Ive recently waded into a debate – some might say minefield – over the term ‘mansplaining‘ which infers arrogance and misogyny as inherent to masculine identities. While the debate has its light-hearted side (with a friend of mine pointing out that the term is simply more catchy than ‘systemicallyembeddedmasculinities-splaining’) it also reflects a certain discrimination which I feel strongly about addressing.

The unique quality of the term is that it is a discrimination against men on which men are not allowed to comment. Indeed, if as a self-identified man I dare to comment that such terms as ‘mansplaining’ appear to me rather sexist and generalised, then I am automatically deemed to be a sexist mansplainer myself. This post in itself will surely be read as such too!

Three paragraphs in and I can already sense many of my friends and colleagues rolling their eyes in dismay. Especially those who have experienced systematic discrimination on account of being self-identified women on a regular basis and are now champing at the bit to denounce what I have to say. But still, let me try and clarify my argument.

As I have suggested in our debate, such terms seem to me only the obverse of similarly sexist terms against women having ‘natural’ characteristics. For instance, discriminatory remarks that women are better at cleaning or child-care, or that women are emotionally weak etc… These generalisations are clearly not acceptable nor accurate and reinforce a structural inequality through their discourse. Yet for me, terms such as ‘mansplaining’ only spout similar generalisations towards men.

Men can be arrogant and can be misogynist, certainly. But so can women. And so can men towards other men. Furthermore, doesn’t such a term deny to self-identified men the ‘right’ to a basic human characteristic: to be arrogant, to be over confident, to utter a careless remark, simply because they have fallen to a bad day or are an arsehole.

So let me clarify before I am torn to pieces: there is an undeniable inequality between genders in society which (in my opinion) needs to be overcome through a structural overhaul (but it seems that even asserting my political opinion in this way turns me into a sort of ‘mansplainer’). As a self-identified man, am I not allowed to assert my argument without being discriminated against as sexist? Yes there are some men who think they know it all. But is it fair to attribute this to a male identity (which includes all self-identified men) and not simply a detestable personality?

I hope I am not an arrogant or misogynist person. I guess there is no way for me to know for sure without people pointing it out (maybe I will receive some comments on here). But even if I am, this is a flaw in my personality not my identity, and such sexist generalisations will only reinforce a unequal gender binary not overcome it.


10 thoughts on “Of Vice and Men

  1. I think the “mansplaining” thing only works in a situation wherein a woman feels as though she was having a conversation that was usurped by a man trying to explain something (quite often something that she already had a grasp of). it’s a particular expression of a particular knowitall-ism that, as I’ve said before, really tends to be articulated by guys in my experience. I can absolutely see why you, a man yourself, would be perturbed by what is certainly a reductive term that conflates you (an individual) with a term that indicts a universal.

    I think we can all afford to check ourselves, especially academics, not all to start ‘splaining everything to everybody all the time. But I think about the times I’m explained to by a man – about how to play guitar, about how my understanding of a classic social theory text might be supplemented by their more holistic comprehension – and it drives me insane. Wherever this happens, it’s in a typically masculine domain. Men are guitar players; women play guitars. I’m the only female social theory tutor now in our university, and I’m mainly teaching about male theorists (something we’ve talked about and I know you agree needs considerable revision. Where’s Butler, I remember you asking.)

    Mainsplaining, when I first heard the term, made me laugh out loud. The internet doesn’t often do that to me. But I recognised something in it. That morsel of truth that lay behind its reductiveness. There are few realms of this world where women are really expected to know more than men. Very, very few.

    Finally, a tip of the hat to you, Sam, that you bother to speak of gender at all. You might not be saying things I agree with, but you’ve got a great platform here to engage people in discussion about gender. Don’t stop talking about it because you’re worried about what women might say. It’s so predictable for a guy not to talk about gender, so it’s refreshing that this is taking such precedence with you.

    Take it easy,

  2. Hi Ros, thank you so much for your comments!

    Firstly, thank you for recognising that this an attempt for me to forge a self-identity as a man without the arrogant and misogynist baggage that this is sometimes attributed.

    There’s a subtle beauty in your phrase “Men are guitar players; women play guitars” which I enjoyed immensely as a synecdoche to describe discourses that maintain a structural inequality (must remember that one!)

