A recent newcomer to the ever-growing English lexicon is the word ‘mansplain’—a verb that refers to the act of a man over-explaining something (usually something quite obvious) to a woman, as if she were stupid. There is a funny scene in the US comedy series Silicon Valley in which a male character mansplains mansplaining itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyC_NKEz62A
Joking and political correctness apart, I think this term makes a useful contribution to the English language and sheds light on an oppressive behavior pattern (going far beyond gender disparities) that has hitherto tended to be overlooked.
I will coin the term ‘poorsplaining’ for this broader phenomenon, since it is invariably used as a discursive mechanism by which a powerful group seeks to entrench the disempowerment of a less privileged group, under the guise of apparently enlightening them. It is a way of explaining things (poorly) to the poor in a way designed to keep them poor.
“Poorsplaining” has in fact become the main mode of conveyance of political and supposedly educational discourse in the modern age.
This has come about for understandable reasons based on generally good intentions. But good intentions alone, as the old cliché goes, can all too easily pave the way to hell.
In the not so distant past, political and intellectual élites draped themselves in a deliberately arcane and impenetrable mode of discourse designed to shore up their power base and deny anyone without privileged access to it any say in the debate. There is a scene in the James Ivory film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in which a group of politicians are debating enfranchisement. One of them proceeds to ask the butler a question about economic and foreign policy, couching it in obscure terms. The butler is both stumped by the form in which the question is posed and too deferent to offer any point of view of his own. The politician takes this as proving his point regarding the need to disenfranchise the working classes.
Using language to make things unnecessarily difficult to understand is obviously oppressive. But the opposite—making complex matters apparently easy to understand—can be equally oppressive and much more deviously so. It has the advantage, from the point of view of the elites, of being a much subtler, less intrusive, seemingly more inclusive approach.
In the 1970s, future UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood atop a soap box brandishing a bag of groceries and attempted to poorsplain to the British populace how macroeconomics is in fact no different from managing the family budget. No economist would agree that this analogy is at all apt, although some might cynically argue that it is a useful necessary illusion to ensure that the rich are granted tax cuts while the poor are kept in their place. The ideological legerdemain was especially effective in so far as it was delivered by a woman—a woman who, true to her traditional stereotype, was doing her household chores and keeping things in simple terms.
Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are campaigning frantically at Town Hall meetings and rallies in an effort to be elected to the most powerful political position in the world.
I am rarely impressed by politicians (especially when they are in campaigning mode) and these two were, by and large, no exception. But I saw something at a Town Hall meeting with Hillary Clinton that truly impressed me. A member of the audience asked the Democratic Party candidate a very specific question about difficulties she was having with her family healthcare insurance policy. Politicians usually take such prompts as an opportunity to appear caring, while spouting platitudes and set-pieces in response. Clinton did something very different. She asked the member of the audience to give her more details about her situation and proceeded to advise her on a face-to-face basis on the healthcare insurance options available to her. This impressed me but obviously did not make very ‘good television’. As the confused guest and the moderator tried to steer her back towards more comfortable platitudes, Clinton did something unprecedented, noble, yet perhaps politically fatal. She said, “It’s more complicated than that.”
Meanwhile, across the country, Donald Trump was haranguing rallies with a brutal simplistic discourse, putting everything in the most absurdly simplistic and monosyllabic terms and not responding to any negative feedback or input whatsoever, except aggressively.
Trump is savvy, but not sensitive, intelligent or knowledgeable. Most people are more like him than like Hillary and he exploits that to the hilt. Clinton had recently handed Trump a gift when she described his supporters as an “irredeemable basket of deplorables.” Trump seized on this as an unguarded undemocratic display of condescension (which in fact it was). But he did something else far more significant. He explained to his audience what the word “irredeemable” means. “That means you can’t change,” he added, whenever he quoted the phrase.
Clinton later went back on what she had said, but in a statistically pernickety manner, arguing that she had only meant that some (not all) of Trump’s supporters were ‘deplorable’. She did not elaborate on her use of the term ‘irredeemable’.
This is in many ways the very opposite of the Thatcher campaign in 1979. Eyes roll as Hillary “womansplains” boring details to potential voters, while supporters cheer and roar as Trump from his podium of male privilege ‘poorsplains’ (condescendingly and poorly) complex economic and foreign policy issues and the meaning of English words.
Both politicians now find themselves hoisted by the petard of their own rhetorical and gender-influenced strategies. Trump struggles to provide a more thorough explanation of ill-thought-out macho policies that he had previously poorsplained the populace into believing in. Clinton’s recent well-thought-out memoir on the reasons for her defeat runs perilously close to the risk of being characterized as gender-stereotypical whingeing.
