Till Death Do Us Part

I think everyone who goes through a divorce remembers and struggles with one of the most familiar parts of the marriage ceremony. It echoes in our heads throughout and sometimes even long after our marriages, right alongside such goodies as for richer or poorer or in sickness and in health.

For us it’s the infamous Till death do us part.

Weren’t we supposed to stay together until one of us dies? You can imagine how those words can make divorcing people feel, even if they don’t believe in God.

We said all that in front of our friends and family. Did we not mean it? Did we just not understand?

I think these interpretations take death too literally. That is to say, of course bodies can die during a marriage. But a whole lot else can as well.

Love, for example, can die. Sometimes to be born again with the same person. Sometimes with another.

Sometimes love takes a vacation, then comes home. Other times, it leaves and never comes back.

But when love dies (especially erotic love), a basic warmth and affection can still remain. I think we all know couples like this who stay married forever.

Bodies are important, but they alone don’t constitute a marriage. And while love is important in marriage — perhaps even essential — the heart of a marriage is not love.

It’s respect. Respect is the retaining wall that holds back the worst of ourselves from one another. It’s what lets us be furiously angry at another without that anger in any way threatening our deepest love. And it’s what keeps us from inflicting the deadliest part of our pain upon those we’re closest to.

Sadly, it’s all too often the case that we don’t realize the role that respect plays in a marriage until it starts to fail.

When we feel disrespected, in or outside of marriage, we might say, “hey, you’re not treating me with respect.”

Sometimes such words come just in time for respect to be restored. “Oh my God, you’re right; that was wrong of me, and I’m so sorry I hurt you like that.”

Sometimes they come too late. “Respect isn’t given, it’s earned! If you want respect, start acting like you deserve it!”

When we have trouble treating one another respectfully, it might be because we were never treated respectfully, as children, or when we were most broken. Treating someone close to us disrespectfully can also be a way of restoring a sense of power and control, precisely during those moments when we feel most frail and vulnerable.

When respect falters, when we see it struggling, we might try to give it medicine. In the worst cases, we might even give it CPR. I think this is what marriage counselors and couples therapists do.

In an ideal world, respect comes roaring back to life. Spouses start once again expressing themselves fully while treating each other fairly, and without injuring one another. This is critical when spouses disagree fiercely about something important.

Disappoint, irritate, frustrate, even hurt one another, yes.  But never injure. Hurt heals when there’s respect. Injury only gets worse.

Sometimes, though, respect expires. Here’s where death gets the final word: the barriers to anger dissolve. Intimacies and secrets, which once bonded, now become weaponized. Spouses begin using one another as scratching posts or punching bags.

Things get said that can’t be taken back, and permanent damage is done to persons and relationships. Apologies cease to be made, and when they are, it’s more or less sincerely, more or less genuinely. When they come, they’re too late, and can’t even begin to heal the pain.

Time takes over that role, the role that was once fulfilled by the person hurting us.

The soul of a marriage dies when respect is lost. And that’s when marriage changes from a partnership into a prison.

Once a certain basic respect for someone is gone, there’s no bringing it back. And when you stay in a relationship where respect has died, your soul dies too, right alongside that of the relationship.

Sometimes that happens slowly and imperceptibly. Sometimes it happens rather suddenly.

Here’s the crucial point: the death that parts us is not our physical death. And love can long outlast the physical bodies that prompted it.

It’s not the death of love that parts us. Many marriages survive the death of love. Some even depend on it.

No, the death that parts us is the death of respect. It does so by announcing, more or less clearly, that we have to leave the relationship: for the sake of our soul, for the sake of our survival.

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Beginnings

I remember the day perfectly. 

I strode into the room, beaming with pride, my infant daughter strapped to my chest. Four months after becoming a dad, I was still full of energy and excitement. 

Underneath it all, however, I was terrified. I didn’t know any at-home dads in my area, and more than a few people in my social circle had expressed concern about the decision to put my career on hold while my wife pursued hers.

So when I read an ad about a New Parents play group in my town, I leaped at the chance.

“Hi, I’m calling about your play group.” 

“Yes, tell your wife we meet Tuesday mornings.” 

“Oh it’s for me.” 

“What?” 

“I’m an at-home Dad.” 

“Oh.” 

“I hope that’s ok. I don’t want to intru—” 

“Not at all. Can you come in two weeks?” 

“Sure; thanks!” 

“Not a problem.”

Looking back, I realized I fell victim to a common occupational hazard for therapists. When you spend your day reading between the lines, you tend to relax after hours. This means sometimes you miss some very important social signals.

When the day arrived, I dressed up my daughter in her very best playwear and headed to the group. I approached the mat where the moms were sprawled out, playing with their infants and toddlers. 

