A week ago today, McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington, a couple affluent men with advanced degrees and absolutely zero self-awareness penned a ridiculously self-righteous editorial to complain about how their arguments have been silenced. The irony of the argument about them being silenced being published in a national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and then read by thousands of people has not been lost on their critics, although they themselves refuse to understand it. (“I don’t know why this point keeps getting made.” [Source])
You see, if the learned discourse of these two men is ever overlooked—if even once, the entire room doesn’t fall to hushed silence as pearls of wisdom drop from their lips—they have been forever silenced. For you see, they are men, and they are doctors. All shall bow before them and show them the respect that is due to them by virtue of their superior station in life.
I exaggerate their position, but not by much.
What is mansplaining, and *-splaining generally?
For the non-initiate, “mansplaining” happens when a man speaks to a woman, assuming that he knows more than she does about something because she is a woman, and the term especially applies if he’s explaining an issue that is primarily concerned with women. Imagine a man trying to “correct” something a woman said on the subject of menstrual cramps, then that gives you an idea of what mansplaining is. Whitesplaining is its racial correlate, and straightsplaining happens too. I have experienced that last one myself.
But let’s not limit ourselves—I’m sure that this happens all the time to trans people, too (“cis-splaining”). You could probably also come up with a *-splaining word for an able-bodied person exhibiting this kind of condescension toward someone who has had a disability her whole life (ablesplaining?), or one for a person who’s never had any mental health issues explaining to someone who has paranoid delusions what schizophrenia is like. While we’re at it, the *-splaining suffix could be applied to doctors who explain a disease and its symptoms to a family that has been coping with it for the last twenty years (doctorsplaining?). I’ve experienced that one too.
McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington make it clear that they have a problem with the use of “*-splaining” words. They only discuss mansplaining and whitesplaining, but I think I can be forgiven for extrapolating to other forms of privilege not discussed in their editorial for two reasons: 1) I think they would have called for the end of straightsplaining and other *-splainings if they had thought of it, and 2) even if they wouldn’t mean for it to be extended in the way that I’m attributing to them, I’m sure someone else reading them will, and so I will try to address objections against “*-splaining” wholesale, just in case.
McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington argue that discussion is being stifled and the privileged are being silenced. I will defend the use of “*-splaining,” and I will argue that in certain contexts, maybe some “silencing” might not be such a bad thing for them to experience.
Why “*-splaining” is a useful concept
The concept of *-splaining is a very useful one. First of all, *-splaining is a good category to have, just because it describes a Thing That Actually Happens. It is not made up, and “*-splaining” words are not just words invoked to describe situations where someone “simply disagrees” with a person who has privilege, although I can see how a person in a position of privilege might perceive it that way and want to cast it in that light.
I can’t speak for mansplaining or whitesplaining, but I have had straight people straightsplain to me how violence against gays never happens in Canada (it does), and how Pride is not a political protest anymore (it is), and how “you gays might not understand, but you’d really get your message across better if you cleaned yourselves up a bit” (good grief WHERE TO START). Having a word to describe this situation allows those of us who have been on the receiving end of *-splaining to give a name to the frustrating and humiliating experience that it is. Being able to name it helps to deal with it—it means that you’re not the only one who’s experiencing it. Just naming an experience where privilege is used against you is a powerful and reassuring tool to have.
The thing about being a part of a class of people who has less power, is that you don’t have many tools at your disposal to defend yourself with. When you’re gay, the straight people have all the power. When you’re a patient, the doctors have all the power. McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington are trying to take away from us even the power of naming the experience of being humiliated.
Not all perspectives should be given the same weight in certain contexts
McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington argue that the major problem with *-splaining is that it causes disengagement.
Discussing issues such as white privilege and masculinity without white people or men limits dialogue and disengages privileged communities.
Even if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is—privileged men have never had a problem getting the last word, as the existence of the Globe and Mail article proves), maybe some “limits on dialogue” might not be a bad thing, if it’s the privileged who are (for once) being limited.
I, as a white person, shouldn’t have my perspective and my voice given the same weight as the voice of a person of colour in discussions on race. No matter how much I care, study, and try to empathise, I will just never be black. That doesn’t make me a bad person. (There are other reasons.) It just means that my position in discussions of race has to be that of a listener and not a teacher. (You could make a case for white people using their privilege to draw attention to the voices of people of colour in such discussions, or for them to call out the inappropriate behaviour or speech of other white people, but those are more marginal cases and shouldn’t be used to justify whites dominating a discussion about race.)
