The feminist attempt to redefine all vice in terms of the male sex has been going on for a long time now. The term “Male Chauvinism” was coined back in the 30’s—appropriating a term for fanatical patriotism and applying it to sex differences. Roughly half a century ago, you’d hear academics talking about “the male gaze” with respect to first film and then society in general. And today, of course, this kind of terminology is proliferating: you have broad ideas of concupiscence like “toxic masculinity” and “male privilege” as well as specific sins like “manspreading” and “mansplaining.”
It’s this latter term that I wanted to write about here. The basic idea behind mansplaining is that it occurs when men explain things to women in a condescending manner—as we are supposedly prone to do. It’s a pretty simple idea that is then taken down the usual feminist avenues of privilege, discrimination, and so forth. But simple or not, there’s clearly more going on here than just the basic idea. After all, mansplaining is one of those interesting cases where there are a whole lot of women who believe they have been subjected to it, but virtually no men who think they’ve ever committed it. Those kinds of discrepancies in perception always indicate that there’s more going on—certainly more than the usual shallow complaints about patriarchy. A patriarchy that hasn’t existed in the West for at least a generation or two doesn’t really explain the ubiquitous male perception that we have not been condescending. On the contrary, it is simply an excuse for dismissing that perception.
As always, good explanations don’t dismiss half of the evidence, and so a better one must be found. Now, this is not a better explanation of condescension in general, but rather the specific experiences that feminists believe require a new category. Accordingly, a better understanding of mansplaining is that it occurs when a woman is unduly embarrassed when a man explains something to her—either because she feels she should have already understood it or because she disagrees but can’t fashion a coherent counter-argument.
Explanations happen. Everybody encounters circumstances when they need something explained to them by someone else. There could be a disparity of position (e.g. teacher to student), a mere disparity of know-how, or simply a disagreement. Generally, it’s not a cause for being disgruntled, even when one doesn’t agree with the explanation—that’s just part of dialogue and learning. But that reflexive feeling of embarrassment that can occur and how we handle it psychologically is what really makes the difference in these situations and turns explaining into something negative like mansplaining.
Sometimes the embarrassment occurs because one holds a position that implies an expertise that simply isn’t there. For example, I once attended a philosophy talk given by a guest professor who needed to have Plato explained to her during the course of the conversation. And I don’t mean she had an unusual take on Plato—I mean that by her own admission, she had somehow managed to achieve a PhD in philosophy without having ever read anything by Plato. That’s really embarrassing. Even my then professor who encouraged the class to attend and really talked up how wonderful it was that more women were getting involved in academic philosophy was noticeably disappointed. This is an extreme example, to be sure. Nevertheless, its not at all uncommon for people to be at least somewhat out of their depth in their professional lives—it’s part of what makes professions interesting and challenging. It’s also cause for the occasional embarrassment.
Other times embarrassment comes from making a stupid mistake. We all do this—it’s why we have terms like “brain fart” or “blonde moment.” Sometimes people just make dumb oversights; and sometimes these oversights get pointed out. For example, I once had to explain to someone how to unlock the back door of the car they regularly drove. She needed to get some stuff out of the back seat but said she couldn’t because it was locked and the key only unlocked the front door (nothing was broken; it was just an older car where you just needed to reach around from the front to unlock the back doors.) It was just a silly mistake borne from the fact that she encountered mild frustration on something she didn’t really want to be doing in the first place. We’ve all done stuff like that, and we’ve all been embarrassed about it.
And, of course, disagreeing with someone without being able to give a good reason why is a naturally embarrassing situation. Everybody wants to come out on top in a conflict, and when we believe we’re right and the other guy is wrong, we expect to come out on top. If the truth didn’t prevail in our hands, its our own fault. What’s more, this natural embarrassment is often compounded by the previous two circumstances—incompetence or stupid mistakes—because it highlights error on our part.
But people react to embarrassment of these sorts in different ways. For the most part, people with a healthy sense of self just shrug it off without drama. Some even take the opportunity to up their game and improve their knowledge or arguments. Other people, however, end up getting defensive when embarrassed. Embarrassment is not a pleasant feeling—particularly if one is already insecure—and so they feel the need to both attack the person who triggered the feeling and shore themselves up emotionally by rationalizing why they shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed in the first place. The path of least resistance when one is embarrassed by an explanation is to accuse the other party of condescension.