Not a single dad in sight. I took a deep breath, and kneeled down to unleash my daughter from her chest carrier. 

The moms bolted up in unison, like a tribe of meerkats. “Hi,” I said, extending a hand to the nearest one and introducing myself.

The tallest mom took my hand sheepishly, with the tips of her fingers, anxiously looking at her friends for guidance. Suddenly I wondered if I’d remembered to bathe.

“This is my daughter,” I said, trying to break the ice. My daughter — far more socially skilled than me — had already identified a playmate, and was admiring his toy truck.

Another mom spoke up. “I think there are some dolls over there for your daughter.” 

Without a chance to think about the gender stereotypes being offered, I said “oh thanks,” and immediately went over to look at the pile where she was pointing. I didn’t find any. 

When I came back, the moms had scooped their kids and were huddled together at the crafts table. At the opposite corner of the room.

Soon it was time for play dates and birthdays. Most moms were easy to schedule things with at pickup and drop off, but there was always a subset that seemed a bit leery. It was especially tough if they were moms of kids my kid wanted to hang out with. 

I’d introduce myself and ask them to call or email me if they were interested in a play date; but if they were, they’d call or email my wife instead (my wife runs two businesses and gets a ton of messages daily).

“They probably think you’re trying to hit on them.” 

“With a wedding ring on and a kid strapped to my chest?”

Scenes like that would repeat themselves over and over with some moms. With others, thank goodness, I was just a fellow parent. And when one would actually call me, it felt like I’d just been asked to the prom. 

When the time came, we enrolled our daughter in a highly recommended preschool some miles away. There we found some very progressive families, who marveled at we were doing. I can’t tell you what a shot in the arm that was. 

Soon our second daughter was born, effectively doubling my parenting duties as well as pleasures. Though I dreaded the hourly highway commute three days a week, I loved meeting a new kind of parent: one totally at ease with my being an at-home dad.

“I saw you on TV!” A kind journalist dad I met on Twitter had given my name to a local TV producer who was doing a story on at-home dads. She interviewed me and I was on the 5, 6, and 11 o’clock news.

“Oh thanks. Should I have worn Spanx?”

“Ha! You and your youngest looked great!”

Two years ago, we made the decision to move closer to the towns where we had our offices and were quickly making all our friends. A couple of days before moving, I was approached by a neighborhood mom while volunteering at a school function.

“Hey, I heard you’re moving.”

“Yeah.”

“Where to?” I told her. 

“Why?” 

Long story perhaps for another time, but I gave her the edited version. “Well, we never quite fit in here, and are looking to move closer to friends and work.”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you’re an at-home dad.”

“Excuse me?” I didn’t know whether to be more appalled at the sexism or the directness.

“I mean, to be honest, I don’t think too many of us are really all that comfortable with the idea of a man staying home and raising kids.” 

“You don’t say.” 

“Yeah, makes you wonder what’s wrong with him.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like I don’t know, can’t he find a job?” 

“You mean work outside the home.” I suspected this wasn’t the time or place to bring up gender or the notion of unwaged labor. “You know I have a private practice.”

“Oh I didn’t know that.” 

“Been seeing patients once a week since the girls were born.” 

“Really. I thought you used to be a professor or something.” 

“I was. I gave that up to become a full-time dad.” 

“Ok. But you know what I mean. It’s just weird.”

Under other circumstances, I’d have asked her to elaborate, but I decided otherwise. “Well thank you for your honesty and take care.” I offered her my hand to shake.

“No problem.” Then she surprised me. 

She didn’t take my hand, but gave me a warm hug instead. “Good luck with your move. We’re going to miss you and your wonderful girls.”

“Thanks.” I let myself cry just a little bit in the car on the way home. Still don’t know if they were happy, sad, or angry tears though.

A year later, I got a call from a colleague looking to refer a patient to me. I thanked her and asked what made her think of me.

“I saw you on TV last year with your daughter talking about being an at-home dad. I thought that kind of took balls.”

I thanked her.

Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.

On Information Asymmetries

Parent A discovers that their child doesn’t know something very important that they’ll need to know as an adult. “Hey Kiddo, I get the sense you may not know what a square root is. Let’s sit down for a few minutes to see if that’s the case. If so, I’ll bring you up to speed fast.”

Parent B discovers the same thing, but handles it very differently. “You don’t know what a square root is? Oh my God, I learned that in the fifth grade, and you’re a sophomore in high school? I can’t believe you’re 15 years old and don’t know what a square root is. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Boss A sees an employee is not doing their job. This boss pulls their employee aside and tries to find out if they’re aware of the specific expectations for their position. Boss A then tries to find out to what degree the employee is aware they’re not meeting expectations. Lastly, Boss A works together with the employee to craft a plan designed to improve performance, with clear goals and deadlines. 

