“We do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared.” That’s the new version of “all men are potential rapists” tweeted by Monica Hesse of The Washington Post. It has 12,000 likes so far.
Is it true that all men are potential monsters? Is it false?
That’s not a contradiction; it’s the result of an ambiguity in the word “potential.”
If a certain lump of metal is a potential sword, that means someone could make a sword out of it. Let’s call this physical potential. When applied to a human being, having a certain physical potential means that the person could, if they chose, be or do something. They have the intellect, bodily strength, etc., required.
But when we speak of the potential of a particular human being, we are often saying something about that person’s character. It’s not just that the person could, say, develop a certain skill if they chose, but that, given the kind of person they are, they might choose to do it. Thus we might say that a certain person has the potential to be a great cause lawyer, but not to be a corporate lawyer: They are motivated by the desire to improve the world, and they could never devote their time to representing whoever pays them in cases they don’t care about. Let’s call this psychological potential.
To say someone is a “potential X” in either of these senses is to say something about that person. But sometimes, calling someone or something a “potential X” is only a statement about your knowledge of that person or thing, not about the person or thing itself. For example, if the police find a corpse and say they have discovered a potential homicide, they are not saying someone might come along and kill the person. You can’t kill the dead. They are saying that, based on what they know, this corpse might turn out to be the result of a homicide. There is already a fact of the matter: Either someone killed this person or not. But the police don’t yet know which is the case. I call this sense epistemic potential, that is, potential pertaining to knowledge.
With these three senses clearly distinguished, we can see some very different meanings of the statement that “every man is a potential rapist.” (I take “monster” in Ms. Hesse’s tweet to mean rapist or perpetrator of some other egregious sexual misdeed.)
In the sense of physical potential, it means: Every man, if he so chose (but setting aside whether he ever would choose), could rape someone. This is true. Virtually any person, regardless of gender or age, has the physical capability to rape someone.
In the sense of psychological potential, it means: Every man might choose to rape someone. This is false and offensive. A decent man, and there are many of us, would never choose to rape anyone. To say that someone is a potential rapist in this sense is to say that he has the character of a monster. To say that all men are, is to say that, just because we’re male, we are doomed to be evil.
In the sense of epistemic potential, it means, reasonably interpreted: Every man, for all a woman knows if she does not know him, might turn out to want to rape her. This, unfortunately, is true. But it does not imply that any particular man has the psychological potential to rape. So men should not be offended by this idea, even if we take offense at the ambiguous language. It may sound like it’s about us, but it’s really about what women know.
A broader interpretation, still using the epistemic sense of “potential,” is: Every man, for all any woman can ever know, might turn out to have the psychological potential to rape her. This is more disturbing, because it applies even to close friends. But if human beings have any ability at all to know one another’s character, a woman who knows a man well can know whether he is the sort of man who would rape her.
However broadly she meant it to apply, it is fairly clear that Ms. Hesse meant “potential” in its epistemic sense. Of course, others may mean it differently. And how women should be influenced by this potential is a bigger and more important question.