Once one makes that accusation, it’s always easy to find supporting evidence for it. After all, every good explanation begins with some common ground before moving into the unknown. Consequently, every good explanation involves stating something that the other person already knows. When being defensive, it’s very easy to leap on that one starting point and cry, “I don’t need you to tell me that! You’re treating me like I’m stupid!” And, of course, there’s always a degree of ambiguity when you’re establishing common ground—we don’t always know exactly what the other persons knows or doesn’t know. So explanations often include the establishment of more common ground than is strictly necessary, which makes it even easier to presume condescension where none occurred.
This is easier still in cases in which the embarrassment stems from having a skill set that is insufficient to one’s role. Consider the philosophy professor who never read Plato: Any time a colleague or a student has to explain to her what Symposium is about, there’s a weirdness to it because she’s basically in the position of a student taking philosophy 101. Explaining something about someone else’s area of expertise is always going to look a little condescending—even when it’s truly necessary. Embarrassment encourages a person to take that appearance and run with it. Add in the natural human inclination towards confirmation bias, and in the end, we only notice what we want to see—what will make us feel better about ourselves.
And so, here we have a very common phenomena that results in one party feeling condescended towards while the other has no such intention or awareness—precisely what we see when it comes to mansplaining. But this explanation is still missing one key piece. Thus far, I’ve described behavior that isn’t particularly unique to either sex. We all make mistakes. Men and women can both get defensive. Confirmation bias is ubiquitous. How, then, would we end up with a sexually charged term like mansplaining? In other words, why would women in particular get defensive when this kind of embarrassment is triggered by men?
The biggest reason is that it’s simply the spirit of our age. We are at peak feminism in the West. Think back to all the anti-male terminology in the first paragraph: manspreading, mansplaining, toxic masculinity, male privilege, male gaze, male chauvinism. Feminism’s raison d’etre is blaming men for social circumstances that women don’t like. It is currently normal for women’s negative experiences to receive a sex-based categorization and for fault to be automatically ascribed to men.
At the same time, misandry is entirely socially acceptable. Even most conservatives are conserving feminism and are therefore unwilling to defend men or call out women for this kind of prejudice. The pushback against feminism in the West is still in its infancy, and its voices are still at the relative fringes of society. But the idea that women are the perpetual victims of evil men is just an everyday part of the cultural narrative.
One must also consider the growing sense of entitlement that is disproportionately cultivated in women by feminism—especially the conviction that women are entitled to particular feelings. You can see this playing out in family law. In the past, a married man was responsible for being a faithful and loving husband. Today, he is responsible for making sure his wife feels happy, because if he doesn’t, she can unilaterally end their marriage and take their children, home, and his future income with her when she leaves—and most people don’t see anything wrong with it.
You can see the same entitlement playing out in criminal law. So much of our talk about rape culture revolves around the idea that women are entitled to engage in risky sexual behavior without ever feeling imperiled or even uncomfortable. Just look at the curious case of Aziz Ansari. His awkward sexual encounter with a woman is being placarded as some kind of sexual assault—another #MeToo story. And yet, this is not because he refused to take no for an answer or forced her into anything against her will; it’s because she was uncomfortable about choosing to strip down with him and not particularly into their subsequent fooling around. In other words, she didn’t feel sufficiently enthusiastic about the encounter. And yes, there are people dedicated to the idea that women are entitled to constant levels of high enthusiasm in every sexual encounter and that anything less is violent rape. Believing oneself to be entitled to never feeling embarrassed is just one more natural extension of this same entitlement mindset—and no less absurd.
Finally, we must not dismiss social circumstances that prime the pump of embarrassment and disproportionately create these situations. Inasmuch as affirmative action makes any difference at all, it does so by employing women over men in situations where skill sets are similar. The inescapable logical consequence is that in any context in which affirmative action is effective, a man needs to be more qualified than a woman in order to occupy the same professional space. This means that situations like the one in which that philosophy professor found herself are going to be skewed so that women are more likely to be on the embarrassing end of them.
I am certainly not claiming that genuine condescension never happens. Nor am I claiming that men are never condescending towards women. What I am claiming is that this phenomenon of mansplaining is less a widespread besetting sin amongst men and more a product of unhealthy mindsets of women that have been warped by feminism. If factors like these are at the root of mansplaining, then they account for the experiences of both the men and the women who are involved instead of ignoring half the story. No doubt, feminists won’t find this explanation terribly flattering. They might even be embarrassed enough to label it mansplaining. But that has no bearing on whether or not it’s a better explanation.
And to those men who have been thus accused: Feel free to consider whether you’ve been condescending, but don’t labor under the false impression that you and all men are guilty of misogyny or that society needs to be “fixed” to correct it. The facts simply don’t warrant it.