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So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
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Here, let me just say that my life is well sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened to and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said—like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer —“gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”
Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him, to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway. But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in.
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And then, as if in a nineteenthcentury novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless—for a moment, before he began holding forth again.
Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped. I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.
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One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while. My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin.
Insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other. I wrote it in one sitting early the next morning.
When something assembles itself that fast, it’s clear it’s been composing itself somewhere in the unknowable back of the mind for a long time. It wanted to be written; it was restless for the racetrack; it galloped along once I sat down at the computer. Since Marina slept in later than me in those days, I served it for breakfast and later that day sent it to Tom Engelhardt at Tom Dispatch. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book
Who published it online soon after. It spread quickly, as essays put up at Tom’s site do, and has never stopped going around, being reposted and shared and commented upon. It’s circulated like nothing else I’ve done. It struck a chord. And a nerve. Some men explained why men explaining things to women wasn’t really a gendered phenomenon.
Usually, women then pointed out that, in insisting on their right to dismiss the experiences women say they have, men succeeded in explaining in just the way I said they sometimes do. (For the record, I do believe that women have explained things in patronizing ways, to men among others.
But that’s not indicative of the massive power differential that takes far more sinister forms as well or of the broad pattern of how gender works in our society.) Other men got it and were cool. This was, after all, written in the era when male feminists had become a more meaningful presence, and feminism was funnier than ever. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book
Not everyone knew they were funny, however. At Tom Dispatch in 2008, I got an email from an older man in Indianapolis, who wrote in to tell me that he had “never personally or professionally shortchanged a woman” and went on to berate me for not hanging out with “more regular guys or at least do a little homework first.”
He then gave me some advice about how to run my life and commented on my “feelings of inferiority.” He thought that being patronized was an experience a woman chooses to have, or could choose not to have—and so the fault was all mine. A website named “Academic Men Explain Things to Me” arose, and hundreds of university women shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.
The term “mansplaining” was coined soon after the piece appeared, and I was sometimes credited with it. In fact, I had nothing to do with its actual creation, though my essay, along with all the men who embodied the idea, apparently inspired it. (I have doubts about the word and don’t use it myself much. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book
It seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.
By 2012, the term “mansplained”—one of the New York Times’s words of the year for 2010— was being used in mainstream political journalism. Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women.
And fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice—and we hardly address. There are exceptions: last summer someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book
The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.
Mostly, however, we don’t talk about it—though a graphic has been circulating on the Internet called Ten Top Tips to End Rape, the kind of thing young women get often enough, but this one had a subversive twist. It offered advice like this: “Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘by accident’ you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can call for help.”
While funny, the piece points out something terrible: the usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. There’s no good reason (and many bad reasons) colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Download
It’s not just public, or private, or online either. It’s also embedded in our political system, and our legal system, which before feminists fought for us didn’t recognize most domestic violence, or sexual harassment and stalking, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and in cases of rape still often tries the victim rather than the rapist, as though only perfect maidens could be assaulted—or believed.
As we learned in the 2012 election campaign, it’s also embedded in the minds and mouths of our politicians. Remember that spate of crazy pro-rape things Republican men said last summer and fall, starting with Todd Akin’s notorious claim that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape.
A statement he made in order to deny women control over their own bodies (in the form of access to abortion after rape). After that, of course, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed that rape pregnancies were “a gift from God,” and soon after another Republican politician piped up to defend Akin’s comment. Happily the five publicly pro-rape Republicans in the 2012 campaign all lost their election bids. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Download
Stephen Colbert tried to warn them that women had gotten the vote in 1920.) But it’s not just a matter of the garbage they say (and the price they now pay). Congressional Republicans refused to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act because they objected to the protection it gave immigrants, transgender women, and Native American women.
Speaking of epidemics, one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88 percent of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can’t prosecute them. So much for rape as a crime of passion—these are crimes of calculation and opportunism.
And they’re out to gut reproductive rights—birth control as well as abortion, as they’ve pretty effectively done in many states over the last dozen years. What’s meant by “reproductive rights,” of course, is the right of women to control their own bodies. Didn’t I mention earlier that violence against women is a control issue? Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Download
Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.
As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble.
Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, “Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Free
And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.” It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open. Not all of them aspire to do so or succeed. Nonfiction has crept closer to fiction in our time in ways that are not flattering to fiction.
In part because too many writers cannot come to terms with the ways in which the past, like the future, is dark. There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing.
They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the absence of exact information. My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the in calculables, the pleasures and meanings—impossible to categorize. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Free
At the heart of things. My friend Chip Ward speaks of “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival.
To lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having. The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.
It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. Men Explain Things to Me PDF Book Free
The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favor of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.