditto ‘All Lives Matter’. It’s a distraction, noise, a wild kick that frustrates discourse and changes the subject.
When people — and men such as myself — are talking about the phenomenon of the many ways men can mistreat women, there is no need to remind anyone that it’s ‘Not All Men’. It is not insightful, it is not revelatory, it is not prophetic, it just changes the subject: from the problem people want to face and to the person saying “Not All Men”; the person who is so worried that they could be perceived poorly.
Especially when all men would do well to listen to these problems and say:
“I don’t want to be one of those men.”
Truth is, all men, all of us dudes, guys, and bros are socialised into the same soup, all of us exposed to many of the same ideas, images, stories, fears, anxieties, clichés and expectations. There are differences, little accidents that make us just that bit different from each other. None of us are immune to the excesses of our desire, or pride, or angst, or our desire to be funny at the expense of someone else. If we consider ourselves immune, exempt from the possibility of being better friends to each other, to women, then we are going to clumsily trample the safety and wellbeing of those women, of each other — and they might be too scared to even tell us. Worse, they do, but we believe we cannot be those men, those monsters. “That’s just how you felt,” we might say, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” we might deflect.
“Not all men.”
But, “not all men what?” ‘Not all men’ isn’t even a sentence, it’s just that knee-jerk reaction, that little voice saying “not me!”
All men will make mistakes. That’s easy enough to swallow, right? No one is going to chime in saying “not all men make mistakes!” That much, I hope, we can agree on.
So, why not listen?
We are, after all, desiring machines. The adolescent road to adulthood is one full of opportunities for feeding those desires, each opportunity a chance to hurt or to heal, to stunt or to grow, to love or to take.
I’ve messed up and misread signals, or projected my own desires onto women. When I did, I was met with frustration, disappointment, and even grace. All at once. I was lucky enough that they could tell me how they felt, that I was wrong, and corrected me when I was too insecure about being undesirable or being alone. Too self-absorbed to consider that maybe I wasn’t reading the situation well, at all, especially as a teenager, or even that; regardless of actual intentions; I made them feel uncomfortable. My knee jerk reaction then?
One time in my early twenties, I asked a friend of mine if we could hang out and watch a movie. They shut it down, and told me we weren’t romantic partners, an idea that hadn’t even crossed my mind and, really, surprised me. I went back to those texts to see how I responded.
It wasn’t good.
I went on the defensive and was too intent on being correctly perceived to realise what was actually important: my friend felt I was disrespecting her boundaries and had for a while been avoiding confronting me about the vibe I was giving off, that maybe I wanted to be more than friends. Reading it now, I became disappointed and angry in myself. Blindness to my own knee-jerk reaction, to a context that made someone calling me out for violating their boundaries. It wasn’t just asking them to watch a film with me but a general way of being that I thought to be acceptable and they felt too scared of offending me when I was the one that should have been scared of offending them.
That is the worst part of myself, the most harmful, the part that was so sure of my innocence and harmlessness that I didn’t want to consider that I could have hurt a friend.
That’s the damning thing about ‘Not All Men’, it stops us from being able to have opportunities to learn, to educate, to question, to reflect. Mistakes are inevitable, but if we always assume our own innocence and good intentions are enough, if we never doubt our knee-jerk reactions, if we plead Not All Men, then the first time someone tries to tell us something, something important, we will always make that mistake — and it ceases to be ‘just’ a mistake.