This is the seventh entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.
Is it considered OK in the social justice community to use the word ‘mansplain’? I’ve been yelled at for using it because it’s demeaning to men, but I’ve also heard it used widely.
There’s no single rulebook for what’s accceptable and unacceptable “in the social justice community.” There are no rules, just individual preferences that may be strong or weak, narrowly or widely shared. This is part of what I meant when I wrote in the intro post to this series that I can’t give you permission or absolution for anything, only tell you what I think.
So what do I think? I think “mansplaining” is a precise and useful addition to the language. It’s specific, it’s clear, and it’s direct. I like it a lot. Does the fact that the word is gendered bother me? No. The phenomenon it describes is gendered, for starters. As a man, I don’t find it offensive. (It’s absolutely possible for a woman to mansplain, by the way. Men do it more often, but women do it too. And no, I don’t find it offensive to use the term in reference to a woman’s behavior.)
I wish I had a more cogent general statement about why I’m untroubled by the use of derisive terms against culturally powerful groups. Partly my response is an “if it’s not about you, don’t make it about you” thing. Partly it’s a matter of the distinction between punching up and punching down. But ultimately it’s mostly just a gut response — it just doesn’t bother me. I will say, though, that it’s possible to use “mansplain” as a cudgel, and that I do find that obnoxious. Not every man explaining is a mansplainer, and a too-broad use of the term can shut down conversation. I’ve seen it happen. (It’s worth noting, though, that it’s possible to mansplain without realizing it, and that by the time you’ve been — rightly or wrongly — accused of mansplaining the conversation has likely gone completely off the rails, so attempting to explain why you weren’t mansplaining is unlikely to be received well. Better to just walk away.)
Anyway, to get back to your question, I’ve seen some folks object to some uses of “mansplain” from within what might reasonably be called “the social justice community,” but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone coming from that perspective object to it across the board. Is it considered OK? I can’t speak for everyone, but generally, yeah, it is.