Last week on CBC Radio’s The Current, author and feminist Rebecca Solnit talked about the meaning of the term “mansplaining” and the special contribution it makes to gender studies. By the end, I was convinced that the word has to go.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe mansplaining is a real phenomenon and that men are far more disposed to it than women. But I don’t see how the term adds anything useful to gender discussions. On the contrary, it is more likely to drive men and women further apart.
For those who don’t know, mansplaining is the tendency among men to assume women are ignorant on a given topic, and then start explaining it to them. Often the “victims” are far more informed than their patronizing interlocutors.
Solnit gives an amusing example. In response to a question from the host of a party she was attending, she mentioned that her latest book was on a famous photographer. Before she could complete the sentence, he was jumping in to tell her about a new book on this man that she should be aware of, and then proceeded to lecture her about it—that is, until a guest elbowed her way into his monologue to point out that the book he was describing was Solnit’s.
Solnit says she used to avoid using the term “mansplaining” because she thought it typecast men. They’re not all like this, she says. Then she met a bright young PhD student who changed her view. According to this woman, “mansplaining” gave women a word for a real and important phenomenon that until then had no word. This made it possible to talk about the problem and, ultimately, start resolving it. Solnit was sold. I, however, am not.
As a form of behaviour, mansplaining has been around for a very long time; and it seems to me that we have all kinds of words to describe it, including gasbag, bullshitter, know-it-all, blorger, and so on. Host Anna Maria Tremonti used “blowhard” several times in the interview as a synonym for “mansplaining.”
Of course,“mansplaining” specifically attributes this behaviour to men—and that is new. But is it helpful? I don’t see how. As far as I can tell, we are really saying that, on the whole, men are much more likely to be over-confident, dominating and self-aggrandizing than women. Still, there are lots of men who aren’t like this and lots of women who are. So what is the point of having a gender specific term? Why not just say that men tend to be much bigger bullshitters, overt gasbags, or incorrigible blowhards than women?
In fact, I think the appeal lies elsewhere. The term incorporates strong value judgments about the people and the behaviour, much like when we call someone a bully or an “operator.” Accusing someone of mansplaining is a form of censure. And, in particular, it denotes an egregious lack of self-awareness. The party host who blathered on about Solnit’s book was not only patronizing, he was oblivious to his own condition. And this is where things get worrying.
Given the intense emotions around this issue, I fear this new word will quickly become a “trump card” in discussion and debate. To understand how trump cards work, consider the concept of denial. Alcoholics, for example, often deny they have a problem. As professionals who work with them know, this can raise a dilemma for the doctor.
Imagine a doctor who tells a patient that he is an alcoholic. The patient insists he is not, so the doctor then tells the patient he is in denial. This puts the patient in a compromised position. If he insists that the doctor is wrong, the doctor may take this as further evidence of denial. But doctors are sometimes wrong. What if this is such a case?
A charge of denial thus can become a way for the doctor to dismiss criticism. As a result, professionals who deal with denial must be extremely careful how they broach the subject with patients. The goal should be to help the patient become aware of their condition. Notoriously, making denial a premise in an argument is NOT a good way to do this. Too often it drives a wedge between the two parties. I fear this is how the term “mansplaining” is likely to be used in debate.
Imagine a social policy conference where a man is explaining to a group of women social workers why he thinks balancing the budget should be a higher priority than social programs. The women provide their counterarguments, but the man is not persuaded and persists. After a while, the women, exasperated, accuse him of mansplaining. When he denies the charge, they look at each other, roll their eyes and say: “he still doesn’t get it.”
In this case, mansplaining may or may not be going on. But who gets to decide? The two sides may be engaged in a genuine disagreement on a controversial subject. Nevertheless, the women could still use mansplaining to challenge the man’s credibility and bludgeon him into silence. The more he resists, the more this is seen as evidence of his lack of self-awareness.
Trump cards thus undermine productive debate by giving one side an unfair advantage. My concern about “mansplaining” is that, the more legitimate the term becomes, the more attractive it will be as a trump card. Just as women rightly resent mansplaining, men will resent women for using it to patronize them.
However, I am NOT saying that we should ignore the phenomenon of mansplaining. My point is that we should deal with it on terms that ensure everyone remains subject to the same rules of debate and evidence. Thus, while no man wants to be called a “typical male blowhard” or an “incorrigible windbag,” at least this kind of talk leaves open ways to respond.
By contrast, once a charge of mansplaining has been issued, the accused is consigned to silence. Perhaps it feels like there is a kind of poetic justice here, but it only feels that way. Two wrongs, after all, don’t make a right.
Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy, public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Since 2009, he has been Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. From October 2013 to April 2014, Don served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan