U.S. Intellectual History Blog

White Man, Listen!

wright - white man listenOf Jonathan Chait, whose recent essay on political correctness has lit up social media, too much, probably, has already been said. But while his particular articulation of longstanding and repetitive attacks on “p.c” is not worth an extensive critique, it does raise some issues both practical and theoretical that I think apply widely, and in particular apply self-reflexively both to this blog, the intellectual and academic space it inhabits, and even or especially to this act of writing.

Chait writes:

Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing. This has led to elaborate norms and terminology within certain communities on the left. For instance, “mansplaining,” a concept popularized in 2008 by Rebecca Solnit, who described the tendency of men to patronizingly hold forth to women on subjects the woman knows better — in Solnit’s case, the man in question mansplained her own book to her. The fast popularization of the term speaks to how exasperating the phenomenon can be, and mansplaining has, at times, proved useful in identifying discrimination embedded in everyday rudeness. But it has now grown into an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man… Mansplaining has since given rise to “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining.”

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt… If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse.

I produce this excerpt at length, but the point I want to make is brief: Chait regards the opposite of “mansplaining” not as listening, but as womansplaining.

The only posture Chait can imagine a man wanting to take while being accused of mansplaining is disputation, contradiction, and likely interruption, like a lawyer attempting to prevent a damning question from being asked of his witness: “Objection!” And even if he doesn’t vocalize that response, the posture he describes is clearly one of silent interruption, of ceasing to listen as he readies his defense/counterattack. The act of listening to a woman speaking as long as she wants to identify what she finds objectionable and why is deemed excessive, the woman’s desire to “call him out” deemed obsessive. Chait believes that anyone in the position of being “called out” has a right not just to defend themselves, but a right to obstruct the act of “calling out” so that they don’t have to take the ignoble option of “reflection and apology.”

Perhaps a better figure to illustrate what I think is going on here is that Chait imagines each speech act as something like a shot in one-on-one basketball: once the shot goes up, both players can scramble around as much as they please to box one another out, to be in the best position for the rebound. And calling “foul,” Chait seems to be saying, is just a way of disrupting that contest for the rebound.

The right to interrupt or to box others out in conversation is a tacit foundation of the “free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals” that Chait relies upon as the “bedrock” of democracy. Even if we set aside for argument’s sake the immensely relevant fact that the balance of interruptions in any conversation (staff or faculty meetings, classrooms, courtrooms, etc.) tilts widely in favor of white men, I think it is reasonable to ask what kind of society is really built—in whatever measure—on the presumption of a right to interrupt. Kindergartens are not run that way: why the marketplace of ideas.

death star manspreading

Recently in New York, an MTA campaign has discouraged the practice of “manspreading,” the habit of many male riders of sitting with legs akimbo, monopolizing the space of more than one seat (seen, with photoshop embellishments, to your right).

The similarity of the neologisms “manspreading” and “mansplaining” is almost too obvious to note and was likely intentional (unlike “mansplaining,” which Rebecca Solnit originated,[1] “manspreading” is more difficult to trace to a single source). Manspreading manifests in space what also occurs in speech, and I have understood the process of naming it when it happens as first and foremost a request to be conscious of how much space—verbal or physical—a man presumes to take for himself.

As I said, there is a reflexivity to this issue: I am well aware of the performative contradiction involved in my writing about listening, and doubly so in my writing about what I understand mansplaining to be. Mere consciousness of the fact that I am presuming to take this space for the expression of my thoughts does not cancel the act itself. So without taking any more space, I offer these reflections in the hope of a wider discussion.

[1] It is worth noting that in the paragraph quoted above, Chait says that Solnit “popularized” the term “mansplaining.” It is true that Solnit’s 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” did not use the term, and it is possible that Chait is trying to be exact in not writing that Solnit “coined” the word. But “popularized” bizarrely suggests that Solnit’s relationship to the word is derivative rather than progenitive.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, this is a great piece that should be generating discussion… I wonder if many are reluctant to weigh in because Chait’s provocation is so annoying that one would not want to reward him with extra attention? I have struggled with this imperative, and at the same time my strong desire to contest Chait’s anti-PC revivalism.

    One thing that seems worth pushing is that Chait is engaging in criticism of groups of which he is not a member: reading a listserv that is specifically not supposed to be shared with men, concern trolling lefty undergraduates, etc. There is something ethically amiss with this posture–what Cate Morrison identified as a classic example of Hegelian bad conscience. It seems to me that what allows Chait to get away with this insider/outsider blurriness is the very sogginess of the term “liberalism,” for which he is banging the drum. Not a new phenomenon, but “new” isn’t always the active principle in projects such as Chait’s. What do you think?

  2. I agree that this post deserves more attention and that maybe a reason for the lack of it is indeed wariness and also, weariness — Chait’s piece was so full of, *ahem,* problematic assertions that even thinking about picking it apart makes me start to feel tired. But you invited us so nicely to participate!, so here goes what is sure to be a rambling grasping at various impressions sure to lack the coherence any full treatment of so much nonsense would require.

    I think it is right for Kurt, and also Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber, to situate Chait in the context (and art) of trolling; although Farrell seems roughly ok with Chait’s trolling as long as it is recognized to be trolling. And, I also think that the most interesting thing about this trolling is exactly this ill-defined concept of “liberalism” swimming around in Chait’s piece; a concept that although it is indeed “soggy,” is also the most interesting part of the whole thing.

    Because when Chait says, hey, I don’t want people to take into consideration race & gender when we have discussions – I want us to engage with politics on the level of the abstract, not on the level of you know, reality — he’s throwing down in defense of one of liberalism’s oldest qualities; that’s why, not surprisingly, he also gets around to saying all that nonsense about the Enlightenment and how “democracy” supposedly works. Andy is right – Chait doesn’t care to listen to women or minorities on the basis that they are women or minorities, but not merely because he’s trolling, or is participating in trolling-culture, but because he does in fact recognize a philosophical difference that opposes liberalism as he knows it and recognizes it.

    So on the one hand, when he said that lefty PC culture is a bigger philosophical if not political threat to liberalism, he was throwing down one of his trolliest lines in an essay nearly entirely composed of them. (Just for the record, I thought the most horrible moment was when he callously suggested that rape & trauma victims that might want to have some control over their recovery don’t know what they are talking about, anyway.) But on the other hand, he was actually right – because in the “lefty PC” world he so despises, social reality does trump abstract reasoning — or, more accurately, it stipulates that abstract reasoning can never be understood outside of social reality. If that’s true, it means not only that everyone speculating about how Chait is really complaining about getting a smack down by Coates last year is right — it also means that his entire political and philosophical reason for being is kind of, sort of, bullshit. Thus reading that essay is to not merely see someone trolling, but trolling in the context of finally actually getting the implications of what some of their opponents are arguing. That it might be hard to carry out this defense without sounding like an asshole, I would suggest, does not reflect well on the tradition he is defending.

  3. This was an, as always, excellent meditation from Andy Seal. What I keep thinking about as I re-read the piece is the longer history that Chait refers to in his essay–and the current debates between liberals and leftists over issues of “identity politics” and the like.

    I think it’s also worth noting that you guys are right: “liberal” is a malleable term in Chait’s hands. But so is “the left,” a term that is thrown around often in contemporary political and intellectual discourse. Sometimes it’s meant as a substitute for liberalism, other times as a foil to liberalism. So I think my real question here is: how does what Chait wrote relate to what others have written defending liberalism against “the left”? I have a sense that these kinds of pieces also have a long history, a history born out of American liberalism’s uneasiness of being associated with Communism and/or Socialism in the 20th and 21st centuries.

    • You are absolutely right; “the left” is a term even more poorly defined and less clearly employed than “liberal.” I sometimes read essays and articles that refer to “the left” and I honestly have no idea what they are talking about, so malleable is the term. It would be really helpful if those engaged in political discussion could clarify exactly what they mean by “the left,” because too often it blurs distinctions and creates confusions.

