Friday, 18 April 2014

Mansplaining Irony

© kate / Attribution-ShareAlike
Technologist Dave Winer's Mansplaining lacks nuance and glosses over relevant questions about gender; Winer neglects to ask: who benefits most by silencing debate about social power?

As a blogger, Dave Winer is inimitable, writing equal parts intelligence, humour, insight and spike. I've been reading his words for years and found him at times frustrating but mostly fun – and worth listening to.

But his 16 April piece, Mansplaining,[1] halted my tea break mid-sip: it is a post which elegantly demonstrates the nexus of sexism and privilege in both the technology industry and society. It articulates – with greater subtlety that I expect Winer imagined – why there remains a critical need to educate and inform.

Dave Winer
Credit: Dave Winer
It is not a long piece – just 70 words, give or take – and nearly every point deserves a response but for the sake of time I’ll roughly outline his main arguments:
  • The term Mansplaining is “unfair” and “misused”
  • Women use it too
  • The term is a device to silence or oppress
Winer opens the piece describing Mansplaining as “a gender-specific putdown, like saying a woman is emotional, or a black person ‘uppity.’” These first words say it all: he implicitly hears the phrase as a direct personal, “ad hominem” attack.

A different interpretation, of course, might consider the term an entirely impersonal one, a cultural critique of dominant, patriarchal power structures. Perspective matters.

Power & Status

The male gaze[2] – specifically, the white, cis male gaze – remains the dominant Anglo-Saxon paradigm commanding all levers of Western social power and influence. Men dominate every locus of control in legislative, judicial and socio-economic institutions at local, national and international levels. More importantly, the (white) male perspective is default, normative and assumed. For this reason, by definition it cannot be silenced or oppressed. It is the oppressor's voice, at times both benevolent and cruel.

Mansplaining, the act, is a tool of the powerful; his suggestion that the use of the term by those calling out oppression is in any way a threat to male power is absurd prima facie.

Moreover, the fact women use it is even more irrelevant to the argument; gender parity is not gender equality. Words used within specific communities – particularly words historically used to demean or shame – are often done so to engender a particular context. Some may be reclaimed for identity, resistance or, yes, even power.

Mansplaining, the term, neatly describes the implicit context of privilege, entitlement and expectation inherent to the Western male perspective. Left unchecked, it inevitably surfaces in their our proclamations – or, say, blog posts – without acknowledgement or mitigation.

It is an audaciously ironic post, basically mansplaining Mansplaining. Winer is a very wealthy, privileged white man. His opinion about the use of a term patently not intended for his cultural contextual use is solipsistic and would be grimly sardonic were it not so relevant to the challenges we face as an industry and society.

I left a comment on his blog, hoping to engage him on the subject. The comment initially appeared and was later removed[3] but I’ll repeat it here:

I asked Winer, “Are you being intentionally ironic?” The question remains unanswered.

So What?

A short post offering a questionable critique of a cultural phrase is hardly worth extensive energy. Except it neatly reflects the same challenges facing the technology industry – and society more broadly.

Winer’s perspective mirrors a broader failure to consider how divisive power, status and gender politics afflict the technology industry, an industry which desperately needs educated, intelligent women to contribute materially and philosophically. The imposition of technology by the powerful will dominate the next century and we all suffer if a single-gendered vision of the future unfolds.

Winer is influential. People listen. And he is (rightly, in my view) lauded for his industry achievements and technological leadership. In this spirit, I hope he will reflect on his piece and consider how a new kind of leadership can benefit both the industry and society at large.

[1] Winer, Dave; “Mansplaining”, Scripting News, 16 April 2014., accessed 17 April 2014.
[2] Mulvey, Laura; “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975.
[3] I have no problem with this, Winer can run his shop however he likes.