Let’s talk about… #NotAllMen

#NotAllMen? How discussion on women’s safety gets derailed

The weight of the tragedy of Ashling Murphy’s murder in Tullamore on Wednesday of last week has been felt across the nation, and in the days since, an outpouring of condolences and sympathy has been expressed towards those who knew her in recognition of the unimaginable grief they must be dealing with. The loss of a loved one is an incredibly difficult thing to go through in any circumstances, and like the rest of the country, my thoughts are with her family and friends.

  The tragedy has shone a light on the realities of femicide in Ireland and the disproportionate dangers women are facing in their day-to-day lives. Despite increased awareness around women’s issues and the progress that we have seen in more recent years, women’s safety and their freedom to go about their daily lives without harassment/assault remains far from assured.

  Given the circumstances of last week’s tragedy, a lot of discussion has been generated across the country around these issues of femicide and women’s safety. However, while topics such as these deserve to be given due focus, and while open discussion is key to raising awareness and instigating change, it seems that a lot of these conversations are getting derailed straight out of the gate.

  For instance, there’s the phrase that somehow never seems to escape discussions on women’s safety – ‘not all men’. The expression is a rebuttal directed towards generalised statements about the dangers affecting women, emphasising that ‘not all men’ commit violent crimes or harass women, that it is only ‘the bad few’.

  The problem, of course, is that no one is arguing with any sincerity that every single man harasses or assaults women. Yet, the distinction is always brought up – as soon as the topic of women’s safety is raised, we are urged to remember that ‘not all men’ hurt women. We are urged to pause our grieving, anger, and fear, to clarify what is already obvious to everyone. All that sentiments like ‘not all men’ achieve in doing is distracting from the important issue at hand, and it is incredibly worrying to see how often the immediate response to women being in danger is for people to become defensive of men. At its core, the expression ‘not all men’ reveals a clear prioritisation of men’s reputation – the need to be deemed ‘one of the good ones’ – over the lives and safety of women.

  Outside of ‘not all men’s habit of stealing focus away from important issues, one of the most disheartening implications of the phrase is the presumption that there are two groups of men – the good ones and the bad ones – and that the person repeating the phrase lies firmly in the ‘good ones’ category. The idea is: “It’s unfair to generalise men as bad, because not all men are bad… including me”. However, that presumption – that you play no part in the imbalance because you don’t actively hurt women – is a dangerous and naïve one.

  Like many others, Irish society is one with deep patriarchal roots. Many of the things that define us as a country have historically excluded women (such as sport, the Church, rural living, pub culture etc), and the impact of this perseveres today. Despite progress, men remain the default and women are accommodated.

  The issue is that these problems don’t go away easily – they require critical discussion and individual introspection in order to be dealt with effectively. Casual instances of sexism all feed into the larger problem, and people need to be critical of the impact their daily actions have, down to every ‘harmless’ joke. If you presume you’re one of the ‘good ones’, you won’t be willing to do better. You won’t genuinely listen to people’s lived experiences and face the truth of how you feed into the problem, and nothing will change.

  On paper, we are a progressive country continually striving to treat all our people better, but in everyday Irish society, men are actively protected and everyone else is not. No, not all men commit violent crimes against women, but yes, all men benefit from the same deeply embedded patriarchy that harms these women.

  All that women are asking for is to have their lived experiences listened to. It is incredibly upsetting to have these issues affect your daily life, and to never feel they’re being addressed properly, never with enough seriousness, enough attention, enough nuance. It is heartbreaking to know that people only begin to pay attention to women’s experiences when a tragedy occurs.

  No woman is unfamiliar with the feeling of being fearful of her own safety, even more so when a tragedy like this occurs. It’s important that their voices and their experiences are magnified during times like this, that we take the time to listen to women and trust in what they’re saying. It’s important not to let these conversations get derailed, because the space to have them doesn’t come by often.