splaining

This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it.

Although the term mansplain was coined after she wrote, the iconic definition is in Rebecca Solnit’s2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”  She describes the “out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant” and in her 2012 introduction to the essay’s reprinting  calls it the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness.” The best story opens the 2008 essay: a man lectures her on a topic using her own book as the source, not realizing that she is the author of the book. The problem with Solnit’s definition is that the speaker is actually not “totally ignorant” but has some knowledge, or thinks they do. Their deep ignorance is about what their hearer knows and their obliviousness to feedback that they may be wrong. Habitual splainers also lecture people who really do know less than they do. Teachers, for example. More generally, some people instruct others in all sorts of contexts. Their relative ignorance and the absurdity or discriminatory character of their behavior becomes clear only because they also presume to lecture people who actually know much more than they do, but whom they presume know less because they have not bothered to find out what the other person actually knows. Or have allowed their prejudices (let’s be charitable and assume unconsciously) to blind them to the possibility that the person they are speaking to knows more than they do.

So now we have one axis of analysis. Splaining happens because a person has a penchant for lecturing other people (monolog) rather than engaging in actual conversation (dialog), which involves listening as well as talking. This is a pattern that varies between subcultures and between individuals within subcultures. Some people think the only purpose of talking is to display prowess or dominance. Some (like professors) are just used to being listened to when they talk and forget what conversation is about. These people are in danger of being found out as splainers. But the splainer also needs a partner who lets them talk on without disruption. Splaining falls along lines of privilege because people who persist in talking without listening have targets who let them get away with it out of deference or context or subcultural norms of politeness, as Solnit’s initial examples show. Face-to-face splaining is thus a relational production. Not all privileged people splain, as some privileged people have a habit of dialog rather than monolog, and not all targets of attempted splaining tolerate it. Splaining in text, i.e. comment threads on blogs, is common because monologs are easier to execute in text and conversational cues are harder to convey in text.

Splaining is not the only mode of talking that is about display and dominance rather than dialog. My observations are that many men of several different subcultural groups (not all of them white) view arguing with other men as an enjoyable competitive activity in which the fun is in the verbal display and it does not much matter whether you actually believe what you are saying. The loser in this sport is the person who gets mad; you prove your toughness by pitching it back and keeping your emotions under control. Or if you are goaded, then you go for blood and try to kill the opponent, verbally speaking, or maybe literally, depending on context.* The difference between pure splaining and verbal competition is it is dialogic in form: resistance by the target is part of the sport. You have to listen just well enough to have a comeback that entirely dismisses the merits of the other person’s argument. Or, in some variants, you win if you hold the floor and talk at length with others abandoning attempts to interrupt you. My observations are that women of the subcultural groups I move in do not generally engage in this kind of competitive verbal sport among each other and generally do not enjoy it when men do it with [to?] them, although I certainly do know argumentative women (being one myself). Whether men get mad when women argue with them is a little more complicated. I’ve both observed men enjoying it when I argue back with them in a verbal jousting match and observed them get huffy and offended when I speak to them in the same tone they’ve been using with me.

Now back to privilege. What happens when the target of splaining says: “I really do know more than you do about this”? Does the splainer back down and say, “Oops, sorry to be an idiot, I wasn’t thinking”? Or maybe, “I think I know what I’m talking about. What do you know that I don’t? Are you sure you are right? Let’s compare evidence.” (That’s what I try to do when I realize I’ve been splaining.) Does the splainer shift from splaining to listening? Or does the splainer turn it into a competitive dominance game and try to beat down the opposition? Or talk over the target, just ignoring what they say and dismissing the possibility that they know what they are talking about? ** If questions are asked, watch the patterns: are questions asked to draw out information that is listened to, or are questions asked so that the answers can be rebutted? And does the splainer get angry for having their opinions or intentions challenged? Because unquestioned privilege leads you to assume that people you assume are inferior will defer to you and thus leads you to get angry when they fail to offer that deference or, even worse, challenge your authority. Let’s be fair and careful about this. Anybody gets upset when fundamental assumptions are challenged or they feel disrespected. Not listening goes both ways. But privilege does not. What privilege affects whether deference is expected as part of respect and the response to the challenge, whether you retreat in silent disagreement, question your own judgment, or fight back.

