Why you should stop using the word ‘mansplaining’

In a post from last week, Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminisim offers 5 Simple Ways Men Can Better Respect Women. I like her suggestions, but I do have one quibble: Fabello uses the gendered pejorative ‘mansplaining’ to describe the phenomenon wherein men presume to understand and explain the experiences of women.

I honestly cannot understand why reasonable people think it’s acceptable to use this word.

The phenomenon she describes is a general one: people often assume to understand things that are outside their own experience, and sometimes even presume to try to explain these things back to those in a better position to understand them.

The phenomenon has nothing to do with gender. Women can make the same error, presuming to understand men and their experiences. It’s not even about privilege. Different groups can misunderstand one another regardless of how privileged one group is with respect to the others.

The problem boils down to self-centeredness, arrogance, and a basic lack of humility and perspective. Everyone can succumb to this failing: men & women, black & white, young & old, native born & immigrant, empowered & marginalized.

The key thing to remember if you want to avoid this pitfall is that no matter how intelligent and open minded you are, you cannot possibly understand everyone’s perspective; and you should not be so presumptuous as to try to explain other people’s experiences to them. Instead, you should invite them to tell you about their experiences as they experience them.

Some claim that just as we use the word feminism to refer to the general principle of fighting for gender  equality (and other types of equality), it is appropriate to use the word mansplaining to refer to this particular species of hubris. Feminism however is a positive descriptor, of a noble movement. Yes, perhaps there too we should find a more apt word to be more inclusive, but at least with the word feminism we are not insulting a whole group of people simply because of the insensitive arrogance of a few members. Moreover, because this kind of arrogance is not limited to one group, we need a term that is more general.

I know people like neologisms, and they like slogans and phrases with brand recognition. But this is one you should give up. Just think about it: you wouldn’t say womansplaining, blacksplaining, or jewsplaining. If you believe people should be judged by their actions rather than by their gender, their race, or the groups to which they belong, then you should not implicitly tar all men with an insulting epithet either.

Update 201701.12: A couple more important points came up in a discussion about this topic on Facebook. First, while this phenomenon — arrogantly and presumptuously explaining things to others — may indeed more prevalent among men, other men are also most often the targets of this behavior. Sexism is therefore not an essential characteristic. Second, it is a tiny minority of mem who engage in this behavior; thus emotional pathology is a better defining characteristic of the behavior than masculinity.


Brutal honesty about relationships

In her article entitled My “Naked” Truth, Robin Korth provides a poignant and thought-provoking account of a nascent romance cut short by incompatible desires and brutal honesty. After a short and unconsummated romance with a man she met online, she ended the relationship because he was not physically attracted to her.

Korth’s date found fault with her body, and blamed her appearance for his lack of desire. Korth never comes out and says it, but it’s clear that just as he found fault with her body, she found fault with his character:
  • that he did not find her attractive just as she was;
  • that he was too brutally honest about his feelings; and
  • that he asked her to change herself to fit his desires.
Some of the online responses provoked by the article make it clear that many people hold a perceived culture of patriarchy accountable too. I can see their point. Advertisers and the media certainly do no favors to people with human imperfections; the ideal of happy wealthy healthy youth is continually paraded before our eyes, and these images can certainly warp our worldview.

We have only Korth’s side of the story, but from what she wrote it seems her partner was narcissistic. At a minimum, he appears not to have understood that the way he chose his words could be hurtful to her. Honesty Is good; insensitivity is not. He should have known that his forthrightness about his preference for younger women would cause her distress.

I can empathize with Korth. It is a sad fact of life that we must all grow old, and most of us are eventually reminded of our diminishing prospects — and ultimately, of our mortality — by the declining interest that others express in us.

Korth believes that she deserves a partner who likes her as she is. This is almost accepted wisdom today: that everyone deserves someone who loves them just the way they are. But a moment’s reflection reveals that this desert imposes an implicit obligation on others. This is obviously an untenable position. Apart from familial obligations like the duty of a parent to love its child, no one owes anyone else love.

Part of Korth’s frustration surely has its roots in the expectation in Western society that every person can find one true soulmate. In this childish and romantic vision of love, physical attraction is always coupled to a deeper companionate affection. Unfortunately though, the real world seldom is so accommodating. In real relationships, there are different kinds of attraction. One can feel a strong attraction in one way, but a weak attraction in another way. For example, one can be very attracted physically to someone, but only fancy their personality a bit. Or vice versa. When people get together it is because the sum of all of the types of attraction is sufficient. It does not mean that they both have the same feelings, or that they have the same priorities. Physical attraction may be more important to one, and a personal connection may be more important to the other. How many people are honest about these priorities early in a relationship?

Yes, most people long for a partner who loves them just they way they are; but most people also want a partner who is at least a little bit better than average — in appearance, personality, culture, wealth, etc. These two desires are not compatible. Many people make compromises to find a partner. Many end up alone, and not always by choice. Those who expect the perfect partner will likely be disappointed. People should either adjust their standards to fit reality, or they should learn to be happy alone. As I wrote in a comment to Korth’s article, “there are many lost souls caught between plaintive hope and bitter resignation, because their expectations of the world are so far out of sync what the world has to offer.”

There is no point in blaming someone for failing to match your desires.

Likewise, there is no point in trying to shame someone for having desires that exclude you.

If a relationship doesn’t work out, don’t blame the other person, don’t blame yourself, and don’t curse human biology or deride the whole culture. Just move on.