Boss B discovers the same thing, but instead accuses the employee of loafing. When the employee expresses honest bewilderment, saying they thought they were doing their job well, Boss B becomes even more angry. “That just shows how stupid you are: you don’t even know you’re screwing up! Get it together or you’re fired!”

Spouse A is getting concerned over the household finances. Over dinner, Spouse A says to their spouse, “hey listen, I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but I really think you could be bringing more money into the home. Do you agree? And if so, what are your thoughts about what we can both do to make that happen?”

Spouse B is having similar concerns. Over dinner, and in front of their children, Spouse B asks their spouse to stop being lazy and get a job.

A has a boyfriend. A’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks A if A is seeing someone else. A winces. “Yes,” A answers. A’s boyfriend is devastated, but not crushed, and is able to come back from this very common heartbreak by sharing it with others.

B has a boyfriend. B’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks B if B is seeing someone else. B frowns. “That’s none of your business,” B says.

What’s going on here?

I recently came across the notion of information asymmetries while doing research for a project in political science. An information asymmetry is any situation where one person has more knowledge than someone else.

Given that no one is omniscient, information asymmetries are a fact of life. That is to say, we’re surrounded by people that have more knowledge than we do, and there’s always someone who knows something we don’t.

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Now when the information is trivial, irrelevant, or otherwise useless to us, it’s no big deal. But when it’s important for our purposes or goals, or critical for our growth or safety, the situation changes considerably.

You need that information. Someone else has it. If they know you need it, they are in a position to share it or withhold it. This creates a power imbalance in addition to an information asymmetry.

And it can get more complicated. Remember back in school when you thought you studied well for a test but ended up doing far worse than you imagined? You didn’t know what you didn’t know until you took the test.

So sometimes we know we’re missing information, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know we’re missing information but don’t know how important it is. Sometimes we know where to get it, sometimes we don’t. All of these constitute information asymmetries of their own, and they overlap to make the total asymmetry even bigger.

Either way, someone else almost always has the information you need. And far more often than not, that person is in a position to know if you need it, and in a position to provide it.

This is the situation between parents and children, bosses and employees, teachers and students, and politicians and their constituents, to name a few examples. It’s also the situation between societies, cultures, institutions, or other groups and their members. One partner to a very important relationship has information the other partner needs in order to grow, stay safe, or even in some cases to survive.

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The question then becomes: how are such information asymmetries handled?

Ideally, they’re handled in such a way as to dissolve them. That is, in the ideal condition, information is shared along a knowledge gradient so that the information gap disappears.

When this is done repeatedly, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, whatever portion of the power dynamic that depended on the asymmetry also disappears. This is the core informational feature of effective parenting and effective teaching.

This is how children grow to become effective parents, and students effective teachers. And while the power differential disappears, what’s often left in its wake is a feeling of respect and at times even love for the teacher.

One important feature of the ideal scenario is that information is viewed here as a positive-sum game. That is to say, the value of the information increases the more it’s given away. Here when information is shared, not only does everyone win, but people (and institutions) become individually richer than when they held the information alone.

In a positive-sum information asymmetry, someone with information is content, but never truly satisfied unless and until that information is shared with another. Very often in this scenario the information in question is viewed as far more important than the person temporarily carrying it. This makes the bearer of such information feel far more of a steward than an owner.

When the information is communicated in such a way that now two people have full access to, share, or otherwise command it, the interpersonal wealth of the situation grows, sometimes immeasurably. A relationship is created that is far richer than the information itself.

To borrow some terms from Pierre Bourdieu, this is how cultural capital turns to social capital.

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This is not always the case, however. On many occasions and in many relationships, knowledge is withheld so as to create, maintain, or even exacerbate information asymmetries. This is almost always done for the political or psychological benefit of those who hold the information.

Here information is a zero-sum game. It’s viewed as a precious commodity that is lost whenever it’s shared, and whose value increases the more it’s withheld. In the extreme, it can become fetishized, and its retention even eroticized.

In my experience, these situations most often revolve around issues of power, control, and self-esteem. Information is withheld in order to create, maintain, or expand a power relationship over another.

Sometimes this is done for the feeling of control it gives. Someone who’s used to feeling out of control in other areas of their life may feel much better knowing they can control someone else. Or they may just enjoy the rush that sometimes accompanies the feeling of being in control over another.

Other times, it’s a way of boosting self-esteem. There are individuals who learn to feel good about themselves primarily by way of making others feel bad about themselves. Shaming and blaming are probably the two most common strategies here.

Typically the people who need to do this the most are people who have been deprived of power, self-esteem, or control in their lives (especially in childhood), or had it wrested away from them suddenly by another.

In another blogpost I’ll describe these more toxic kinds of information asymmetries in greater detail, as well as suggest some strategies for handling them.