Solnit’s essay makes it clear that her own submissive behavior contributed to the egregious stories she tells. A cultural analysis of the statistical predominance of white men as splainers might say that this is a result of a preference for verbal dominance displays among men of some subcultural groups conjoined with the relative privilege of those groups that leads others to submit, either out of true submission due to fear or out of the subcultural habits of subordinate groups. If the target of a splainer does not submit, the result isn’t splaining but a verbal dominance battle instead. Candidly, the members of subordinate groups who are viewed as “difficult” by the majority typically believe that the underlying problem is their refusal to submit to other people’s conversational splaining and other dominance moves.

An example that may help to clarify these dynamics is what happens when very senior professors who are used to being listened to and having others defer to them (like yours truly) encounter a young student of privilege who expects to dominate others. I really don’t know how often this happens to senior white male professors; please feel free to tell me. It’s looking these days more like class privilege than gender privilege to me. But I can tell you that when students try their dominance displays on me, it does not go well for them. I actually do have the power, and I know I have it. What I wonder is what background even gave them the idea that they could try to dominate me?

It would seem idiotic to me for someone to claim that there is no such thing as professorsplaining, i.e. that professors never dismiss and ignore what their students say and lecture them or give them advice or explain why they are wrong without listening to their side. As a professor myself, when I’d hear about the interactions, I’d frequently feel that the professor was probably right and the student wrong. But that wouldn’t make me any less able to observe that professors splain to students a lot more than students splain to professors. Or, more importantly, able to see that the dynamics of the conversations are in part about who ought to be dominant in the relationship, not just the merits of the purported issue in hand. Because I think professors do know more and ought to be dominant, when you come down to it, and that is part of what is at stake if a student tries to push me around. But that view that I ought to be in charge can also make me not listen to the student who may very well know more than I do about the particular thing being discussed, especially if it is about their own life or experience.

And this is where we get to what we may call type2 mansplaining or whitesplaining or privilegesplaining. This isn’t just about the generic and privileged-patterned practice of pontificating about just anything to a target who knows more than you. This is about the thing itself, about arguing whether it is true or fair to even call it mansplaining. This is not interactional splaining with its deferential target, this is a verbal dominance competition about whose reality is real. This is criticizing Solnit as sexist or man-blaming for daring to title her original post “men explain things to me,” for daring to say that the people who explain things to her are overwhelmingly men, even though she carefully repeats several times that not all men do it. (Read the comments in her post for examples.) Type2 mansplaining is the argument about whether there is discrimination against women by men. A type2 mansplainer is a mansplainer, who vigorously explains why women are wrong when they think they are being mansplained to. A type2 mansplainer insists that he, too, is the victim of splaining, or insists that there is no such phenomenon, and denies that women’s experience could possibly be any different from his or, if it is, it is all women’s own fault, or even, that really women dominate men and man isn’t even allowed to say anything anymore. The term whitesplaining is almost exclusively used in this type2 sense, to refer to whites who explain to people of color that what they think is racial discrimination really is not, although people of color are often presumed incompetent  and splained to in the first sense. In both mansplaining and whitesplaining, there are the clueless, who merely assert that they have had similar experiences of discrimination and seem oblivious that the relative frequency of the experience could really vary or matter, and the aggressively clueless who vigorously assert their privilege by using every verbal tool at their disposal to deny the reality of other people’s experiences. In either case, however, the splaining has the fundamental characteristic of not listening. That is, of not trying to understand what the other person actually may know or of dismissing others’ knowledge as irrelevant or unverified because it does not jibe with one’s own experience, but is instead focused on “winning” the conversation.

