Of 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.
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.
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, “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.
 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.