There is obviously much more to be said about this highly nuanced ongoing political controversy than I can possibly go into here. So, I shall turn instead to the pernicious influence of what I have dubbed ‘poorsplaining’ in the education system.
Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins with a parody of a schoolmaster giving a lesson to underprivileged children. The class is discussing not Latin verbs or engineering or government economic policy, but interior decorating—more specifically the type of wallpaper with which it is appropriate to paper a sitting room. A girl pipes up that she would like the room to be papered with a pattern involving horses, because she likes horses. She is duly berated by the teacher, who insists that it is ‘more rational’ to use a flower pattern or geometrical abstraction.
This is probably not the part of Hard Times that readers incline to remember. But it is, I think, significant that Dickens chooses to begin his dour tale of Victorian injustice and social exclusion with a classroom scene and mocks the kind of education that is (excuse the irresistible pun) furnished by the teacher.
The passage is even more striking in that it presages a modern era in which TV shows and advertisements purportedly educate the populace as to the more refined fashions, while eschewing provision of basic information on civics and economics, still less mathematics or engineering. A culture in which knowing how to properly paper a wall is more important than the ability to build one or the knowledge of how to use your rights to pressure the government or your landlord to build one for you.
It is but a short skip from Dickens to the more dumbed down form of schooling to which I was subject, whereby art lessons supposedly involved promoting ‘free expression’ and avoiding the imposition of culturally-determined ideals. There were, of course, limits to this. But they were arbitrary rather than sensible ones. I remember an art class when I was six years old in which we were encouraged to experiment with free abstraction and use of color and I produced a painting that involved a series or orange boxes set against a purple background. Rothko style. The teacher, who was probably only doing this sort of exercise out of government-imposed edict anyway, castigated me on the grounds that purple and orange are not colors that ‘go together’. Ever since then, “purple and orange” have been my preferred color scheme, as they are, interestingly, in some of the more subversive comic book art that eschews primary colors. As a result of this arbitrarily imposed authority, within an arbitrarily imposed liberal context, I became arbitrarily rebellious.
There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a film loosely based on the events surrounding the real-life Columbine High School massacre) in which the students are sat down and dutifully, if a little unenthusiastically, being taught about tolerance and difference. This scene occurs shortly before the shooting begins. Elephant is obviously based on a very real and very shocking act of extreme and seemingly senseless violence, but a similar theme is addressed in Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s film If…, in which the graphically presented revolutionary violence is confined to fantasy and set against a backdrop of the very real violence, abuse and ideological indoctrination of the normalized everyday life of an English ‘public’ (i.e. expensive private) school.
Both films involve a scene in which the headmaster/director is shot dead. In Anderson’s film, he is strutting arrogantly around in robes and perfunctorily gunned down from a distance by a rooftop sniper. In Elephant, he is confronted by his killer in the corridor and pleads for mercy. But the fate of the headmaster (the ultimate symbol of the school ethos as a whole)—one ridiculously authoritarian, the other ridiculously liberal—is the same and equally mercilessly meted out.
Here the Trump and Clinton communications strategies are reversed, ideologically speaking. The conservative authoritarian private school mansplains arcane and meaningless doctrines and rituals for young minds, while the modern liberal US public school preaches diversity and tolerance and dumbs down the curriculum in an effort to be ‘inclusive.’ Both, however, like the 2016 US presidential election campaign, succeed only in fostering a climate of alienation and heighten the potential for outbursts of senseless violence.
As a teacher and a learner myself, I am well aware that learning is never easy and it is patronizing, disingenuous and ultimately unfair to pretend that it is or can be made to be so. Learning should be difficult, but it should not be difficult because of understandable resistance to arbitrarily imposed norms or obfuscating language, but because of the inherent obscurity, ambiguity and complexity of the subject matter, of the world itself. This is where the true source of fascination with learning lies and it is precisely this innate thirst for complex nuanced knowledge that is stifled by authoritarian and liberal schools and politicians alike from an early age.
Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first published in the early 1970s but is more relevant than ever today. At the very start of this book, Illich notes an overlap between the language of education and the language of war. Nixon, for example, vows to “teach the Viet Cong a lesson”… by bombing them. In another chapter, Illich imagines a future world in which learners are connected to and learn through one another in ‘virtual learning communities’ by way of some, at that time, still unimaginable future technology, thereby dispensing with the need for the unavoidably oppressive infrastructure of schools.
Such technology and such virtual networks of course now exist in multitudes and, although they are still used less for good than for ill, there is increasingly no need for mansplaining or poorsplaining. All learners have always obviously been quite capable of exploring the nuances and complexities of the world for themselves. Now they are also fully equipped to do so. Illich’s futuristic utopian pedagogical world may yet be more than a mere pipe dream. For the sake of all of us and the fate of the world, let us strive to make it real,