May I Mansplain a Case of Doublethink?

“Mansplain” is a word that ought not exist. I don’t mean morally. I mean logically. It shouldn’t be possible. Yet “mansplain” has made it to the dictionary.

Allow me to explain:

1) “Mansplain” combats real sexism. A contraction of “Man” and “Explain” it points out sexist explaining.

2) “Mansplain” is a problematic word that gets abused in sexist ways.

Therefore, “Mansplain” is hypocritical at best, Orwellian doublethink at worst – the acceptance of two contradictory ideas at once:  sexist anti-sexism.

We are on controversial ground here, but I’m not the first to point out that “mansplain” has issues. The fact that the word has to be forever qualified with “not all men” and “yes women can mansplain too” goes to show how dysfunctional a term it is. For brevity we’ll take it as a given that “mansplain” is sexist (If you’re unconvinced I give links, and a full argument below. You should also read that bit if you don’t think mansplaining is real). Even if you disagree about the word being inherently sexist the fact remains: it gets abused. People are using sexism to fight sexism.

How is that possible?

The answer is not clear, so here’s some theories:

A)  We needed it?

We did need a word. We got one. It got used. It was dodgy, but it was all we had. The downsides were overlooked out of need.

B) Humor (and the enduring power of sexism)?

“Mansplain” is a funny word for some funny stories. Some of those stories are deeply depressing. But others are hilarious!

On this take, “Mansplaining” isn’t an issue. It is a popular joke. We like jokes. The word was just asking to become a joke. Man. ‘Splain. Ha ha. Good one. Is this why Sweden’s mansplaining hotline includes comedians?

On this view, I predict “mansplain” will loose all of its anti-sexist bite. The contradiction will resolve in favor of sexism. “Mansplain” could even become a positive word as men try to align themselves with their gender identity, which now includes the quality of explaining things like a man. At best it will join our other male gendered belly-ticklers, such as Dad-jokes and clichés about grumpy old men. “Mansplain” slides right on into these existing comic stereotypes, which may explain why it went mainstream with such ease.

In the end we will be left with “-splain” as a joke suffix, and “man-” as a joke prefix. “-splain” is already providing us with an endless series of  new “-splainings” (whitesplaining, geeksplaining, femsplaining). “Man-” has generated “manspreading” and “manslamming”. In this wave of tacky linguistic humor the original issue will be forgotten.  Sooner or later we’ll once again be in desperate need of a word to describe a certain widespread form of misogyny involving explanations.

Team sexism wins again.

C) Sexism is easy?

Egotism and laziness. The hypocrisy of people we agree with is too hard to see. Coming up with a better word is too hard. Self-examination is too hard. Figuring out the true motives of the person you are talking to is too hard. Is it really mansplaining? I don’t know. Feels like it. He’s a man. Screw it. He’s mansplaining.

Team sexism wins again.

D) When you fight monsters…?

So many men are sexist. You fight sexism everywhere you go. Those men. So sexist. They must be stopped. Them. Those sexist men. Them! Men are all the same.

And now you’re a monster too.

But don’t worry.  The fact that you’ve internalized the us-versus-them thinking which underlies all bigotry need not stop you. You can squish your nagging conscience and carry on. Look how violently you attack sexism. You can’t be sexist. It’s just like how those preachers who angrily condemn homosexuality can’t possibly be gay. Yup.

Team sexism wins again.

E) Do we have a double standard for sexism?

Men are not morally permitted to be sexist… but women are? If this is so, then the double standard fits well with our gender stereotypes. Women are tender and need protecting. Men must be stoic gentlemen, enduring the sexism valiantly.

Team sexism wins again.

F) Doubleplusgood doublethinkers are among us?

“Mansplain” wears it’s sexism on the outside. Man. Explain. Bad. Surely the contradiction was obvious from the start. This is straight up doublethink.

In Orwell’s novel 1984, doublethink is a tool of totalitarian mind control. Is that what’s going on here? Is it just a coincidence that “mansplain” is built like a word from Newspeak? Bring on the conspiracy theories! We can rule out all the ones about Reptilians in the White House. This was a bottom up process. Viva la Internet.

Here’s an idea that isn’t completely bonkers:

Relativism and Feminism often go together. Relativism in its extreme form is doublethink: no truth is true for everyone, and relativism is true for all. Applying this principle to all of society would lead to a form of intellectual totalitarianism. Relativism could never be criticized, because real criticism requires real truths. The only thing relativism can criticize is the giving and taking of offense, which seems to be something of an obsession these days.

If doublethink is already your permanent home, sexist anti-sexism is no trouble. So let the duckspeakers quack goodthinkwise! Unless that offends someone.

Team sexism wins again.

