I was asked, as a man, to explain “mansplaining”. That is an assignment fraught with pitfalls.
From Merriam-Webster: “It's what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does.” Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 blog post “Men Explain Things to Me” recounts a story of a man disagreeing with Solnit and using as evidence for his superior knowledge a glancing awareness of a book which he hasn’t actually read and which he doesn’t realize Solnit wrote.
Whenever people presume that they know a subject better that those to whom they are speaking, they run the risk of being condescending. When a man explains things about sexism and gender to a woman he runs the risk of being condescending.
We all live in social structures that were built to give advantages to some and to marginalize others. Those of us who are given advantages are usually not aware that this is the case, because we have been taught that the system is "natural", and we operate on an interconnected web of worldview assumptions about "how things are". Meanwhile, those who are disadvantaged by these worldview assumptions know "how things are, according to those who are not disadvantaged.”
Members of oppressing groups do not need to comprehend the world as it is understood by the oppressed community in order to survive. Not having that comprehension allows members of oppressing groups to continue to believe that all is equal and fair when it is not. Oppressed group members are more likely to have these insights because they live in two worlds. As a survival strategy, they have to recognize and navigate the world as it is articulated by the oppressing group, while at the same time, they, of course, also know the world as understood by their own oppressed community. Knowing both worlds offers a more richly-informed political analysis.
This is repetition, but it is also central. Because everything in culture is organized to permit members of oppressing groups to remain blind to their privilege, those who see both worlds are more apt to be expert at seeing and understanding what the privileged cannot.
Any person who wants to end oppression must listen to those being oppressed, especially to their political analysis of those unquestioned worldview assumptions. Those being oppressed are not inherently correct in their analyses, but their insights must be given careful and respectful attention, and placed in a higher priority than the analyses of those who are, consciously or not, intentionally or not, being oppressive.
It is the collective wisdom of those experiencing oppression which must direct the analysis of all those wishing to end that oppression. White people must recognize that black, indigenous, and other people of color are experts on racism. Straight people must recognize that LGBTQI+ people are experts on heterosexism. Men must recognize that women are experts on sexism. Wealthy people must recognize that poor and working class people are experts on classism. And so on.
Women, living under patriarchy, have greater diagnostic insight into sexism than I do, and I intend to hold myself accountable to women to help me see what my whole history has made it harder for me to see: sexism. Because it's more difficult for me to see it, I need to be accountable to those who can see it better because they suffer under that oppression, they know the unquestioned worldview assumptions I’m operating under. They can question those assumptions, and push me to question them.
When I think I am being perfectly appropriate, and a woman tells me that I am being sexist, I have to begin with the assumption that the expert knows more about the subject than I do. When I am repeatedly challenged for what I think are [innocent, neutral, helpful, whatever… ] comments or questions, I must go back and question the worldview assumptions in light of feedback from someone who has a very different experience of the world, and that set of assumptions.
In that moment, when I, as a man, talk condescendingly to a woman about something of which I have incomplete knowledge, with the assumption that I still know more about it than the woman does, I'm being an asshole. Being told I'm "mansplaining" is a kindness, almost always born of the belief that I'd want to know that I was being an asshole, and that I am capable of change.
I want to know, and I want to change. So I must attend to the voices of those who are oppressed, though our social system provides me myriad ways to avoid them, dismiss them, and silence them. Saying that “mansplaining” is “reverse sexism” is one of those ways. I want to be better than that.
This all comes back to me when SCOTUS decided that women cannot be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies. There is a woman on the court who joined in that decision. Being a woman does not automatically make someone right in their analysis, but it does require me to respectfully engage with that decision, a decision with which I disagree. I do not share her analysis, nor the argument of SCOTUS, and so I want to do my part to stand up for the right of bodily autonomy and say Abortion on demand: no hurdles, no restrictions, no apologies.
By Allen Corben, July 8 2022. First posted on the NOMAS Facebook page.