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Monday, January 24, 2011

 

Gaspode's Law of Sexism

Arguing on another blog recently, I was thinking once again of sexism; this time, of the phenomenon of mansplaining.

Mansplaining, for those unfamiliar with the term, describes the behaviour of a man who assumes that he must be the superior intellect in a conversation with any woman, and thus will patronisingly explain to her something that she knows a whole lot more about than him. Any attempts by her to make it clear that she doesn't need him to instruct her will be met with paternal deafness or outraged offence, depending on how forcefully she attempts it - ie, if she says it in a way that he can't miss, he acts insulted; if she doesn't, he ignores her.

(There is a common problem mentioning mansplaining in an open forum, very similar to the problem of mentioning the Bechdel Test: some bugger will immediately leap up and ask, 'What's it called when it's done to men? / when women do it? / when there's an exception? / when you don't know the motivations?' or some other variant of 'How quickly can we redefine this to make it about something, anything else other than what it's actually talking about, which is female experience of sexism?' I will have no truck with that in the comments: do not make me open the can of Delete-Ass.)

There's a particular (and particularly maddening) variant of it that will be familiar to many women: the man who explains back to you what you've just told him with the air of teaching you something your little brain was previously incapable of perceiving. Of course, if you're debating with a man who doesn't respect women there are a lot of ways he can go - arguing against something you didn't say is a favourite, as is saying 'How dare you call me a bad person?' when you make a general point - but this one has a rather special twist. You start to wonder what on earth the man thinks he's doing, or if he's thinking at all: who tries to teach somebody something that they've just taught you?

But having run into it more times than I enjoy, I found it was reminding me of something. This being the internet I suspect many blog readers will be familiar with the works of Terry Pratchett; the character that comes to mind is Gaspode the talking dog.

For those unfamiliar, Gaspode is a small mongrel who has acquired the ability to talk. However, for most people the idea of a talking dog is just so difficult to credit that when Gaspode says something, they don't hear it on a conscious level. They take in his words, but assume they must be hearing their own thoughts. (Hence, for instance, if Gaspode says 'Give the doggy a biscuit', they automatically give him one because they think it's their own idea.)

When it comes to men explaining to women what the woman has just explained to them, it's the talking dog stories that come to mind. It would appear that some men find the idea of an intelligent woman about as plausible as the idea of a talking dog. It's so difficult to credit, in fact, that if a woman makes a good point, the man's expectations simply blot out any awareness that she's talking. He hears her words, but his subconscious immediately appropriates them, because a woman couldn't possibly be making an intelligent comment. It must be his own thoughts he's hearing - and shouldn't he do the nice thing and instruct the woman in them for the betterment of her own little mind? So what you get is a man who hears or reads what a woman says or writes, assumes he's hearing/reading his own thoughts, and then explains them back to her with the air of presenting his own invaluable insights.

Since the internet has laws of conversation, I think we need to be aware of Gaspode's Law: a man who explains a woman's point back to her is sexist enough that he's incapable of understanding anything a woman says, and should be deemed to have automatically disqualified himself from the conversation. For which reason it's all the more important that men call him on his behaviour, because if a woman says something, he'll either dismiss it or poach it. And in the latter case, he will genuinely believe he thought of it himself.


Note: I have no rights regarding the intellectual property of Terry Pratchett. If he or his representatives object to this post, please contact me and I'll take it down.

Comments:
Sometimes I find myself repeating what a person has said in my own words in order to better understand them. Repeating what somebody has said doesn't necessarily disqualify you, but of course it's the engagement in the conversation that makes the difference. I often meet people, male and female, who simply are incapable of engaging in the act of paying attention to the people they are talking to, and thus if they are repeating-type people, will exhibit this behaviour. I'm still conflicted as to whether that's sexism or just being a general kind of jerk. I guess it's particularly galling when it's a guy who does it in a conversation about sexism, though.

(For those who have difficulty understanding non-Anglo names, I'm female.)
 
I'm not talking about repeating something; I'm talking about assuming the mantle of teacher and instructing someone on something they've just taught you. That's usually men doing it to women, in my experience.
 
If you combine "Gaspode's Laws" with conversational turn-taking you arrive at an experience that many women have had.

