‘You don’t know Jack, Jack!’ On ‘mansplaining’ and l’affaire Kilbride

The leftwing website New Matilda has never been afraid to poke the bear. In recent years it has found itself at the centre of all manner of media controversies and on the receiving end of a clutch of lawsuits, some of which it only barely survived. Though it sometimes lacks judgment, it never lacks bravery. A David without the money to buy a decent slingshot, it lowers its melon and runs, full pelt, at the Goliath of government like a Pit Bull on ice.

Last week, however, NM drew fire from a different neck of the political woods. It had run a piece on feminism by a Melbourne student called Jack Kilbride, who argued (apropos of Clementine Ford and her recent, well-publicised run-in with some dickheads) that feminists needed to tone down their rhetoric if they wanted to win over the haters to their cause. Declaring himself a feminist, Kilbride suggested that Emma Watson, whose speech to the UN on the subordinate position of women and girls received widespread coverage, might furnish feminists with a better role-model than the pugilistic Ford and her imitators.
The piece attracted nearly 500 comments – a huge number for an NM article. (Not to sulk, but my last piece for the website – a defence of the New Atheism – received, um, 12.) Nearly all of them were hostile to the author’s position and a few wondered why NM’s editor, Chris Graham, had decided to run the piece at all. Was this, they wondered, a cynical ploy to increase traffic to the always cash-strapped site – the (slightly) higher-minded version of a story on buttock injections gone wrong?
Knowing Chris a bit, I doubt it. But I’ve no wish to speculate on this possibility or, particularly, on the piece itself, which stuck me as very, very naïve but in no way cruel or misogynistic. No, the thing that interests me is the way the reaction to the piece was framed – in particular, the language in which it was framed and what it tells us about the way we do politics when it comes to issues of gender and identity.
One word came up time and again in the comments unspooling beneath Kilbride’s article. See if you can spot it in the following examples:
Once again, a man’s thoughts on the issue are what gets published. So many women are engaged with this movement, many of whom can write an excellent article – why not ask their thoughts rather than hiring another know it all mansplainer? We don’t need men to speak for us.
Mansplaining about feminism and criticising a prominent feminist while doing so. Get in the bin, seriously.
Mansplaining bullshit. F**k you Jack and f**k YOU Chris for publishing it.
Holy freakin’ mansplaining!
Thanks for mansplaining feminism and how to make it cater to not hurting man-feelings.
“Hi, I’m Jack Kilbride and I am here to mansplain you how feminism is done.” F**k off.
How dare you call yourself a feminist Jack when you mansplain how you think feminism should be. As men, it’s our job to listen and be allies, not tell Clementine how she should be a better feminist.
What a nauseating piece of mansplaining.
Wait a minute, you’re here being the mansplainiest mansplainer to tell women we’re not allowed to express anger about violence against women lest men be ‘offended’?
Nice manbun you mansplaining idiot.
Did you get it? But of course you did …
Thought to date from around 2008, and already lionised by the Macquarie Dictionary and the American Dialect Society, both of which have conferred ‘word of the year’ status upon it, ‘mansplaining’ and its cognates (‘mansplain’, ‘mansplainer’) refer to the smug and knowing manner adopted when one’s audience/interlocutor is assumed to posses limited knowledge of a topic or to lack the requisite intelligence needed to process an argument. (Think Malcolm Turnbull in the first few weeks of his premiership, turning his hands in reassuring little circles – a perfumer ventilating a new concoction – and you’ll get the general idea …)
It is obvious from the morphology of the word that it was coined with men, specifically, in mind. And it is also clear from most usages I’ve come across that mansplaining tends to be at its most egregious when a woman is on the receiving end of it, notwithstanding Prime Minister Turnbull, who’d mansplain to a hatstand if you gave him half a chance. It is, then, an essentially reductive term conferring upon a particular group a particular characteristic or way of behaving. Strictly speaking, it’s a term of prejudice – a stereotype.
Now, don’t panic. I’m not going to claim, à la Andrew Bolt or some comparable life-form, that men are the new women and that white is the new black and that political correctness has opened the floodgates to fresh and pernicious forms of prejudice. Not at all. But I would like to float the argument that when you use a term that can only be employed against one group of people, however powerful, you arrange for the possibility that your arguments will descend into ad hominem attacks, or attacks that consign the relevant hominid to a particular ‘identity pen’ and indict him (or her) on the basis of that association. Nor am only person to object to such ‘essentialist’ thinking; many are the women who object to it too. Here’s the journalist (and feminist) Lesley Kinzel outlining her reservations about ‘mansplaining’:
Men mansplain, because they are men, and this is an attribute of a masculine gender. Except there are lots of men who don’t mansplain, and who would rightly be a little irritated by the assumption that something in their chromosomes or genitalia or gender identity somehow operates to make them all susceptible to a particular shared behaviour.
Notwithstanding the many men who love the sound of their own voices, condescension and arrogance are not male traits, any more than nagging is a female one. As Kinzel puts it: ‘The truth is anyone, regardless of gender, can be guilty of this incredibly annoying, frustrating, and dismissive conduct.’
Kilbride’s crime, of course, was to ‘mansplain’ feminism and to do so in a way that partook of stereotypes about female hysteria and lack of self-control, while at the same time underestimating the anger that exists about income inequality, domestic violence and a range of other issues. In this way, he left himself open to the charge that he had affected a tone of authority about a subject many of his readers know more about than he does – a habit that in certain jurisdictions forms part of the definition of ‘mansplaining’. But it’s pretty clear that in many of the comments attendant on l’Affaire Kilbride, ‘mansplaining’ is being employed as an insult and not as part of a considered argument. It is aimed, not at what is being said, but rather at who is saying it. 
This is the point at which the group solidarity necessary for effective political action becomes the worst kind of identity politics. The saddest thing about the reaction to Kilbride’s piece was the way in which some of the commenters rejected, not his claim to be a feminist (that’s something that needs to be lived up to, and JK clearly has some learning to do), but his right, as a man, to call himself a feminist. Thus, ‘You got it wrong.’ becomes, ‘You got it wrong. And, anyway, you could never get it right.’ Or alternatively, ‘You don’t know Jack, Jack!’
To be male and describe oneself as a feminist may be a callow thing to do. Similarly, to be white and to declare oneself in favour of racial equality is laughably easy. (Christ! even Herald Sun columnists do it!) And, yes, there will be tests for empathy that we – white males – will never be able to pass, simply by dint of being white and male. (That sentence is written without self-pity; I’m aware that I am privileged.) But to have one’s solidarity rejected on the basis of one’s sex or race – that is something else entirely, and the point at which I ask my fellow progressives to consider why the best ‘identity’ politicians are nearly always from the right of politics …
But listen to me, mansplaining on … Suffice it to say that I think it’s possible to be a man and ‘a feminist’ and even to venture a thought or two about how best to prosecute that cause.
Which I’ve just done. So there.