Explaining Mansplaining – Part 1

Oh, mansplaining. I have such mixed feelings about this word. On one hand, I believe it is an alienating term that sets people at odds from one another, mostly because people don’t know what it means.

However, I do believe it is a real phenomenon that needs to be discussed, particularly in circles—like the liberty movement—that are dominated by men. Frankly, mansplaining is a real problem for the liberty movement and it is detrimental to bringing more women into the fold.

Since I want to see women advocating for liberty, and I really do want to see us all getting along, I want to take the time to explain the phenomenon, how it plagues our movement, and what we can do to root it out. So everyone take a deep breath, open your minds, and let’s talk about this for a bit.

What is “mansplaining?”

The term “mansplaining” traces its origins back to a 2008 essay by Rebecca Solnit titled “Men Explain Things to Me.” In her piece, she details two scenarios in which men interrupt her and “explain” things to her, despite the fact that Solnit is actually the person who clearly has the expertise in the field. In one scenario, one man actually explains her own book to her, and in each case the men refuse to acknowledge or listen to her, despite her superior knowledge and the fact that they are clearly, factually, incorrect in their assertions.

Though Solnit never uses the word “mansplaining,” the concept of men explaining things and asserting their authority that they get by being men, rather than having expertise in the field in question. Thus, we have a very simple, eloquent definition:

mansplain v.
To explain something, often condescendingly, to a female listener, especially something the listener already knows or perhaps has a greater expertise in, presuming that she has an inferior understanding of it because she is a woman.

Note: this is not a conscious decision or thought process, but, rather, a reflection of the arrogance generated by a society that defers to men’s opinions over women’s because men have had more power.

Some examples

Almost every woman has her set of examples, and I encourage women to share their experiences in the comments below. For my part, I have a few, both public and private:

  • Todd Aikin’s awesome “legitimate rape” comment.

  • A gentleman on the Thoughts on Liberty Facebook who decided to share with us that being a mother is women’s greatest joy.

  • Fox panel of men saying that women in the workforce are bringing on the downfall of society.

  • On an Internet forum, I mention that I disliked The Road to Serfdom and preferred Constitution of Liberty. Man witnessing conversation informs my friend that I am “hating on Hayek”…despite the fact that both titles are written by F. A. Hayek.

  • A colleague interrupts me multiple times in a conversation to assert that David Hume says we can have knowledge via inductive inference when in fact he says the opposite. I did my bachelor’s thesis on Hume; colleague took a class once.

I do not think any of these men were consciously thinking, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about; she’s a woman.” Rather, these actions are a result of men being constantly affirmed in their opinions, by all of society, because they are men and have power. Thus, men are used to asserting themselves and women are used to doubting themselves—because men are affirmed and women are doubted. It is a power dynamic that is self-fulfilling. However, as women begin to assert themselves, we begin to see more and more “mansplaining” as time goes.

What mansplaining is not

Just as important as what mansplaining is, is what it isn’t.  Mansplaining is not:

  • Disagreeing with someone (given that you are listening to someone else and acknowledge that your facts may be incorrect)

  • Explaining something about which you have an expertise.

  • Being wrong or factually incorrect (in isolation).

Keep in mind  that mansplaining requires two things: (1) that you are asserting your opinion/claims over someone else’s and (2) you have little or less expertise in that matter than someone else. Obviously that is not always the case.

For example, knowing his degree is in environmental science, I asked my boyfriend’s opinion on the car culture in the United States. By the end of his 45-minute rant, I had learned a lot from him. Later, he expressed gratitude that I had listened and a relief that I hadn’t accused him of mansplaining. My degree is in philosophy and political science and I have very little intrinsic interest in environmentalism. He wasn’t mansplaning. He was explaining. He had the clear expertise, and I asked him for his opinion.

All of this is well and good. However, it does not speak to why mansplaining is or isn’t a problem in the liberty movement. For more on that, see Part 2. Commenting will be available at the end of that post.