The Limits of “Mansplaining”

 

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of an opinion must be in want of a correction. Well, actually, no it isn’t, but who doesn’t love riffing on Jane Austen? The answer is: lots of people, because we’re all different and some of us haven’t even read Pride and Prejudice dozens of times, but the main point is that I’ve been performing interesting experiments in proffering my opinions and finding that some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion. Sometimes they also seem to think that they are in charge, of me as well of facts.

Source: “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” Rebecca Solnit, Literary Hub

I can understand Rebecca Solnit’s frustration. Even in these “modern” times, there is no shortage of men who will discount the opinion of a woman because of her gender, sometimes without even realizing that they’re doing it. Neither men nor women should hesitate to raise a flag when it happens.

At the same time, it should be apparent to the wise reader that not everything that might feel like “mansplaining” is actually a manifestation of paternalist condescension. At the risk of appearing to be “mansplaining” myself, a few commonsense points to keep in mind ere using that term:

  1. There are people – men and women – who believe they are right and you are wrong and with undisguised condescension will tell you so in no uncertain terms, even when they are so wrong that it beggars belief. 
  2. Those people can and will do so without respect to your gender, race, creed, color.
  3. The behavior pattern described above is not limited to white men. Indeed, I have been the victim of such behavior from men and women of caucasian, Asian, and African-American derivation. I have dated women – one Asian woman in particular – who treated every word that came out of my mouth as wrong, and felt the compulsion to enlighten me, the ignorant barbarian. I know for a fact that she has behaved in a like fashion to men who were older, wiser, and wealthier than I.
  4. In many cases, such behavior is rooted in arrogance. But often when we encounter such pushback, it is because we ourselves are actually wrong, and we refuse to see it.
  5. The real universal truth – apologies to Jane Austen – is that a person in public possession of an opinion must be in want of correction. To have an opinion and state it publicly is a prima facie invitation for people to either agree or disagree with you. (For proof, spend a morning looking at Facebook or Tumblr.) That they don’t agree doesn’t make them bad. It simply means they take issue with your opinion, which, however sincerely held, is probably not universal. In the words of Sergeant Hackler, “opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one, and they all stink.” This is why blogs have comment sections.
  6. All of us need to get over the sanctity of our opinions. The beauty of free speech is that we can have our own opinions. The ugliness of free speech is that we grow so attached to them that we cling to them even when the preponderance of facts proves us wrong.
  7. Opinions may at times be supported by facts, but we confuse the two far too often.

I will grant that all of the above is apocrypha and opinion. You are cordially invited to disagree. Ms. Solnit, for her part, might well take the above as a “mansplain,” prima facie evidence that I am an anti-feminist, and then dismiss me out of hand.

“Mansplaining” happens, and when it takes place in the context of an individual rejecting the opinion of a woman out of hand, it is wrong. Yet we must acknowledge that this is a negative behavior for which white straight men cannot claim anything approaching a monopoly.

What is more, the implicit danger of a term like “mansplaining” is that it is so vague and haphazardly applied that they can undermine debate, compelling some people (straight white males) to self-censor for fear of appearing sexist, and others to dismiss out of hand the opinions of people with that same gender, race, and orientation. The indiscriminate condemnation of a white male rebuttal to the opinion of a woman or person of color “mansplaining” only serves to label every straight male opinion as illegitimate, irrelevant, or worse.

Finally, you do not win the war for civility and tolerance by fostering more incivility and discrimination. That is the line Ms. Solnit and others like her must tread with care, lest it serve only to replace old hurts with new ones.

 

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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