Analyzing the mansplaining

When women or people of color (and especially black women) write something critical of certain ideas or people, hordes of ignorant white dudes inflict mental violence upon them without ever listening to what these people are actually saying. Their brains turn into the equivalent of an ELIZA bot, pattern-matching to memorized responses devoid of any thought or insight. That grey matter runs on the dopamine-boost of “explaining” things, often paired with not-so-clever insults and harassment. This mansplaining phenomenon was best described in Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, but you can tune into any prominent woman’s Twitter mentions right after she publishes an essay to get a full dose of the same. You’ll see all the variations of mansplaining: from the trite “actually”s that preface trivial and often faulty attempts at correction, all the way to full-blown harassment for the crime of having an opinion. That’s an oft-overlooked part of Solnit’s analysis: mansplaining exists on a global continuum of misogyny.

Predictably, Holly Wood’s demolition of Paul Graham’s unearned ego, received the same responses. On Twitter, she suggested someone should analyze all those comments.

So, I did just that. I went through every tiresome Medium comment on her post. All 112 of them. While about half were supportive, I counted 48 instances of mansplaining comments. And yes, they were men — only one of the comments I counted as mansplaining was made by someone who was identifiably a woman. Almost all of them were clearly and unambiguously male.

Once you start going through all those responses, there’s one thing you just can’t get around: these people simply do not engage on any conscious level with the arguments presented. Their responses are so basic and so far below the level of what Wood was addressing that there’s no way to adequately talk to them. When she’s talking about the subjective and multiple nature of the concept of value in an accessible way, they reply with an interpretation of exchange value that would be immature by nineteenth-century standards, let alone in modern-day discourse. When she argues that Paul Graham’s statements logically lead to certain conclusions, they call “straw man” because he did not explicitly state those conclusions. These are not the moves of the expert debaters these people think they are. These aren’t even the moves of amateur debaters. They’re what people do when they want to dismiss something they intuitively disagree with, without ever pausing to think about their own worldview and the way their perspective has been constructed.

That’s most easily shown by simply going through the comments, so let’s do some of that.

Notes on method:

Single responses often contained more than one of the mansplaining varieties, so summing the numbers will not get you to the total number of responses. I ignored comments on comments because that’s a never-ending spiral of textual ejaculate.

I do not guarantee that the counts below are absolutely correct. Counting is tedious, I am sloppy and this involved some subjective judgment calls. But the numbers certainly do give a general picture of the frequency of these “arguments.”

“Both sides”

10 counts

Note that his characterizations of Graham’s and Wood’s arguments are actually straw men themselves. Good fun!

What is the best way to look like the smartest person in the room without actually saying anything worth noting? Say that both sides are wrong and that having a strong opinion is for overly passionate losers. This is often mixed with tone-policing and repeated efforts to make sure everyone understands they’re not on anyone’s side. You can’t be on a side in a public debate. That’d mean having an opinion that is potentially not just regurgitating the status quo!

“Both sides” is usually just intellectual cowardice disguised as nuance.

South Park and Dutch people mastered this form of pretend-insight years ago and gained absurd amounts of respect for it. Of course, you end up looking like an asshole when you compare global warming to a “ManBearPig”. Fortunately, no one seems to remember the moments where your contentless neutrality turned out to be complete bollocks. Fun fact: only 44% of Dutch people believe global warming is caused by human activity despite the fact that our entire country is going to be one of the first to be wiped off the map if sea levels rise, and only four EU countries rate global warming as a less serious problem. It is no coincidence that the obsession with sarcastic neutrality is accompanied by climate change denial.

“Silicon Valley produces some value”

8 counts

Yes, Silicon Valley produces some value. Wood never says it doesn’t. Yes, she’s aware that she’s using a VC-backed platform to publish her opinion. This is “ironic” in the same sense that communists using tools produced by capitalism to smash the state is “ironic.” What she’s saying is that the value created by Silicon Valley and other venture capitalists is not objective, that it is contested and that in many cases that value may be far lower than the wealth generated by this industry would suggest. That is not a remotely controversial statement to anyone actually paying attention.

This kind of mansplaining is “brilliant” because it simultaneously misrepresents Wood’s argument, and produces a trivial response that people who don’t want to read essays can easily agree with. It doesn’t require the man to engage with what is actually being said, and yet it’ll allow all his buddies to click that nice green heart without reading the words he’s responding to.

“The people decide what’s valuable”

10 counts

This is usually presented as vague outrage at Wood daring to suggest that Candy Crush Saga isn’t worth $7 billion, as if people’s tastes and consumption habits haven’t been co-opted to hell and back. I mean, that’s why advertising exists, right? Candy Crush certainly provides some entertainment value to some people, but if you asked them whether they wanted society to spend billions on a vapid game or on healthcare, the answer’s going to be pretty goddamn obvious. But that’s not how this choice is presented to the people, so that’s not how it gets evaluated. This is how market mechanisms can skew people’s expressed preferences.

