Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit (2014, Haymarket Books)

      The title essay of Rebecca Solnit's collection, Men Explain Things To Me, has been circulating on the Internet since 2008. It did not originate the term 'mansplaining', but it might well serve as the index case. The essay describes a 2003 conversation with an arrogant man who held forth to her about a book which not only had he not read, but which she had actually written. If this could happen to Solnit, who by that time was the author of several books, how much more can women be silenced who face the loss of livelihood or life if they insist on speaking up.

     Mind you, Solnit was not complaining about men explaining things when they actually know more about a subject than she does, just the ones who talk over her about things they know nothing of. She's a little leery of the broad net that 'mansplaining' seems to cast, because she knows plenty of modest men, and some patronizing women, too. But the overall pattern describes something real: a power differential that's expressed on a continuum from social awkwardness to economic injustice to rape and violence. Solnit's project in this collection of essays is to make the connections between these things clear.

     This is inevitably a historical project, at least to some degree, but the treatment is deft and light-handed (or as much so as it can be, when the material is so outrageous.) The mothers of disappeared Argentines who protested in the Plaza de Mayo; the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault; and Anita Hill, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee about Clarence Thomas's behavior as her boss, all made important and consequential statements in the world, against great odds. They all faced the near certainty of being told that they were delusional. Imagine how many women before them never even had a chance to speak or be heard, let alone to be believed.

     The internet, in addition to recirculating Solnit's original TomDispatch piece, has continued to be the venue for women's struggles to be heard and believed. Google 'academic mansplaining', and you'll come to a Tumblr archive with a thousand such stories. Feminist bloggers are routinely threatened with violence, sometimes to the point of deciding to cancel public appearances. After the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen appeared half a million times in two days. Five hundred thousand people said things like this: "Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That's not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are." Innocent men feeling wrongly accused may not be the very first thing we should be concerned about.

     Solnit's essay on Virginia Woolf is in a different vein, a little meditation on epistemology. To plan, or to remember, we rely on things we can't possibly know, and it's well to be aware of it. "To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don't know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable."

    I think she's right about that; if pressed to predict, I'd say that Solnit's writing moves things in the right direction.

Any Good Books, emailed
June 2016

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