Woman says some. It may not be stunning insightful but it is correct and it is relevant to the conversation.

Several of the men within earshot repeat back what the woman said as if it was their own particular insight. Most of the other men have by now learned that you shouldn't interrupt women whenever they start talking. So the men gaze into the intellectual middle distance waiting for the sound of the woman's voice to stop. Then they add their own invaluable comment--quite unaware that they are repeating what a woman in the conversation had already said.

The second type of man will, when assailed for not listening to women protest that he is always polite and never interrupts women or speaks over them.

Of course, for the woman involved it makes no difference why her voice was not heard.
 
"...the man who explains back to you what you've just told him with the air of teaching you something your little brain was previously incapable of perceiving."

This is hugely irritating behavior. Whenever it happens to me I end up saying, "yeah...I just said that. What's your point?" Anyone got any better responses?
 
Depends how comfortable you are with pointing out how rude he's being, I'd say. Last time it happened I said something along the lines of 'That's what I was explaining to you; thanks for explaining it back to me like you've just taught me something; I love it when a man does that. It's just so butch.' But to be fair, that was during an Internet debate; verbal fisticuffs are usually more restricted face to face.

--

Then they add their own invaluable comment--quite unaware that they are repeating what a woman in the conversation had already said.

Though I'd say it's a good bet that their ears registered her comment even if their conscious awareness didn't, so it's not coincidental that the point just occurred to them...
 
This feeds into an experience I've often observed:
- a woman says something pertinent that contributes to the conversation
- a man repeats her idea
- everyone compliments the man on what the women *just said*.

It's infuriating, and can be enough to make you wonder if you are losing your mind.
 
- a woman says something pertinent that contributes to the conversation
- a man repeats her idea
- everyone compliments the man on what the women *just said*.


I wonder if the phenomenon I complained about in an earlier post (http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-id-like-to-see-more-men-smacking.html) where a woman spends ages trying to explain to a man why That Thing He Just Said was sexist, men do nothing to help, the man finally takes the point that the woman's sweated blood to make, and all the men leap in to congratulate the man on his insight ... might be a variant of that?
 
I wonder if the phenomenon I complained about in an earlier post (http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-id-like-to-see-more-men-smacking.html) where a woman spends ages trying to explain to a man why That Thing He Just Said was sexist, men do nothing to help, the man finally takes the point that the woman's sweated blood to make, and all the men leap in to congratulate the man on his insight ... might be a variant of that?

Yeah, I think it could be considered a variant.

What about this experience -- a group of women are sitting around (probably, given it is academic life, a committee.) These women have been meeting for months--they may even have a draft report ready. Guy comes in, sits down and instead of reading the minutes or asking what has been discussed -- proceeds to give his ideas. When someone points out a problem with the first idea he moves on to the second. When someone points out that that has been tried and found wanting he drops another pearl of wisdom.

Finally, after being 'corrected' one too many time he will look around the room and announce "no wonder you never get anything done, you are so negative about everything."
 
It's a good thing this isn't a drinking game.
 
I am kind of worried that I might be prone to the kind of behavior you describe here. So please do not let me get away with it.
 
I'm a blonde, so take Gaspode's Law and double it - or quadruple. One classic time, I was boarding with strangers, their car battery terminals weren't connecting properly. The guy wouldn't listen to me so I got out of the car and reconnected the terminal. After I got the car going again, he started teaching me how to do it so his wife wouldn't get stranded the next day.
 
Just found this post after being immersed in off-line life for a while - spot on! I know Gaspode, and love Terry Pratchett, but never connected it with this phenomenon that I often meet in my real life. Ticks me off completely.

I often meet it in my professional life (I'm a paediatrician):
- man comes in with wife and child
- talks about his ideas about how to fix problem with child.
- I ask for clarification of problem, he doesn't know so wife fills in details.
- I explain nature of problem and proposed solution.
- father starts off by disagreeing and disputing with everything I've said, talks himself around and ends up telling me the management plan of what to do about child's problem, usually also telling wife the "true nature of the problem" along the way.
- probably goes on for the rest of day asking everyone why he pays money to see the doctor when he knows it all himself!
 
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