G) Revenge?

Why merely destroy the power of sexism over you, when you can take that power for yourself? Revenge feels good.

I doubt anyone is consciously thinking “Yeah, I’m going to sexist the crap out of this guy!”, but it may well give “mansplain” a certain seductive appeal. The hypocrisy is worth it. Besides they need to get taught a lesson. About time they felt what it’s like. Bastards. This one’s for team woman!

Congratulations.

Team sexism wins again.

All or none of these theories may explain how we got “mansplain”. But if more than a few of them are true then we are left with a curious conclusion. “Mansplain” ought not exist because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. And, “mansplain” is popular because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. Man, all this explaining is hurting my poor little head.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

I promised I wasn’t the only person who has issues with “mansplain”. Dive into the debate on Reddit. That’s always… interesting. It’s not just men: try “Why You’ll Never Hear Me Use the Term ‘Mansplain‘” by Lesley Kinzel on the women’s site xojane.com, and “Allow me to explain why we don’t need words like ‘mansplain'” by Liz Cookman from the Guardian.

Read about Sweden’s Mansplaining hotline, from the Independent here.

For self-reported examples of mansplaining try Academic Men Explain Things To Me. Here.

Read about the psychology of hypocrisy, in the Guardian here.

Doublethink, on Wikipedia, here.

Confused by duckspeaking? See Newspeak on Wikipedia, here.

~

I  Totally Un-patronizingly Explain Why “Mansplain” is Sexist

Self-reported examples of “mansplaining” are easily found online. From these I’ve identified six different uses. The first two get at what seems to be the original intent. The rest are misfires and abuses.

Examples are from Academic Men Explain Things To Me.

1) Sexist Assumptions

Here’s an example from an American woman having dinner with her Australian boyfriend:

“… The policies of Julia Gillard came up. “Julia Gillard,” he explains to me, pausing the conversation, “is the Prime Minister of Australia.” “I know,” I respond, in a tone intimating that no further mansplaination is necessary. “A Prime Minister,” he immediately continues, as his friends look on, “is kind of like a president.””

This is the first case of classic mansplaining: the man assuming the woman doesn’t know anything, even when it’s become obvious that she does. Hooray then! “Mansplain” actually refers to real sexism…

…and it’s sexist. Putting the “man” in “mansplaining” treats this as a uniquely male problem. Isn’t that… dare I say it… sexist?

Good intentions don’t help.

The concept must be distinguished from the word itself. If the word was  “Igglypop” or “Zapwak” we’d be okay. But “mansplain” is too transparently constructed.  Therefore it automatically falls into a narrow meaning that attributes specific negative qualities to one gender. Man. Explaining. Bad.

Using “mansplain” doesn’t automatically make you sexist, but the weight of the word’s construction is too strong to avoid. It lends itself much more easily to sexist uses. It gets abused as a result, and huge numbers of men get offended by it’s face-value blanket condemnation of all men.

A better term would be “Stereosplaining” (stereotype + explaining), or “Assplaining” (assumption + explaining). Men may well be the most guilty of this, especially towards women, but clarity of language is important. Whenever someone has a cliché reason to think you’re an idiot, then you’ll receive a “Stereosplaining”. Take this brilliant example from an Asian American woman’s conversation on a plane flight:

“…He asked me why I was going to the university so I told him I teach English.

He says, “You mean you’re learning English.”

“No,” I say. “I’m teaching English.”

“You see,” he replies, “You are confusing the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn.’ You are learning English.””

This is about gender, and race (possibly just race). Age, language, clothing, education, job title, disability, …. People will assume you’re an idiot for a lot of reasons.

2) Power Games

Here’s an example from a woman who confronted a fellow student who was attempting some illegal activity:

“…Then he told me to “stick to your programming and let the lawyers handle the law” – the equivalent of “get back in the kitchen”.

When I explained that I had taken my classes that addressed copyright law, and that the head of the department herself could confirm everything I told him, he brushed it off and said the she didn’t know what she was talking about either because she was “just a teacher”….”

This is the second serious case of mansplaining: using a real or imagined difference in knowledge as a way of dominating someone. This deserves a word, but “mansplaining” isn’t it. Clarity of language!

One, it’s not just men, and two, it’s not about explaining – it’s about putting someone in their place. These games can be played all sorts of ways: questioning, name dropping, listing your qualifications, comparing IQ scores…. The word “mansplain” itself can be used to play this game.

Now for the misuses…

3) Being sexist

Sometimes people make sexist comments while explaining something. Some people call this “mansplaining”. Seems like a misfire.

4) Being an asshole

Being an asshole during an explanation can get you accused of “mansplaining”. Being an asshole is a problem. Hence the word “asshole”. But not all assholes are sexists, and some sexists are mighty polite. Assuming all male assholes are sexist is sexist.