  4. Thanks for these awesome comments, everyone, and thanks for breaking open the discussion.

    I especially appreciate the conversation you’ve started about the murkiness of “the left” and “liberalism” in Chait’s essay. I didn’t think very much about that in reading the piece, and I wish I had given the problems with that murkiness a great deal more thought.

    I would be interested in hearing from you, though, if you think Chait is actually all that concerned about or annoyed by “the left” when it comes to his issues of expertise: Obamacare, the culture of the right in the US, environmental issues, and domestic economic policy generally. I get the feeling here that, if it’s not exactly a smokescreen, the liberal-v.-the-left dynamic at play in his essay is a sort of dodge for what he really is annoyed by, concerned about, etc.: people who want to force a conversation about race and/or gender.

    I’m speculating here, but my sense from reading not just this essay but his writing in general is that there are two kind of impulses at play: one is the lurking sense that he doesn’t really have intelligent, original things to say about race and gender in US society because that’s not what he’s spent much time reading about or thinking about; the second is that a number of people he knows (and he himself) have a very strong memory of being sharply criticized when they have tried to speak about gender and race without that background of knowledge (and experience). So on the one hand, there’s a sort of wariness of being shown to be out of his depth, and on the other hand, a more resentful response to being caught out if/when he ventures beyond his depth anyway.

    My sense of Chait from his writing is not that he is a troll, to be honest; it’s that he’s a bona fide well-meaning liberal, which I think of as something like (to use another piece of what I guess we could call vernacular feminist criticism) the “Nice GuyTM, a man who offers support to a woman in the hope that she’ll quickly move on from talking about her problems to appreciating what a great person the man is and doing what he wants.

    In this case, I think Chait isn’t asking for leftists to become liberals, although I may just not be seeing that dimension of his argument. I think he’s really just asking, well, women of color mostly, to treat him as well-meaning: to appreciate it when he supports them, to accept that support or give it the benefit of the doubt even if they disagree with the way he articulates it, and to move on soon from forcing discussions about their “problems.” But maybe I’m overemphasizing the gendered dynamic here.

    • Really great thoughts, Andy. I pretty much agree with all of them, especially that Chait is very frustrated, as you put it, that the focus is not on his allyship and, I think in implication, the awesomeness of well-meaning liberalism in general.

      However I’m not sure that being a troll is not compatible with also being a “well-meaning liberal,” just as behaving like an asshole is not incompatible with being a well-meaning liberal. I understand that under the technical use of the term troll — one who only seeks to piss people off — that maybe Chait isn’t a troll. But I think the point people are making is exactly that yes, Chait is not trying to convince leftists (or those on the left that want to talk about race & gender) to become liberals; he is trying to delegitimize them (or at the least their manner of expressing themselves *and* their ultimate goals of shifting the conversation), and he’s doing so by adopting this posture of the concerned outsider, who speaks from some position of authority that itself implies he doesn’t really have to take these people seriously; he doesn’t really have to have that conversation he doesn’t want to have. And to engage in a debate without really taking your opponents seriously is a troll-y thing to do; in certain ways it is the essence of trolling.

      And in certain places, this really shows up; again, the remark about how trauma survivors don’t even know how to address their own trauma can rightfully be responded to by trauma and rape survivors with, as Belle Waring did, a hearty fuck you. Chait must know this; he is either incredibly naive or he was taking some delight in saying something so overtly callous and condescending.

      Yet that doesn’t mean he’s not also very sincere about the whole, “I’m really concerned for the future of rational debate and liberalism” thing. I just don’t see these in conflict as much as you do. People are complex, and weird. They can be sincere and trolls at the same time; especially if they adhere to a philosophy which, in order to make their arguments, almost compels them to adopt troll-y behavior.

  5. to engage in a debate without really taking your opponents seriously is a troll-y thing to do; in certain ways it is the essence of trolling

    This is such a great definition–you’re absolutely right. And I definitely am being too narrow in my definition of trolling; I imagine trolls as, I guess, malevolent nihilists, and while that certainly describes some trolls, I should consider the mixed motives that might lie behind other forms of trolling. Thanks so much for this comment!

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