The mansplainers appear absolutely convinced that they’re exposing some revelatory truth, as if a Harvard PhD candidate doesn’t understand how markets work. We’ve embedded the ideology of the free market so deeply that six-year-olds know how they’re supposed to work, but this one dude is convinced the only reason a woman could be making this argument is a failure to understand markets. His thought process is so non-existent that the notion that maybe a market mechanism shouldn’t be determining every value in the world doesn’t even occur to his conscious brain.

These nitwits are obsessed with “proving” that Candy Crush Saga’s value to society is $7 billion because otherwise their mental view of the world as a meritocracy would explode.

Unimaginative one-liners sometimes pretending to be insightful and/or insulting

12 counts

This category is reserved for one-liners, all of them completely insight-free. Some of them are insults, most of them are faux-deep platitudes. I’m also counting some one-paragraph responses that are basically just wordy one-liners, usually an insult and/or an assertion without an argument.

I bet that second guy genuinely thinks he made an insightful point, despite the fact that he asked a question that is literally the point of the essay.


12 counts

Some dude thinking he’s correcting a minor point, usually incorrectly or in an irrelevant way, missing the larger argument and derailing any productive conversation. Oftentimes he’s “correcting” a straw man.

Relevant: Reagan pushed the Garn-St. Germain act in 1982, which deregulated thrifts and led to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, and the 1989 Financial Institutions Reform and Recovery Act, which bailed out the savings and loan industry. The subsequent continued deregulation of Wall Street can reasonably be seen as a continuation of Reagonomics.

These are the “best”:

I think she knew which word she wanted to use.

“Your tone is WRONG”

7 counts

People say they hate insults and swear words and a tone they perceive as aggressive. This is absolute nonsense given that almost every argument that goes viral is aggressive, and that people absolutely love when politicians or celebrities throw out thinly-veiled insults. This tone-policing is fucking ridiculous and needs to stop. Incidentally, Holly Wood explained why here.

I actually expected to see more of these than I did.

“Straw man!”

5 counts

No, Paul Graham doesn’t literally say “stupid poors.” That is, however, the logical consequence of the content of his essay. Holly Wood is using her essay to argue that. Responding “straw man” is the equivalent of shouting “you’re wrong!!!” at a two-thousand word essay for arguing a position. It is disagreement devoid of meaning.

A word on Breitbart

I’m not linking to this hateful rag.

Breitbart is what happens when a misogynist asshole commenter gets enough exposure to blog for money. As always, their response is a classic case of rhetoric obscuring content-free bullshit. First, assert that Paul Graham is great. Call his writing a “provocative argument, written with unapologetic clarity [..] rigorous clarity.” That clarity really needed to be emphasized twice, even though Graham apparently felt his essay was so unclear that he had to post a shorter version. To “clarify matters.”

After asserting that Graham is right by appealing to mainstream economic theory (because we all know the American right wing just adores scientific consensus), Breitbart’s shitstain word-writer also had to establish that Graham’s brave for working against the social justice warriors that they hate. Never mind that Graham himself almost certainly hates the kind of politics Breitbart stands for — he actually wants to alleviate poverty, even if his analysis is nonsense—and never mind that Graham’s views are completely mainstream in the world he lives in so there are zero social repercussions for his wrongness: he pissed off “social justice warriors” so he’s brave. I’d imagine that Holly Wood publishing that criticism of Graham knowing the level of harassment she’d face is a lot braver, but Breitbart isn’t using “brave” as a word with actual meaning. It’s a rhetorical signal. “This guy is one of us,” it says. “We are the same. He is brave, therefore we are brave. We are the good guys. We are the courageous heroes in this vapid fantasy novel that is our perception of the world.”

Mansplaining and harassment

Breitbart’s masturbation over evil social justice warriors is filled with almost every dismissal found above: vapid one-liners, tone-policing, “straw man!”, insipid interpretations of “value” and just general ignorance. The only thing missing was a “both sides.” At least Breitbart is clear on where they stand: against progress. But Breitbart (and garbage pail Vivek Wadhwa’s signal boost) launched a torrent of harassment Holly Wood’s way, the other end of mansplaining — the one that terrorizes women and people of color into shutting up. It’s no coincidence that Breitbart and these harassers are regularly part of harassment movements like GamerGate, and often connected to white supremacists who have been using the same tactics for years and years to terrorize black women (Smart people regularly talking about this: Trudy of Gradient Lair, Bad Dominicana, femme_esq, Feminista Jones. They are awesome human beings who talk about their lives. Please listen and treat them kindly.) This harassment happens on Medium, it happens on Twitter, it happens on Facebook, it happens on Tumblr, it happens on Instagram, it happens on every damn social network out there. Mostly because of a lack of empathy and thought enabled by cultural dehumanization, but also because of apathy on the part of the people running those social networks. Because by and large, those people come from the same demographic as these angry assholes. And by and large, they appear to be doing the same thing: not listening when marginalized folks speak.

This is how mansplaining, harassment and misogyny come together — as Rebecca Solnit has repeatedly shown. What feels like a benign correction to a mansplainer, exists on a continuum of bigotry. At least worst, it means men don’t have to listen when women express their opinions. At worst, it leads to physical and mental violence when men are confronted by the voices of the marginalized. And all of that is thoroughly ironic given the complete vapidity of the thoughts expressed by these mansplainers.

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