Monday, July 12, 2010


Scene I: I'm at a boring official-type cocktail party, holding my glass awkwardly in my hand. I'm introduced to a man who, upon hearing that I'm an economist, launches into a ten-minute sermon about what is wrong with economic thought. He took a course in economics in college and he follows the news avidly, he tells me.

When I try to interject a few refinements (and a more explicit statement of my training etcetera) he repeats the main points of his essential sermon, all the time staring intently to see if I'm learning anything.

I desperately look for a way to escape, because other alternatives are a) continue to be (wrongly) schooled in my specialty, b) drown him in a counter-sermon given in technical economics or c) smash my glass against his forehead and use the resulting weapon to cut his neck arteries.

Scene II: I'm a new blogger in feminism but a very, very old hand in the field. I have read everything I have been able to get hold of, including all those academic papers, and I have spent a few decades thinking and researching the issues. A commenter tells me that he had a few beers with his friends the previous night and they figured out how feminism should be done. I'm then given the gist of this intense study and experience. He is hurt by my coldly polite response, because he is on our side, and if this is how I treat potential allies I should be losing.

Scene III (and this is a recent one): I'm schooled on how complicated issues about women and men and inequality are and how I don't address those complications because I don't see them. But the man schooling them does see them, by osmosis, presumably, as feminism is not his field.

These examples are from my own life, but there is a much better Internet example of what I'm describing here: mansplaining, and it is this one.

The definitions of mansplaining in the Urban Dictionary are fascinating:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether. Named for a behavior commonly exhibited by male newbies on internet forums frequented primarily by women. Often leads to a flounce. Either sex can be guilty of mansplaining.
The members of the equestrian community were unimpressed when Bob posted an essay that mansplained a solution to a horsy problem they were all well-acquainted with.
to delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation
Even though he knew she had an advanced degree in neuroscience, he felt the need to mansplain "there are molecules in the brain called neurotransmitters"
A meaningless term used by small-time radical feminists on Internet blogs. Essentially utilized as a way to shut down any male- or person they perceive as male- who dares to express an opinion that differs even slightly from their own warped version of reality. Even the fymynysts are unsure of exactly what it's supposed to mean- only that it has the word "man" in it and therefore must be bad and evil.
Man: "Personally, I mostly agree with you, though I disagree when you say-"

Feminist Retard: "Oh, the mansplainer is mansplaining how everything works, we should be so grateful for the mansplainer!"

Man: "I'm just sharing my opinion..."

Feminist Retard: "Wow, look at the mansplainer go! He has it all figured out, right my fellow wymyn??"

Man: "Never mind"

Feminist Retard: "Good job sistyrs, we chased away that mansplainer."

None of them seem quite right to me. The third one is more about how a sexist would define mansplaining or how someone would define the anger of a person unfairly accused of mansplaining. The second one has an excellent example of mansplaining but it's not necessary to be slimy or even inaccurate to be mansplaining. The first one is closest to how I would define this phenomenon, but it still lacks something, this:

"assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening when that assumption is clearly unwarranted"

Teaching Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, material that is covered in any Economics 101 course would be mansplaining. Teaching me feminism of the most basic sort is mansplaining when it happens after the teacher is aware of my experience and/or credentials in the field.

And the reason is a very obvious one: By ignoring information about the person getting the mansplaining, the mansplainer is telling that what that person knows is either irrelevant or untrue, not worthy of respect at all. Or perhaps even worse, the mansplainer never gave any thought to what the intended audience might actually know. If that intended audience happens to be an expert in the field and the mansplainer a layperson, the overall effect is to seriously diss the expert, to essentially argue that she is NOT an expert.

How would you react if someone did this to you in your field? If someone simply wiped out all those years of hard work you have put into learning it? Wouldn't you feel insulted? Wouldn't you get angry?

The direct feminist application to mansplaining is when a man tells women how their lives really are. To see why that is outrageous, do a simple gender reversal.

And yes, women can certainly be guilty of mansplaining, though I have never had a woman subject me to it. Likewise, men can mansplain to another man. Perhaps this is as common as the experiences many women have had being at the receiving end of an eager mansplanation? We would need a study to answer this question conclusively. My guess is that man-to-woman mansplaining is more common, simply because women are not viewed as experts as often as men are.

Coping with mansplaining is tricky. Nobody likes to hear that they have been mansplaining and the reaction one gets is a bit like that third definition in the above quote. Then there's the problem of equating mansplaining with all discussion and debate when the participants are not matched in expertise.

Should laypeople just shut up? Of course not! Just debating something is not mansplaining, unless it resembles what I described above and if it is done with proper respect for the intended audience. That respect includes trying to understand the audience and what they already might know.