The Mansplaining Hordes

by Belle Tuten

Today a new version of the “mansplaining” meme appeared on social media. A far-right politician in the UK, Arron Banks, got into a Twitter war with one of the world’s most eminent historians of the Roman empire, Dr. Mary Beard. Beard has written more than a dozen books on Roman history, so when Banks tweeted that immigration had destroyed the Roman empire, she politely suggested that his view of Roman history was not entirely accurate. What followed was classic mansplaining: after doubling down, suggesting that Beard had no idea what she was talking about, and spouting a bunch of hot air, Banks ended by tweeting that Beard had been a “good sport” and then ended with this zinger:

“They [professional historians] view history through the prism they want to, it doesn’t make it right or wrong.”

If you aren’t grabbing your stomach from nausea right now, then congratulations, you have a stronger stomach than I do.

Beard herself is hardly unfamiliar with this sort of thing. In 2014 she gave the London Review of Books address with the title, “Oh Do Shut Up Dear,” in which she demonstrated the systematic silencing of women’s voices in literature from the Greek classical period onward. Toward the end of this piece (which is excellent; you should read it), she writes:

“We need to think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations. I don’t mean the old stand-by of ‘men and women talk different languages, after all’ (if they do, it’s surely because they’ve been taught different languages)… [W]e need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”

Amen. While we’re at it, let’s work on the other rhetorical constructions that Mr. Banks’s interesting Internet adventures highlight.

  • Everyday sexism. Certainly, by saying that Beard had been a “good sport,” Banks expressed surprise. He expected that she would behave like a bad sport — i.e., by responding negatively or with anger — i.e. emotionally — i.e., like a woman. Had Beard’s tone gone more negative, what do you suppose he would have said about that? Certainly, something along the lines of “Oh Do Shut Up Dear,” or “Don’t get so emotional.” Certainly not: “Oh, I beg your pardon: I see you have written 12 books on Ancient Rome and are better informed than I am.”
  • “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.” I am going to start to call this EETO-ism. No, everyone is not entitled to have their uninformed, uninterested, or even malignantly ignorant opinion considered on the same level with those which are informed, interested, and educated. Philosopher Patrick Stokes has written a wonderful piece on this at the website The Conversation. Find it here.

A terrific book by writer Rebecca Solnit called Men Explain Things to Me relates the now well-known story of her meeting with a man who spent part of a party lecturing her on the “very important book” that she should read if she really wanted to know about a particular subject. The problem was, of course, that the book he was referring to was Solnit’s own book. (Read her account of that moment here.) Here is part of her reflection on that and many other moments:

“The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women–of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.”

As a college professor I have the luxury of having at least some claim to knowledge about my own expertise on my own turf (although many college students may not consider it knowledge worth having; that is a different problem). But I’m a professor in the humanities. There is certainly a different conundrum for my female and non-binary colleagues and colleagues of color in the social and natural sciences. I cannot help but think that as the humanities have more and more female etc. professors, the humanities get more and more sidelined by the “real” [read: quantitative?] social and physical sciences, from which female and nonbinary students and students of color are dropping out at demonstrably higher rates than straight white male ones. Is that also a statement on the nature of authority?