Friday, April 25, 2008

REBECCA SOLNIT | Men Who Explain Things

The LA Times has this great essay by Rebecca Solnit. I love the ancedote (quoted below) about how a pompous ass tried to talk down to her, and ended with the proverbial egg on his face. But most of all, I agree with what she has to say about the people who talk over us -- and how we allow our own voices to be silenced. The essay is worth reading whether you are male or female.

For the Ladies: Read it, please, because this is about you.

For the Gentlemen: Read it please, because you are fair-minded and you have a conscience. Most of all, read it because you might have daughters, wives, mothers, and sisters -- and this is their story.

But first, Rebecca Solnit tells a story about something that happened to her at a party:

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, including a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me; with my infinitely generous younger brother; with splendid male friends. Still, there are these other men too.

So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.

Am I a feminist? Probably not in the academic sense of the word. But I am a woman, so I know how it feels like to be treated as a woman. To have my abilities doubted -- simply because I am a woman. To be ignored or patronized -- simply because I am a woman. To earn less than my male colleagues doing the same job with equal or greater competence -- simply because I am a woman.

This is the reason why I am a battling ram, because I resent being dismissed and I demand to be heard. Idiots will always try to belittle you, talk down to you, make you feel small and insignificant. If you believe them, or allow them to convince you of that, then they win. Rebecca Solnit reminds us that we can't allow the Mr. Very Important of the world to silent us:

Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

As Solnit reminds us, in its most extreme form, it allows unjust laws in certain countries, "where women's testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can't testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is." No self-respecting women would want to live with this kind of unfairness. And I don't believe any man who loves his wife, his mother, his sister or his daughter -- would allow the women in his life to be treated like this.

Yet there are generations of women who have been brought up to believe in their inferiority. Not knowing any alternatives, these women teach their daughters the same values -- of their inferiority by default of gender. Our society enforces this.

Nothing is sadder than the victims who perpetuate the crimes done unto them. Nothing makes me angrier than abuse victims who believe what happened to them is their fault.

Yes, this is personal -- not just because I am a woman -- but because I am also a daughter: My mother was brought up by traditional Chinese parents who favoured her brothers. She believes she is worthless compared to the sons. It worn down her self-esteem. Later in her life, she would marry my father, a critical, emotionally distance man who castigated her in front of her children. She stayed silent through the verbal abuses. She never learned to talk back.

Miraculously, I did. I swear I would never become my mother.

Growing up, my own mother tried to teach me this same bullshit -- I rebelled and I never stopped resenting her for it. Even now, when I hang the laundry out to dry, she would remind me to keep my underwears away from my brother and my father. It is taboo for men to walk under women's underwears, she tells me, because women's underwears are unclean.

"I can't believe you're telling me this!" I almost screamed. My mother still had no idea what was so wrong with what she said. This happened just last year.

When I was very young, my mother would make me help out with the housework. I asked why did I have to help, when my brother did not. It is not fair. My mother's million dollar answer?

"Because he is a boy."

My mother is still the only one doing the housework. If I can, I help.

I help not because I believe women should do the housework. I help because the men in my family wouldn't. I help because my mother is old, and I can't bear her doing housework all by herself.

This is not about being a feminist. This is about fairness, respect and dignity -- and I believe these are universal human truths.


Rebecca Solnit wrote several books, among them, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and Wanderlust: A History of Walking. I admire Wanderlust and would definitely recommend it -- but it is A Field to Getting Lost that occupies the place in that special bookshelf of my heart.

Say, have anyone read River of Shadows? It's "the very important Muybridge book" in the story quoted above. It's very important, so I better read it soon.


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post. Thanks for the link to the article too, I will read it forthwith. I got lucky with my family of two girls. While my mom was very supportive, for the most part, it was from her that I heard I couldn't do things because I am a girl. But then my dad would ignore her and take me and my sister out to go get ice cream and we'd come home with skateboards. My dad always told his friends who felt sorry for him because he had no sons that his girls were better than boys. But yet, he never allowed us to have a basketball hoop because it was a boy's game. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I do resent how feminism has been turned into a dirty word because at the root of it, it's about respect and equality, not about women pretending to be men.

I love Solnit's anecdote. I'm going to have to check out her books (add yet more to my ever-growing pile).

Rebecca H. said...

I love that Solnit essay (and all of Solnit's writing, in fact). Sadly these messed-up gender dynamics still exist and we need to be reminded of just how messed up they are now and then.

darkorpheus said...

Stefanie Thank you. After I posted it, I realised it was really long.

Your dad sounds cool -- but I don't get the skateboard are allowed but not basketball. Basketball teaches teamwork and hand-eye coordination.

Your dad is definitely right on this count: Girls are better than boys. They are more sensitive and they smell better.

Gartenfische Thank you. And oh yes, I cannot recommend Rebecca Solnit's books enough. She is a great essayist -- and I love how she makes connections and leaps of thoughts so effectively in her writing.

Dorothy I knew I had to post the Solnit essay the moment I read it. Things has improved from our parent's time of course, but it's still not perfect.

Ana S. said...

"When I was very young, my mother would make me help out with the housework. I asked why did I have to help, when my brother did not. It is not fair. My mother's million dollar answer?

"Because he is a boy.""

This happened in my house as well. And my mother was not raised in a particularly conservative manner, and if you asked her, she'd probably tell you she was all for equality between men and women. And yet things like this still surface. There are many people who do and say certain things without even realizing how discriminatory they are.

Thanks for sharing the link to the essay. And thank you for this post.

darkorpheus said...

Nymeth You're right. It's so ingrained that we often do these things without realising it's wrong. So sometimes when we bring it up, people actually think you're crazy or over-reacting.

Yogamum said...

This took me back to a conversation I had with a philosophy professor in college. His standard cocktail party question was "Why do you think there aren't many women in philosophy?" Whatever answer you came up with, he would proceed to shoot down as wrong. I wished I could say, "Because philosophy is full of obnoxious, argumentative men" but I never got up the guts!

Why do men feel the need to pontificate? Sheesh.

darkorpheus said...

Yogamum I think every woman has more than their fair share of stories like this. They probably also know quite a number of men who loves to pontificate.

It happens everywhere.

My boss is one who loves to hold court. Oh, what a prick he is. I respect him for his capability, but he is still a pompous jerk.