To the participants on both sides, type2 splaining isn’t only about describing interactional patterns and their consequences in the context of inequality and cultural difference. It is down-in-the-trenches political struggle over things that actually matter. It isn’t just a verbal game, it’s the real deal, a question about whose experiences should be validated and what the social structure ought to be. It is about hierarchies and competition for scarce resources. In real life, people from different social positions have different experiences and, as a consequence, very different taken-for-granted assumptions about what is real (i.e. real epistemic conflicts), as well as very real differences of interests and values. Denying the reality or importance of other people’s experiences or interests or suffering is one of the important strategies in any political struggle. So is resisting and labeling other people’s attempts to deny our reality. And that’s why we get so mad about it.

* Some male academics, especially of the older generations, seem really to believe that the only way to have a good academic discussion is via verbal combat. They imagine that women academics just sit around and talk about their feelings, having no concept of a mode of deep intellectual discussion in which people listen to each other and try to build on their ideas, rather than shouting each other down. Fortunately, verbal combat as the preferred mode of academic discourse appears to be in decline, and most of the male academics I know are really quite capable of carrying on an intelligent academic discussion without resort to clubs.

** I’ve also observed an alternate dominance tactic when an academic splainer realizes their target is an expert and is speaking with authority: change the topic and splain about something else where the splainer’s dominance is not questioned.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

8 thoughts on “splaining”

  1. This is very nicely — dare I say — explained, OW. One interesting thing that follows from your first asterisk is that the outcomes (content) of interactions involving splaining is likely different from the outcomes of noncombat styles of discussion.

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    1. Yes I think there’s a literature on that, but I don’t have the citations. It is my impression that interactions involving dominance and splaining produce less good outcomes across most types of problems, especially those for which outcomes are improved if there is more information available. And I think fields dominated by verbal combat are structured as partisan armies who try to annihilate opposing theories or lines of work, while fields dominated by the model of listening and sharing tend to developing synthetic theories that treat different strands of theory as addressing different aspects of a common whole. But I will say that the examples in my mind of such differences don’t follow any simple gender line.

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    1. A discussion of norms of academic discourse and how to find a good balance should probably be elevated to a separate forum topic at some point. Subcultural norms that make any public disagreement rude can also hamper exchanges of information and it is definitely a problem in academics to be praise addicted or overly upset by criticism. If you assume that everybody in the room (or who has written about the topic) actually cares about understanding the issue at hand, exchanges can take the form of: I can see why you’d think that OR That is certainly an important issue [etc.] but I don’t think that is right [or the whole picture ] because . . . Even “I think you are wrong” is more productive of discussion than “You are wrong.”

      I can also recall conferences in which there was vigorous overt disagreement of the “you are just wrong” form went over well because the speaker broke frame and made a personal aside of the “we are all friends here” type before delivering the blow. In the case I’m thinking of, he had also given the comments to the target in writing beforehand, so he’d have a chance to think through his response.

      Interestingly, the discursive tics that women are told to avoid because it makes our speech sound weaker [to men] are the same discursive tics that tend to promote conversation rather than battle. And often when we [or other subordinate groups] use the speech forms of the dominant, it sounds “too aggressive.”

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  2. Splaining is not the only mode of talking that is about display and dominance rather than dialog. My observations are that many men of several different subcultural groups (not all of them white) view arguing with other men as an enjoyable competitive activity in which the fun is in the verbal display and it does not much matter whether you actually believe what you are saying. The loser in this sport is the person who gets mad; you prove your toughness by pitching it back and keeping your emotions under control. Or if you are goaded, then you go for blood and try to kill the opponent, verbally speaking, or maybe literally, depending on context.* The difference between pure splaining and verbal competition is it is dialogic in form: resistance by the target is part of the sport.

    See: ec • o • nom • ics

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