In Defence of Mansplaining

mansplaining statue

As is often the case with memes born on social media mansplaining started of with one particular meaning but swiftly morphed into something rather different. In its original manifestation it was a nicely observed and humorous account of a demonstrable phenomenon which had the possibility of effecting long overdue personal change in its uncomfortable targets. In its subsequent usage, however, it became another arrow in the quiver of a particular philosophical worldview whose purpose was to help bring about desired political and social changes.

To begin at the beginning though. At its first appearance mansplaining referred to a pattern of male behaviour which goes something like this: when explaining something to a female a man adopts an obviously patient, saintly even, demeanour and slowly, beginning from the blindingly obvious, works by stages up to the shattering climax of final revelation. This proceeds without regard to whether their audience consists of a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist or a not especially bright five year old just so long as they are from the distaff side. Imparting information here is secondary to the purpose of demonstrating innate superiority which is best achieved through the maximum possible level of patronisation.

Undoubtedly this irritating activity goes on. A lot. So ‘mansplaining: the meme‘ can play an important role in holding up a mirror to the behaviour. It should encourage men to say ‘down with this sort of thing‘ and reflect upon how closely their own behaviour resembles the caricature with a view to eliminating what is undesirable sooner rather than later. So far so good.

Phase two, however, is altogether more contentious. It goes something like this: when a woman describes an event, what she feels about the event, and how she explains the event, any attempt to challenge the explanation, whether by a man or a woman, is decried as mansplaining. Description, feeling and explanation are seen to be an organic whole and querying one part of the sequence counts as an attempt to invalidate the whole of it thus devaluing women’s experiences. It is argued that experience and feeling are sound bases upon which to form a judgement. But they really aren’t. You could spend a lifetime experiencing sunrises but you would never arrive at the explanation that the earth orbits the sun simply on the basis of experience alone. You would require to gain an additional expertise in astronomy or, as is much more usual, someone would have to explain it to you.

There is, anyway, a lack of consistency here. A woman experiencing the symptoms of physical illness would be able to describe them and what she feels about them. She may even advance a theory about their causes and possible cures. None of this would stop her going to a doctor and accepting his (or her) alternative theory and following the prescribed regime of treatment. The doctor’s superior knowledge base about disease takes into account the experience and the feelings of the woman but trumps her explanation with a better one. Similarly if a woman experiences emotional or mental distress she will likely run not walk to a psychotherapist and demand to be mansplained to about a deeply personal experience which she lacks the necessary expertise to understand or remedy.

The point here is that explanation can be and often is separated from personal experience and personal feeling without invalidating or denying them. So, if a woman describes a situation which caused her to feel belittled or excluded one can accept that she experienced what she experienced and felt what she felt but still suggest that the dynamics of that situation might be interpreted from a different perspective. That is, if she shifts her point of view she won’t alter how she felt in the past but she can alter how she feels in the present. Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Now, our Oscar may have been very wrong and heartless to say this but once we know that it has been said we can never again read the scene in question in the same way we would have done had we not known that he said it. Our perspective has been changed and consequently so have our feelings.

One might, indeed, argue that experience and feeling are particularly bad bases upon which to form a considered judgement. There are good reasons why the victim of a crime should not serve on the jury trying the case of a person accused of committing the crime. Intensity of feeling clouds judgement it doesn’t make it clearer and more accurate. However that might be the notion that feelings are truth is only true in the limited sense that they are the truth about how you have reacted to a situation. They do not constitute truth that is valid beyond the envelope of your own body and mind.

The feminist supposition that questioning the conclusions a woman has come to after a traumatic event necessarily constitutes a denial of either the event itself or the trauma resulting from it or both is not always true. Sometimes it can be, certainly, there is no denying that a section of society does devalue and seek to disempower women and uses whatever weapons come to hand in order to do so. Nonetheless, questioning an interpretation and offering an alternative explanation (mansplaining) is not in itself an act of misogyny. All of us misunderstand and misinterpret stuff all the time. When it comes to understanding what is going on in the minds of other people we are more likely to be wrong than right, at least in part, because human minds are massively more complicated than any explanation we can offer of them.

So, if a woman says something, unless there is compelling evidence not to do so, it is right to believe her, to take her seriously and if necessary to act upon what she has said. What it is not necessary to do is to accept that her analysis of something must be accurate because she has experienced that thing. An accurate description is a different thing from an accurate analysis and offering possible alternative analyses is not a masked form of disbelief. It is an attempt to understand and understanding is dependent on many factors beyond that of personal experience.

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The picture is of ‘Classmates’ at the University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas and is credited by the NYT to Ash Hernandez

3 thoughts on “In Defence of Mansplaining

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  1. I am not a fan of the term but wanted to clarify that very often the term is used to describe the experience of the female expert (educated, experienced and professional) being “coached” by a untrained but overconfident male in the area of her professional expertise.

    Your examples emphasized scenarios where the woman was speaking from emotion and closed off to the male expert.


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