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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Don't Be That Dog

In response to "Feel the Shame," Dave M. writes:
From my perspective, these idiots with dicks are insufferable bores to everyone, not just women. How women respond to that sort of aggressive, bullying behavior is a symptom of male privilege, for sure; our society teaches us that the stakes are much higher, and the punishment much harsher, for women who try to spew bullshit in such a glib manner. But the ignorant man doing the splaining in this scenario treats women the same way they treat beta-males who don’t speak up the same way they treat a dog who happens to wander in front of them while they’re holding forth on the latest series of Doctor Who. They’re not necessarily motivated by sexism, they’re just arrogant and self-absorbed. It’s male privilege and hegemonic oppression that makes some women struggle to tell these mansplainers to STFU.

I feel like we mis-diagnose the problem when we call it “mansplaining,” though it’s a minor point. The solution is the same regardless: what we really need is for non-arrogant men and informed women to call out this behavior when we see it, whether it’s directed at a woman or a man. Women need to be supported in standing up for themselves, and also, not dismissed as crazy or emotional if they tell some arrogant boob to peddle their attention-seeking garbage elsewhere.
Thanks for your comment, Dave M. I find it interesting that you've made a very near response to the comment I address in the post itself. Given the similarity, there will be some overlap in my reply. There are, of course, people -- male and female -- who are just terrible bores, unable or unwilling to read the normal social signs that alert many of us to a conversation partner's lack of interest in our topic of choice. Most of us who are both chatty and able to get excited about hobbies, television, books, music, etc have been that person once or twice. And I'm sure that, now and again, someone more frequently guilty of universally inconsiderate behavior is accused of being inconsiderate in a more specific way. But, fully admitting all of that, it should be clear that that's not what any of the articles linked, or my own post, are talking about. I think it should be clear, but understand why it isn't always, that to insist on changing the subject, dismissing the phenomenon we *are* talking about as a "minor point" (and in a post where you've taken the time to explain to me the rather obvious fact that there are lots of people with poor social skills, no less) is to both replicate and reinforce exactly the behavior being called out. 

But I think there might be more to your reply than a simple dismissal, which is why I take the time to respond. You say in your reply that "it's male privilege and hegemonic oppression that makes some women struggle to tell these mansplainers to STFU." This is to observe, at least on some level, that there are structural forces that affect how women respond to people. I'd say that these forces especially affect how women respond to men, though there's room to argue about that. But, there is something odd in admitting that sexism structures the way women respond, but being unable (I presume it's not just a stubborn unwillingness) to see that sexism also structures what women are responding to -- that is, mens' behavior.
Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended.
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.
--Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"
We do need to have non-arrogant men and women band together in shutting down attention-seeking jerks. We also need to have men and women band together in recognizing that there are structural reasons for men to be more likely to behave this way, and to do so more even more frequently in interacting with women than in interacting with men. 

In this case, you seem fully able to articulate what you think is lacking in my position. A response that was designed for dialogue, rather than dismissal, would have considered that, while I might be misdiagnosing a behavior, you might be also be missing something. Maybe women are often trained to put up with bullshit as, while, and because men are often trained to spew it. If that is the case, shifting the conversation to what women should be better at responding to does nothing to address the behavior itself. In Rebeca Solnit's terms, you've admitted that women are, in fact, trained in a certain way, but refuse to admit that there is also, as a corollary, something equally distinct about mens' training -- that the "arrogant boob"-ness is often just as gendered as the lack of confidence in responding to it is.

The point is this: to argue against the experience of the group affected -- insisting that mansplaining is not a thing because there are bores/idiots/assholes of all types -- is dismissive of the experience, and this is never a minor point. It is perfectly legitimate for you to maintain that you have never had the experience, and therefore don't understand what the problem is. But to insist that there is no problem because it has never been a problem for you is, well…problematic. There must be room for the possibility that others have either had an experience that you haven't had, or have been able to see a problem that you have never seen. My blog piece and the articles linked from it are attempting to alert you to the presence of a dynamic that may well be related to the one that is more familiar to you, but cannot be reduced to it in actual experience. I am happy to admit that people of all types might be bad at interacting with others, but the one (generalized social inappropriateness) does not cancel out the other (mansplaining, or the specifically gendered way in which men feel completely comfortable condescending to women). Rather than explaining away the specifically gendered aspects of the issue, be willing to hear that not all problems can productively be reduced down to their most universalizable parts, if only because the "universal"is rarely experienced in the same way for everyone.
More generally, if you truly wish to be an ally, rather than an adversary (and neutrality often means tacitly adversarial) you sometimes have to be wiling to believe that there might be problems where you can't really see them. It can be difficult to explain why someone in a position that shields them from a problematic dynamic can't always see that dynamic, much less understand how it is problematic. Here are a couple of brief pieces that do a much better job than I can of explaining why, and what can be done about it. Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible Knapsack," begins with the quote at the start of this post. The entire article is, I think, good to read for anyone who sees herself (or himself) as contributing towards the sort of supportive, non-dismissive community you mention at the end of your comment. "Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege" uses what I find to be a very effective metaphor to illustrate the fact that "just because you personally can't feel that hurt, doesn't mean it's not real." It's a good reminder not to be that dog.
As a minor point, I feel like I should clarify that I only drone on about Doctor Who when someone has expressed an interest. Now, Buffy, on the other hand...

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