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.

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