Why I Hate “Mansplaining”

Okay, so I’m likely late to this train by a good long way, but I hate the term “mansplaining.” There are a couple of reasons for my aversion to the term, not the least of which is it’s supremely weak as a portmanteau word (I’d rate it just below “chocoholic” and just above “bromance”).

Before going any further, I want to express disapproval for the action of mansplaining, where a male talks down to a female, or explains things in a condescending way. Insofar as that goes, that’s the best argument for the term “mansplaining”: it can create heightened awareness of a rude behavior, albeit in a limited fashion. I’m a person prone to this kind of behavior, and this term (and it’s connotations) never connected for me as applying to me.

mansplaining-allison
Design by John Allison.

The most common criticism of “mansplaining” is that it’s one-sided and uses “man” as a prefix with negative connotations. Honestly, I care far less about this aspect than several others. The central point of the term “mansplaining” is valid. The behavior meant by the term is quite rude, and belies a lack of respect for others.

The rub for me, however, is the immediate politicization of the term. It is one of those signal words used to connote identification with a political or social framework. It’s a word to denote one’s own membership in a particular in-group. When terms become signalized, they immediately lose impact. I suspect it’s because the word gets sucked up into the in-group for signalization purposes or vilification of the out-group. Other examples of this kind of term can be readily found: “snowflake,” “privilege,” “cultural appropriation,” or “cuck” all qualify in today’s political tribal signalization (mileage will vary, and why some terms are worse than others is a whole other subject).

I think the term lends itself to tribal signalization because of those characteristics for which it’s commonly criticized: it’s a one-way sort of term, meant to fit a decided cultural narrative. That’s also why it’s not exactly a helpful term: those who most need to hear it are closed off because they are part of the out-group.

What is termed “mansplaining” could (and in my opinion, should) be termed “obnoxiousness” instead. It would accurately portray the behavior in a negative light across political boundaries. It’s right here that something breaks down. Nobody pulls others aside to say “you’re mansplaining,” but sometimes such a thing happens with the words “you’re being rude.” It could be that the term doesn’t lend itself to internalization on a broad spectrum.

In the end, my objection rests primarily on one point more than any other: it sets aside as unique or special what is a bit of everyday rudeness. By casting the behavior in a political light “mansplaining” ironically lets the offender off the hook. “Mansplaining” can be easily dismissed by people who don’t consider themselves to be chauvinist (but who can still engage in the behavior with a bit of self-absolving sanctimoniousness). In using the term “obnoxious” or “rude,” no such wiggle room is allowed.

This isn’t about fairness (in the sense that all terms should apply to women as much as men), but effectiveness. If we want the behavior to stop, this would be a far better way to go about it. Obnoxious dudes need to stop being obnoxious. Mansplaining dudes can dismiss their behavior based on their intent.

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