Every few weeks, a man jumps into my mentions to ask me why “mansplaining” is a word. These conversations tend to follow a familiar pattern: multiple women respond with their own experiences of being ‘splained at, and how the word is useful to describe a particular pattern of sexist behavior. The man (sometimes several men) argues that we should just call it ‘condescension’ because (you guessed it) “not all men.” Then they’ll insist that the term “mansplaining” is a gendered slur.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as a marginalized group develops words to describe their oppression, their oppressors will label those words ‘slurs.’
We’ve seen this with a lot of terms, from claims that ‘cis’ and ‘whiteness’ are slurs to the shift in meaning by which “bullying” is now used to describe any activist labor that makes privileged people even the slightest bit uncomfortable.
This is one of the major themes of George Orwell’s 1984: the use and appropriation of language to deprive oppressed people of the means to articulate the injustices they face, because having words for things affects how we think about them.
The concept that naming things confers power is as old as fairy tales, and it holds true here as well. The very existence of “mansplaining” as a term is a way of validating women who experience it. In a world that gaslights us into thinking we’re imagining the discrimination and misogyny we experience every day, having a word for something helps make it real: it’s not all in our heads. There’s a word for it.
It is true that folks who mansplain are also being condescending and tedious. But insisting that women only describe the behavior with generic non-gendered terms is a way of depriving us of the power to name sexist behavior for what it is.
It’s easy to look at a case of mansplaining in isolation and say “what does gender have to do with this?” It’s just one guy being a jerk, right? But it’s not just one guy being a jerk. It’s that guy, and the next guy, and the guy after that. It’s the pattern of condescending behavior that many women experience in our daily lives. It’s the way men regularly assume that we need them to explain things we already know (including the punchlines of our own jokes). The way men regularly presume that we need their opinion on a subject even when we didn’t ask. The well-established phenomenon whereby men interrupt women far more than they interrupt other men.
It’s the benefit of the doubt we don’t get. The assumption of competence we’re not extended.
We are told we shouldn’t call it mansplaining, because blaming all men for it isn’t fair. Since we experience sexism, we should have empathy for how it feels to be lumped in with other people based on our gender.
But this is another way in which the existence of the word “mansplaining” is validating: unlike the deeply misogynistic society in which we live, it prioritizes empathy for women experiencing sexism. Our society not only tells us that we’re worth less than men; it tells us that we have a responsibility to prioritize empathy for men over empathy for ourselves. We learn from a very young age that making men feel bad can be fatal.
Only in a society as steeped in misogyny as ours can people imagine there’s a valid comparison between the fleeting discomfort men can experience when confronted with their unconscious sexism and the lifetime of harm that women experience from living in a world that assumes we don’t know anything.
Having empathy for ourselves first is a revolutionary act. Choosing to prioritize our own feelings is so taboo that it is, all on its own, seen as an attack. Mansplaining is a word for a pattern of sexist behavior that picks our pockets and breaks our bones. But the word makes some men uncomfortable, so how dare we. It’s a slur.
“Slur,” too, is a word to describe a dehumanizing behavior directed at marginalized people. Like ‘mansplaining,’ the existence of the word ‘slur’ is validating. Unlike mansplaining, it’s been around for long enough that trying to erase the word itself is no longer a viable option. So instead people have taken to twisting it around to serve the powerful at the expense of the marginalized.
But we don’t live in the world of 1984, where words that describe the injustices of the world can be appropriated or redacted until we no longer have the words to challenge existing power structures. We’re not going to call it “condescension,” because we know that there’s a misogynistic pattern to it. It isn’t in our heads. It’s real. And I, for one, am not going to give up a word that validates my lived experience.
No matter how many times men splain it to me.
This post was made possible by a donation from Leigh Honeywell. You can find Leigh on twitter at @hypatiadotca.