    I would however take issue with your argument that ‘know-it-allism’ “really tends to be articulated by guys in my experience”. I’m not sure this is necessarily true, and I know plenty of women who act in such a way (but I’m not sure if I could say if its as common as with men).

    It’s irritating whenever someone tries to explain something to you that you already understand. For instance, I remember working in a supermarket as a teenager and having the most condescending manager (a man) who would describe in detail the most menial tasks to me (‘this is how to stack a shelf’ etc). But therefore I can’t work out to what extent this is a matter of gender, arrogance, or just hierarchical self-importance.

    I’m sure I have been guilty many times of ‘splaining as a teacher/ theorist/ student… but I would be mortified if I found out that the victim believed I did this because I thought the person didn’t know on account of them being a woman and not simply a mistake on my part.

  3. Sam, you already know my thoughts on this topic, but I wanted to highlight one thing you mention above about ‘know-it-allism’ being attributable to males and females. Of course it is, but that’s not what Ros (or you) were originally talking about – you are discussing man-splaining, which is a specific form of condescension. I think I commented on the facebook post I put on my own wall to say that my dad is a frequent ‘old’splainer – that is, he often unnecessarily explains things to me under the preconception that my age makes me ignorant. I don’t conflate this with mansplaining, despite the fact he’s a man.

    The difference with mansplaining in the particular field that we all operate in (academia, for the sake of any non-departmental readers) is that people who are on the exact same level intellectually still feel the need to do it. I know that you have been present when this has happened. The question you need to address is, as a man, can you identify when someone else is mansplaining in front of you, or do you accept it as an unnoticed element of the norm?

  4. Hi Triona, thanks for your comment. Just picked up on a few of your remarks.

    Firstly when you write “you are discussing man-splaining, which is a specific form of condescension” what exactly makes this a specific form of condescension? Is it simply because a man did it, or are you referring to the patriarchal undertones that the term implies? I would guess the latter, which for me is precisely the problem with the term.

    While I agree that “people who are on the exact same level intellectually still feel the need to do it” I maintain that this can also be down to non-gendered reasons (mis-interpreting the conversation, tiredness, arrogance…). I am certain that I have been guilty of being condescending, but is this because I am a sexist, misogynist man? I hope not. But furthermore, as a man, might the term deny me in being allowed to put forward an argument or opinion forward without calls of being a mansplainer?

    There surely are some men who are condescending because they are sexist, but I don’t wish to be associated through my own self-identity as a ‘man’ to those people. And therefore I find the term be a form of unnecessarily generalised discrimination.

    Finally, when you say “as a man, can you identify when someone else is mansplaining” I would say yes and no. I have received condescending remarks from men and women (perhaps more from men). But if its a man being condescending towards a man surely this ignores the criticism of sexism that is inherent in the term ‘mansplainer’ anyway?

  5. Hi Sam,

    Been meaning to wade in here for the last few days! I think that you do raise some valid points, particularly re: the distinction between what is wide spread ‘know-it-all-ism’ (great phrase Ros), and what is really a gendered phenomenon. I agree that we should not be too quick to attribute these incidents to ‘man-splaining’, but at the same time, I think that it is important that we recognise that there are often gendered dimensions to this.

    If you examine some of the cases of this on the mansplained tumblr, you will see how often this is more senior/equal level academic men, taking it upon themselves to explain things to (often younger) academic women in ways that they probably wouldn’t were they talking to academic men. I have been on the receiving end of this frequently, finding myself in a position of frustration that I can’t get a word in edgeways or get my opinion taken seriously. I should also add, as a caveat, that I also have had great male colleagues with whom I enjoy discussions and do not feel in this position of inequality as the result of the fact that I am a woman.

    I think that it is the position of powerlessness that some women find themselves in in these cases that needs to be taken seriously and is particularly troubling from a gendered point of view as Sarah Burton outlined in her blogpost on this topic – that female academics find themselves in a position where they do not feel that they have the right to respond, but are placed in a situation where they feel powerless and silenced. I think that these instances can demonstrate the persistence of gendered inequalities within academia, or perhaps the continued reproduction of gendered positions. I have often found myself pondering how this happens, particularly in cases where I have found myself talked down to by male academics at an equivalent or more junior level to me, and wondered whether the problem lies in the different ways that male and female academics are trained, whether there are residual affects of differences in upbringing. I think that bringing these instances together under the term mansplaining helps to demonstrate the extent to which women in academia (and indeed elsewhere) continue to find themselves in positions of relative powerlessness. And it is the gendered dimensions of this that need to be addressed. This is not actually then a question of intentional sexism (although it may be in some cases), but more to do with how we negotiate these often gendered relations and the structural inequalities that underpin these.

