The following is a comment I posted on an online friend’s blog. I posted a comment pushing back against the idea that Trump supporters were largely driven by misogyny and racism, suggesting that a more charitable and optimistic construction of the situation was possible. In response, another commenter claimed that I had been ‘mansplaining’. I wrote the lengthy comment below in response. I thought I would reshare it here, as it develops, unpacks, and concretizes some of the issues raised in my earlier two posts.
I have changed the names of the two people concerned.
Samantha, I want to thank you for raising this, because it is an important point.
Do you want to know why I am here?
I am here because I read everything that Julia posts on her blog and have done for a very long time. I am here because she is a smart and a good woman, and because I think that it is important that I listen and think about what she has to say. In following her blog, I can hear perspectives that I might not directly encounter in my day to day life.
I chose to comment because I know that Julia is the sort of person whose love for women doesn’t entail a hatred for men, and whose commitment to listen to and believe women doesn’t entail a shutting out and refusal to consider the voices of men. I chose to comment because I have seen over many years of interacting with her that Julia is someone who listens to what I have to say, thinks carefully about it, and responds. I have also seen her willingness to shift her position in response to what I have to say. Much of the time she will disagree with me. However, I respect that disagreement, because I know that it is a thoughtful and considered disagreement, not a reactive and dismissive one.
I commented here because she is the sort of person with whom I can have a conversation that challenges both of us and leaves both of us considering perspectives we might previously not have reflected upon. I respect her deeply for that, as experience has sadly taught me that these traits are very rare in some feminist quarters.
I first came across the word ‘mansplaining’ several years ago, not long after Solnit’s essay that introduced the notion appeared. After encountering the word, I looked for her essay and read it. My reaction to it wasn’t unmixed. I think Solnit’s concept of mansplaining was limited by her lack of exposure to all male contexts. Had she had such exposure, I suspect she would have appreciated something of what Deborah Tannen has spoken of as common but not universal sex differences in conversational styles (men tend to spar with each other and establish a generally playful back-and-forth game of conversational dominance, while women are more likely to focus on empathizing with each other and are less likely to challenge people or force them to fight their corner as men are). Some of the things Solnit experiences as ‘mansplaining’ might, in the context of a male conversation, more likely function the opening gambits in a fun and bonding game of conversational dominance. Neither conversational dynamic is wrong, but we need to be much more considerate of each other.
However, by far my most dominant reaction to the essay was one of recognition. She gave a name to something I had often seen and also done on a number of occasions. Her opening anecdote was truly laugh-out-loud hilarious, but the essay moved into far more serious territory, as it revealed men’s failure to attend to and to trust women’s reporting of their own experiences.
Although I wasn’t prepared to give the sexism dimension quite as much weight as Solnit wanted—the problem, I suspect, is in some measure one of clumsy failure to appreciate and negotiate differences between the sexes—my principal response to the essay was to take two extremely important points more fully on board. 1. I saw how women could find the ‘mansplaining’ that Solnit described deeply annoying and insulting and determined to be more careful and considerate in the future. 2. I saw how the failure to take seriously women’s self-reported experience and knowledge wasn’t just a matter of rudeness in conversations, but could fatally undermine processes of truth and justice in society. Appreciating Solnit’s wit and insight, when her book, Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays, came out I bought a copy and read it.
Unfortunately, since first coming in contact with Solnit’s argument, I have had the depressing experience of seeing a very helpful and important concept, a concept that helped me come to some awareness of things that I should have recognized before, mangled beyond recognition.
Feminists recognized the power of the concept of mansplaining to name a particular type of engagement that frustrated them. It produced recognition on both sides of a great many conversations. The power of the name and the concept served as a sort of antibiotic by which certain unhealthy conversational dynamics could be effectively treated. Employed with wit and care, women could help men to see that what they were doing wasn’t cool and that, if it became deeply engrained, it could be profoundly dangerous. The great many decent men in society are good people whose behaviour will gradually change as they are shown what is wrong with it. As decent people they feel embarrassment when they recognize that they haven’t been considerate towards others, and this embarrassment leads them to treat problems in their behaviour and ways of thinking.
The problem was that the concept was so effective that many feminists started to use it for every conversational dynamic that frustrated them. When they saw that they could get the upper hand in frustrating conversations and interpersonal interactions by embarrassing decent men for disagreeing with them and problematizing men’s typical behaviour, they started to use it all of the time. ‘Mansplaining’ started to be used, as you have used it here, Samantha, to dismiss and embarrass men who simply dared respectfully to express a different opinion than a woman. It typically had the desired effect: it shut the men up and gave women a sense of righteous superiority.
