The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Gaslighting a Movement
The advent of social movements in the digital era resulted in a curious phenomenon, reactionary movements: Not All Men, All Lives Matter, Straight Pride. The criticism of these movements is pretty straightforward: They ignore the unique struggles of the downtrodden, silence minority voices, and dismiss important messages without adding any value to the conversation. However, in the democratic context of movements, it matters less what you are, and more what you seem to be. The most pernicious aspect of these movements is that, to an untrained eye, their sentiments appear to make sense.
The modern right-wing reactionary movements have an interesting feature in common: Gaslighting. Gaslighting is the act of manipulating people into questioning their sanity. #NotAllMen has a frighteningly simple effect: it makes you think you are hysterical for supporting feminist causes. It outwardly alleges that by aligning yourself with the MeToo movement, you are a misandrist, out to destroy men. These claims are often accompanied by ‘false allegations’ statistics, to convince you that the entire feminist movement is a horde of villainous hacks that abuse the criminal justice system.
‘Obviously, all men are not molesters. How could anyone think that? Feminists are clearly hysterical.’
The thing is, they don’t. ‘Not All Men’ is an intuitive message. It isn’t difficult to convince people that men are not sex offenders by default. This is arguably one of the most prominent examples of a strawman fallacy. A strawman is a logical fallacy in which a party deliberately distorts the argument advanced into an indefensible hyperbole (the ‘straw man’) and then attacks their version of the argument. Feminists have never claimed that all men commit sexual assault; only that all men benefit from patriarchy, and are responsible for taking it down. The same logic applies to ‘All Lives Matter’. No one says that all lives do not matter, nor is the claim a logical extrapolation of ‘Black Lives Matter’, but it is convenient to paint it as such.
Furthermore, reactionary movements make use of widespread stereotypes to fuel their cause. ‘Not All Men’ exploits the stereotype that women are overly emotional. ‘All Lives Matter’ exploits the stereotype that people of color are dangerous criminals that pose a threat to others.
Reactionary movements are not particularly complex. It is often that alluring simplicity that makes these movements a potent threat. Understanding feminism is often very difficult. Feminist theory is incredibly inaccessible. The key to holding out against #NotAllMen is recognizing imbalances in power and their effect on society. It is recognizing that misogyny is structural; that men hold disproportionate power and authority, and typically abuse it, a disparity we see in the gender pay gap, rates of violence and abuse against women, access to education, the list goes on. It is recognizing that remaining blind to this disparity only serves to deepen the roots of sexism.
This kind of nuance is, unfortunately, lost in large scale movements. Movements in the digital era require short, simple messages and right-wing reactionary movements have nailed the formula. Their success can only be stopped through the education of the masses. Crucially, people need to be taught to differentiate criticism from gaslighting. Criticism of early, white-centric feminism allowed it to grow into a more intersectional movement, and there is definitely further room for improvement. Proving that ‘not all men are like that’, on the other hand, does nothing but distract us from the fight for equality.