    • Hi Michaela. Thank you so much for your comment! You have really clarified ‘mansplaining’ for me, but I guess my question would now be: should we define EVERY example of condescension from a man towards a woman as a case of mansplaining?

      As I have said above, I am certain I have been condescending in the past and it would be hard to promise that I wouldn’t be again in the future. But in the act of communication, this condescension can be a matter of a number of reasons other than sexism: e.g. tiredness, misinterpretation of the situation, misunderstanding on the part of the listener, context… or simply arrogance.

      I guess what needs to be asked is: does every act of condescension by a man towards a woman reinforce an unequal structure regardless of its intentions? Or can condescension ever take place for other reasons without being regarded as a reinforcer of that relationship (i.e. can condescension be interpreted in more ‘innocent’ terms)?

      Not sure I have the answer for these.

  6. Sam, your argument is consistent here, but I don’t agree with it. The term ‘mansplaining’ is perhaps not helpful and needs articulating differently. But I can’t help but think that when you opt to term this ‘discrimination’ as you do above (discrimination against men, is what I presumed you meant by this) then you are walking into difficult territory indeed.

    This isn’t an attempt at persecuting a group of people. Equating it in ANY way to that is underlining Michaela’s point about the powerlessness of women – that we are not even able to protest that our voices are unheard or talked over, without you derailing the argument by claiming men are the ‘oppressed’ rather than a prevailing ‘oppressor’. Acknowledgement of the indescrepencies between gender rights by men is so important – it shouldn’t be pared down to whether you have intentionally condescended to a woman or not. You know that we are part of a system that perpetuates gender inequalities, and mansplaining is a (relatively common, in my experience) element of that system.

    • Hi Triona,

      I’m kind of shocked that you think that’s my view.

      When I was referring to ‘discrimination’ above, I meant it in terms of a prejudice or distinguishing of all men included in the term ‘mansplaining’ (i.e. that all instances of men being condescending towards women are instances of sexism).

      It would be pretty dumb and naive of me to suggest that men are being oppressed! I did not mean discrimination in the way you have used it (i.e. persecution) at all.

      “Acknowledgement of the indescrepencies between gender rights by men is so important – it shouldn’t be pared down to whether you have intentionally condescended to a woman or not.” I completely agree and this isn’t what I was trying to ‘derail’.

      My whole question in my reply to Michaela is: does a man being condescending towards a woman need a misogynist intention to be ‘mansplaining’ or does it achieve that structural inequality anyway (i.e. without that intention)?

  7. I know it’s not necessarily your view, but what we’re doing in this blog post and subsequent comments is discussing a word. It’s a neologism that may or may not be problematic (according to you, it is). I was just pointing out that describing something like mansplaining as discrimination (or even prejudice as you have immediately above this post) is equally problematic. It brings to mind the MRA disputes that centre around the ‘teach your men not to rape’ debacle. The fury at the inference that men rape (a generalisation that not many men particularly want aligned to their gender!) is often conflated and becomes branded as ‘prejudice’, when what should actually be happening is both genders should be trying to look at why this happens in so many different arenas. Why is men dominating women such a recurring theme? That’s what sociology is supposed to do, isn’t it?

  8. I mainly wanted to thank you for this stimulating discussion; y’all have clarified the term well.

    Something which I felt was implicit in Sam’s original point but was not emphasised in the comments was the distinction between the correct and incorrect use of ‘mansplaining’. In my experience of less formal situations, particularly online, it seems common for women to use the phrase (or equivalent expressions) not to describe the type of condescension discussed above, but as an illocutionary act to insult and exclude men. I presume this is exclusively the case with topics socially perceived as affecting women more such as pornography and prostitution. I wrote a boringly obvious piece about this in relation to abortion: http://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/is-it-acceptable-for-men-to-argue-against-abortion/

    I too am a vocal feminist, but I because I have a commitment to truth regardless of the consequences I believe it is permissible to highlight discrimination against men.

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