On the other hand, on issues touching on sexual orientation, if you’re a straight guy, your voice shouldn’t be given the same authority as mine. You don’t get to tell me what it’s like to be queer. You have no idea. You really don’t. You can have opinions if you want, but that doesn’t mean they’re worth anything or that you should be given a place share them or that you should expect anyone to listen. And this applies even if you fancy yourself an “ally,” and even if you have Something Important to say.
Men having authority in discussions of women’s issues is one of the places where patriarchy and sexism came from in the first place. Straights having authority in discussions of sexual orientation is where homophobia and anti-gay bigotry and violence comes from.
The objection to this position is the following: “Isn’t something lost when the privileged group isn’t allowed to speak on issues regarding the oppressed group?”
No. Nothing is lost. Not even in the slightest, not even if you’re a Really Nice Guy and not even if you’re super-educated. What new perspective or information could a man bring to a discussion of women’s issues that there aren’t a million women better qualified and better able to express—and with the personal standing that comes from being a woman? And if a man is going to a discussion of women’s issues just to regurgitate the oppressing status quo orthodoxy (e.g. the “Get back in the kitchen!” crowd), nothing is lost by him losing the chance to speak.
McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington call it “astounding” that someone might suggest that “not a single person in [a privileged] group has anything worth hearing.”
What is astounding is that they think that every dialogue needs their input. (The very idea that women could have an entire discussion without the gentle but firm hand of a man guiding them—preposterous!)
I know it’s a blow to the ego to be told that a discussion isn’t about you, or to be told that your opinion isn’t as valuable because you haven’t had a certain set of experiences, but in certain contexts, that is perfectly relevant, and especially when the privileged dominate every other venue of discussion.
Summing up the problems in McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington’s editorial
McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington demand that we refute their arguments, rather than dismiss them as *-splaining. I will do both.
First off, their editorial doesn’t even get past the title before it commits a false analogy. By framing their argument in terms of “silencing someone because of race or sex,” they (misleadingly) appeal to our (justified) suspicion of racist and sexist dismissals of non-whites and women. Who wants to be racist or sexist after all? But then they turn that impulse around and change it into an attempt to demand admission into conversations where they are (legitimately) not welcome, because their personal lived experience is simply not relevant. This is neither sexist nor racist, and couching objections to it in the language of equality is disingenuous.
Second, they confuse an accusation of *-splaining with the ad hominem fallacy. An arugmentum ad hominem occurs when, rather than engaging with what a person is saying, you attack some irrelevant fact about the person making the argument. The difference is that in certain discussions, your race, sex, orientation, disability, etc. is absolutely relevant. For example, if a person with 20/20 vision makes an argument in favour of eliminating the Braille section from the library, it’s not ad hominem if you reply, “Easy for you to say—you aren’t blind.” More generally, the fact that you benefit from membership in a class of privilege is absolutely relevant to any discussions touching on those who aren’t privileged in the same way.
Third, by complaining about “*-splaining,” McLaughlin and Sealy-Harrington are invalidating an aspect of the experience of the less privileged, and the humiliation and frustration it causes, and doing so on the justification that the voices of the privileged should be heard more. They are denying the hurt that is caused when people who are in a position of power speak as authorities over less privileged voices on subjects where the less privileged actually know better.
Fourth, they are implicitly saying that there is nothing that can be known from the direct, first-person, lived experience of a non-privileged person, that can’t be better understood if the discussion includes a privileged person. This requirement pre-emptively hijacks any future conversations that aren’t about privileged people. They reject the idea that a group of people who aren’t privileged might be able to have an entire discussion without it being legitimised by the privileged. This is utter nonsense.
Ironically, their entire editorial is an exercise in *-splaining (metasplaining?), and should be dismissed as such. It’s a couple really privileged guys who will always have the last word, and who will never have a problem with being heard, and they feel like they need to *-splain to us all that the real problem in discourse on issues touching on less privileged groups is that there isn’t a space for the more privileged people to make their opinions heard. They wrote and published an editorial to tell us all that really, they are the ones who know how to have a discussion on issues of privilege, and how presumptuous it was for us ever to try to figure this out without their help.
While I can understand the impulse to try to preserve the privilege that they’re used to, they should recognise that there are discussions where they legitimately do not need to be engaged—where they should content themselves with being listeners only, and they should not try to shame those who use “*-splaining” to name and deal with abusive micro-aggressions.