5) Disagreement

The word “mansplain” can be used to shut down a conversation. No actual mansplaining needs to have gone on. The man is mistaken, or he’s a bit slow, or he just disagrees, or he is merely expressing his opinion. So he gets shut down. Game over. “Mansplaining” becomes a thought stopping cliché. You can use it to dismiss someone’s opinions purely based on their gender. That’s sexist.

6) Persuasion

Here “mansplain” is used to prohibit persuasion by men, especially when it is strident, passionate, or worst of all, insistent on agreement. Again this acts as a sexist thought stopping cliché. Hypocritically, the word “mansplain” is itself a strident persuading word. It belongs to that category of words that carry their moral condemnation within them, words like “slut”, “brown-nosing”, and “terrorist”.

I hope I’ve made my case.

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Why do Rich People Dress Poor?

Why do well-to-do people wear ripped jeans?

And why do they buy their jeans pre-ripped?

Wouldn’t they rather look rich, than get stopped and frisked? Humans desire status. Wealth is a sign of status. So why dress poor if you don’t have to?

Welcome to Poverty Chic: where popular fashion adopts the symbols of poverty.

It makes no sense.

If you are like me then you’re probably thinking this is just a rare, weird, sub-cultural thing. Desperate fashion designers looking for ideas. Those stupid pre-faded jean shorts. End of story.

Prepare to be surprised.

Poverty Chic is everywhere.

Poverty Chic goes well beyond  clothing.  Redecorating? Rehabilitate old furniture with “shabby chic”. Guys? Try tending that beard for the rural working man “Lumbersexual” look. Going on holiday? Try a sightseeing slum tour, available now in all the world’s best slums.

Culture is littered with the ghosts of Poverty Chic past. History was into it just like us. French Queen Marie Antoinette even built herself an entire rustic village where she could play at being a shepherdess. French aristocrats liked pretending to be French peasants, back before they got executed by French peasants.

Poverty Chic has even gotten into our language. “Pimp” has become a word for over-the-top decoration. A real pimp manages prostitutes.

Any symbol of poverty that you can think of has become Poverty Chic somewhere, somehow, at sometime. Race, religion, drugs, homelessness, mental illness, even the emotions. It’s all there.

Why on earth do we do this?

We can see a touch of mockery here. It has parallels in Blackface, dressing up like Indians, and putting on a Chinese accent to make a racist joke. Stereotypes and play. Strangely, dressing like poor people denies the reality of poverty.  Suffering is reduced to a set of symbols that can be adopted and discarded at whim. The play makes it unreal. And that is half the key to understanding Poverty Chic.

Fear.

We are afraid of becoming poor. But if you can control what you fear, you feel safe. Poverty Chic is control. It’s like the difference between falling off a bridge and bungee jumping. Poverty is your plaything. You are rich enough to be poor. But only if you want to.

You are in control.

You have nothing to fear. The horrifying beast of poverty is boxed, wrapped, and yours for $99.95. Enjoy.

Poverty Chic is visibly different from poor. The Chic version is clean, temporary, and partial. Safe. Not quite real. Torn jeans above expensive shoes. An aftertaste of mockery lingers in the mouth. I do by choice what they do by force. Status. Control. However, as soon as the beast bites back the fashion flees. The “Heroin Chic” look soon vanished when its main photographer died of a heroin overdose.

Poverty Chic also has another side. Poverty is romantic. Poverty looks more real. More authentic. More simple. The monk in a cave. The starving artist. The Blue’s player, all true soul.

Poor people are cool.

Part of us wants to be them. Just like part of us wants to be a cowboy, a noble savage, a shepherdess. We want to escape. They seem to have something we don’t. In the past you might have fed this appetite by going on a pilgrimage, or joining a monastery. Today you can go shopping.

Youth in particular seem to feel this pull. The disillusionment. The angst. The escape from a culture which seems so fake. Poor musicians often lead the way. They’re standing on the outside. They’ve got that feeling too. Grunge. Hip Hop. Rap.

Soon the style goes mainstream. The symbols of poverty become associated with celebrities. The money machine takes over. A new Poverty Chic is born. The style comes to represent everything that people were fleeing from in the first place. Culture gains another Chic ghost. The cycle begins anew.

Fear and escape, then conformity and forgetting, and the search for a new fad. Poverty will always be fashionable. That is, unless you’re poor.

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

The cases of Poverty Chic are too many to list. Here’s a few to wet your poverty hungry appetite…

Read about Poverty Chic as a way of managing upper-class fear in “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty”, by Karen Bettez Halnon. Here.