by Rebecca Solnit, 2014
Ah, mansplaining. Who among us hasn’t suffered to listen to a man tell us what we already know? In my case, it’s most often come from those telling me how to run my business when they have no knowledge of said business and no idea why I’ve made some of the very valid decisions I’ve made (like, what you are insisting I do is, in fact, illegal in this state). Mansplaining is not new, but the term gained quite the life after the publication of the essay that bears the same name as this book. What starts as a humorous anecdote of Solnit being schooled on a book that she wrote turns into a much needed examination of women’s silencing. And before you’re quick to jump to the defense, Solnit readily admits that [hashtag] not all men are like this. I know not all men are like this too, but I’ll be damned if not all women have been affected by some of the behavior she discusses in this essay collection.
The silencing of women is the overarching theme of the book. In the most affecting essay, “The Longest War,” Solnit discusses the high incidence of rape and sexual assault against women, asserting that as common an occurrence as it is, “it’s almost never treated as a civil rights issue or a human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” Which isn’t to say that all men are violent or that men cannot be the victims of violence at the hands of women, but the statistics show that women are vastly more likely to be significantly injured or killed by a man than the other way around – and that’s only accounting for cases that are reported. Likewise, Solnit makes reference to an article suggesting that white men are more often the ones who commit mass murder in the US and while the article’s commenters took issue with the “white” part, no one seemed to argue the “men” part. Her point is that despite this being recognized as the case, no one identifies being male as a risk factor for violence and, in failing to do so, we turn a blind eye toward researching what it is about male socialization that could account for this pattern. It’s a necessary argument, for we still look for patterns in how women got themselves raped, but we are still not looking to identify how men became rapists.
In “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” Solnit discusses the long path to equality and the oft made claim that feminism has failed to make much progress toward it. Her most important point here is that for everything we may lose – whatever laws are repealed, whatever steps backward we may take – hope can never be taken away. It is a long road toward changing cultures and institutions and minds, but knowledge and hope can never be stuffed back in the box: “You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies.” The volunteer police force she references is the collective who aims to keep women in their place or, should they threaten to escape it, put them back there. We’ve seen the rape and death threats hurled against female gamers, we know of the Leslie Jones twitter debacle, we all just expect there to be some sexist comments thrown at any female commenter who deigns to offer a dissenting opinion. The volunteer police force is real, but so is the hope that Solnit reminds us we still have.
Men Explain Things to Me is a short volume, but it is full of poignant and necessary ideas that so many of us need to read. I was not enamored of every essay here, but Solnit raises extremely important points that warrant further pondering and discussion by us as individuals and as a culture at large. It is easy to brush off a man who erroneously believes they know more about my business than I do, but it is far more damaging when men as a general whole believe they get to tell women that they deserve to be raped and killed.