This was first published in the May edition of Popular Science UK. Register on their Facebook page to get 3 issues free.
Last summer, bits of the internet found a new word: Mansplained. You know when someone explains something to you, but you already know about it, and you feel a bit patronised? Maybe because you are even wearing a giant flashing badge with “I KNOW LOADS ABOUT THIS I HAVE SIX ZILLION NOBEL PRIZES IN IT” which they somehow manage not to see, too caught up in their own knowledge. That’s mansplaining. The word is a mix of the words explaining and man because it’s seen as something men are especially guilty of when it comes to their interactions with women’s expertise.
(If at this point you are feeling a bit patronised by me explaining mansplaining or just slightly annoyed by the idea that it’s a gender thing, I hear you, hope to get to that in a minute. Sorry. But it really is worth repeating this stuff, even if it makes you itch a bit)
As Lily Rothman put in her “cultural history of mansplaining” the word might have only really been thrown up since the summer, but the issue’s been around for a while. Its precise origins are hazy, but the term seems to have grown slowly on feminist blogosphere following a piece by Rebecca Solnit in 2008. Here Solnit describes a man telling her repeatedly about a “very important Muybridge book” even after people had (repeatedly) told him that she was the author. He just couldn’t believe that this woman in front of him was the author. A similar problem can be found again and again (and again and again…) when women suggest something to a group but are ignored with little more than polite nods, then a man says the exact same thing and suddenly it’s a great new idea. If you don’t recognise these examples – and the immense feeling of frustration that goes with them – you are either very lucky or haven’t been paying attention. You are also probably (and only probably) a white man.
The spectre of the mansplainer was quickly applied to political discourse, especially around the US presidential campaign, but it has on-going relevance to how we talk about science and technology. Tellingly, one of the ways the word grew to prominence was through a Tumblr called “academic men explain things to me”. I think both the advantages and disadvantages of the word reflect larger tensions surrounding how we relate to science and scientists, which is why I want to talk about it here.
In many ways, I like the word mansplain. It does what good words do: Names something. Naming lets you identify a phenomenon, talk about and discuss it. You can call it out and feel emboldened seeing others to do so. This is part of its attraction, but also part of its problem because the calling out can feel overly judgmental. The naming process also lets you focus on a particular issue. Again, this is part of the attraction, but again it’s problem, because it’s a bit reductive. The world is messier than simple words we put to it.
The Tumblr might be called “academic men explain things to me” but the truth is a lot of academic women do this too. Including me, all the time. I know. I try not to and it makes me cringe. But I do. And people outside academia do it too. Often it’s people of either gender doing it to people of colour. Or to those with a disability. Or to those a particular social class, age, or intellectual background. Prejudice is a multi-layered and complex thing. The focus on the man in mansplaining reflects a way in which diversity issues in science and technology are perhaps too often reduced to gender.
The tensions around mansplaining also reflect hang-ups we have dealing with expertise in this world of specialisms we’ve made for ourselves. I think one of the reasons it’s sparked recently, especially around social media, is because we increasingly bump into expertise without much context, and as a result see our prejudices laid out quite clearly. We can be shocked to see someone we didn’t know holding a confident opinion in 140 characters or a simple independent blog. WHAT DO THEY KNOW ANYWAY? Oh, quite a lot actually. I didn’t realise that. Whoops. Or, more often maybe, we discover that this new person knows about the world in a slightly different way from us, one we might disagree with but can still learn from.
Even before the emergence of the web the various silos of expertise were causing cultural tensions. We have a society increasingly fractured by specialists. This is often a good thing. Someone can spend time concentrating on knowing loads about, for example, biodiversity and bees thus freeing up someone else to be an expert in sewage management, brain surgery, 15th century art, Russian cartoons of the 1970s, whatever bit of the world we want to dig into. But then how can the bee expert talk to the rest of us? Or the polar bear geneticist learn from the poet? How do we know how or if to trust the brain surgeon? Modernity can be hard work.
The comedian Robin Ince wrote an eloquent blogpost recently on what he called “the fascism of knowing stuff”. He wanted to respond to the “gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal”, taking up a stand for expertise: “Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority.” I think he’s roughly three-quarters right. Or that he’s only right with the same reservation he includes himself near the end of the post; that we should not trust people simply because they look like experts.
I agree with Ince that we shouldn’t take expertise as oppression. Indeed, applying expertise can be very liberating. But we should still be able to ask questions about it. Complacently applied expertise isn’t going to help anyone. But there’s a difference between listening to someone and asking questions and blithely assuming you already know best. I also think that experts should put work into earning public trust, not assuming it, even if the odd “mansplainer” could be a bit more receptive to such expertise when offered too.
If the emergence of the word mansplain offers us anything, I think it’s that we could all do with listening to each other a bit more.