Seeing the success of the term mansplaining, feminists started to introduce a whole raft of portmanteau words—manspreading, manterrupting, bropropriating, manslamming, etc. Everything that irritated a woman about men’s behaviour was given a term with man- or bro- attached, even when the men’s behaviour wasn’t entirely unreasonable and a little more consideration on the woman’s side would have improved things greatly. This sludge of clumsy neologisms (the French term ‘mecspliquer’ was always the best) swamped conversations and feminists started to use shame and embarrassment to win in every interaction with men. They failed to recognize that what they were doing was akin to using antibiotics when someone gets a scrape on the knee.
Just as overuse of antibiotics to kill bacteria can eventually lead to the production of antibiotic resistant strains and to the increased obsolescence of many antibiotics, so the overuse of shaming on men will produce shame-resistant men and lead to the shaming words and concepts becoming altogether powerless. If you want to understand why America has a President-Elect who is shameless and guilt-free, perhaps you should take a look at yourself. Many people are fed up of the way that people on the social justice left have so overused the antibiotics of political correctness, feminist thought, gender theory, and race theory to shame them, dismiss them, lock them out of the conversation, and stigmatize them. They derive a sort of schadenfreude from seeing the social justice left slowly coming to the realization that their antibiotics of shame aren’t working anymore. People just don’t care.
The more that feminists and social justice activists just dismissed them and their concerns (many of them quite valid), the more that they just stopped listening to, caring about, or taking on board what feminists said. They shut the voice of the feminists out from their conversations. They saw that the antibiotics of shame were being used to protect ideological systems that were without an immune system of their own.
Much contemporary feminist thought wouldn’t be able to survive in the harsh climate of open discourse and argument. Many feminists fail to recognize that by relying upon the antibiotics of shame to deal with external challenges, their thinking never developed a resilience of their own, the sort of resilience that develops when our bodies fight off infections themselves. Exposure to challenge makes you stronger, but feminists have increasingly shielded themselves from challenge. They so often act like fainting Victorian ladies when people disagree with them. They shut down college debate, they no-platformed speakers who disagreed with them, they claimed to be triggered by everything.
Now we are all reaping the consequences. Feminists have things to say that need to be heard. Careful prescription of shame and embarrassment to men who don’t treat women as they ought is very important for society’s health. However, feminists don’t seem to get that they are now viewed as irrelevant by most of the population and that an openly shameless form of male identity is increasingly arising in response to them. They now operate as if in a closed terrarium in their social media bubbles, where fragile and exotic flowers bloom, but where they are no longer deeply and meaningfully engaged with the broader environment. The rest of the world is starting to ignore them, most women refuse to identify with them, and the election of Trump is one symptom of their growing lack of traction in the public conscience. They have used shame, not to help people, but to establish their own cocooned communities of moral superiority.
Thank God for feminists like Julia, who are still prepared to listen to and engage with different opinions and not dismiss them with shame tactics. The fact that I am expressing difference in this comment thread at all is a sign of my respect for her, an indication that I don’t believe that she is a weak, thin skinned, and hyper-emotional woman (like far too many contemporary feminists, to be honest) to be protected from disagreement, but an smart and reasonable interlocutor who is well able to think, engage, reason, persuade, and be persuaded. That I am here is a sign that I haven’t left the room where the feminists are talking and closed the door behind me, leaving them to it.
This openness to argument, if you want to know, is the only way that the feminist movement will have a meaningful future of moral credibility within the wider culture. Even on the left, among the people who are most inclined to listen to the feminists and social justice crowd, there is a huge reaction against and increased dismissal of them (see here for an important rant). You will make a difference when you reject the politics of deference and shaming and once again learn how to listen, how to engage, how to argue, how to persuade. Feminists did it once—and a number still do—so I see no reason why they cannot do so again.
Finally, let me take issue with the accuracy of your use of the term ‘mansplaining’. I don’t think that you know what it means and, in case you think I am being oblivious to some irony in the situation here, let me explicitly point out that a man correcting a woman on the definition of the term ‘mansplaining’ is not the sort of thing that is covered by the concept. Have you read Solnit’s essay? If you haven’t, you should. It is brilliant and perceptive. I have read it, so I know what it says and am in a position to explain it to others. Yes, even to women.
One of the crucial statements that she makes is the following: ‘I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.’ I highly recommend that you reflect upon the sorts of conversational behaviour that statement challenges and the sorts of conversational behaviour that it doesn’t challenge. Many feminists could do well in following Solnit’s example here in expressing openness to learning from others: yes, even men. They could also benefit from reflecting upon Solnit’s focus in this statement. Note that she doesn’t focus on and fetishize her personal feelings of offence. No, her primary concern is that the conversation goes right. Good for her. We can all learn from that.