Empathy: More Than a Feeling

I was listening to the radio some months ago and got the beginnings of an answer to something that has been pestering me for quite some time.

As a teacher and as a therapist, I’ve struggled against the idea that empathy is nothing more than a feeling. Usually people who say that don’t have nice things to say about feelings in general, but more on that some other time.

Anyway, people tell me this all the time, in the process confusing empathy with sympathy, which is another can of worms in itself.

Here’s what I think empathy really is.

For empathy to be real and effective, it has to contain three sound components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Put another way, it has to involve effective thinking, feeling, and acting.

Feeling
The first thing you need in order to have empathy is emotional contact. That is to say, you have to be able to feel what someone else is feeling. Let’s call this affective or emotional resonance. Someone’s feeling X, along a particular frequency, amplitude, and wavelength, and suddenly you are too, just like them.

Now some people can’t do this. Try as they might, for whatever reason, no matter how much someone is feeling something — sometimes sitting right next to them — they just can’t pick it up.

This isn’t a moral failure; it’s just our training, how we were raised, and/or our neurology. Some of us are wired to resonate more easily than others, that’s all.

Incidentally, it’s not hard to see how resonating too much or too often presents a different kind of problem.

Thinking
So you’re feeling what someone else is feeling. Of course you could stop there; if not, the next step on the road from sympathy to empathy is being able to recognize what it is you’re feeling.

Is it something simple, like anger, loss, excitement, or boredom? Is it a more complex emotion, like guilt, shame, or betrayal? Is it some mixture of either group, perhaps in some tension or even outright conflict with one another?

The cognitive part of empathy involves being able to name the feeling you’re picking up from someone else. This, in turn, involves being able to step outside of the emotion — theirs and yours — just enough to be able to circumscribe it and give it a label.

Here we come to what I like to call the first paradox of empathy. On the one hand, you have to have contact with the emotion in order to resonate with it. To paraphrase a line from commercials often used to sell the lottery, you have to be “in it to win it.”

At the same time, however, you have to be able to step outside of the feeling just enough to be able to say “this is what I’m feeling” and not something else.

So the first paradox of empathy is that you have to be inside and outside of a feeling at the same time. Needless to say, not always an easy task; especially when the feelings are mixed, intense, or complex.

Acting
Last but not least, in order for empathy to be effective, it has to do something. That is to say, it has to be able to effect a particular kind of change in a relationship or the interpersonal world.

Most often done this is done verbally. You feel something that someone else is feeling, you put it into words, and then share you share those words with them. But it can be done non-verbally as well. A gasp, knowing glance, hand on the arm or shoulder, or a facial expression is sometimes all that people need to know you get them.

If you’re right (or even in the right ballpark), then a bridge gets built between the two of you that most of us call understanding. And if you keep at it (whether as a therapist, partner, friend, or family member), the bridge widens and gets sturdier.

That’s when it gets strong enough to carry trust.

This brings us to what I like to call the second paradox of empathy. When you say what you think someone’s feeling, you can be right or wrong. Either way, for someone to tell you how you’re doing with regard to understanding them presupposes a certain amount of trust. Absent that trust — most often a trust that good things can come from conversations like these —  people may not tell you whether you’re even close to getting them.

And empathy is what allows that trust to happen in the first place. So the second paradox of empathy is that it both presupposes and is responsible for building trust.

I love paradoxes 🙂

How to Avoid Mansplaining

All right, mansplaining.

I know.  I’m a guy and I’m about to explain how to avoid mansplaining.  I’m gambling on a few things here.  I’m fairly confident there’s a form of explaining that avoids the pitfalls of mansplaining; what’s not clear to me is if it can work here, or how much (especially given my own history with mansplaining) I’m up to the task.

One strategy I came up with to deal all this is to address this post exclusively to men.  Of course this would be done in full knowledge that women are reading too; the idea is that if I did end up mansplaining (despite my best efforts to the contrary), at least I (a male) would be doing so to men instead of women.

For a number of reasons, I found myself uncomfortable with this approach. It seems itself rather patronizing (which is a lesson in itself!).  Also, I’ve just never been comfortable with excluding anyone from a conversation like this.  Just doesn’t feel right, for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

Thinking about it for weeks, it seems my only option is to be empirical.  That is to say, I could continue playing around with the idea in my head, but won’t find out for sure if it’ll fly unless I actually try.  So here we go.

What is mansplaining?  Most accounts describe it as uniquely patronizing, condescending, or even infantilizing way of men addressing women.  Now while I by no means disagree with this definition, I don’t think it’s quite enough to help stop a lot of the mansplaining that takes place.

I prefer to see mansplaining as a genderized form of hierarchical monologue.  Now I don’t see my understanding as in any way at odds with the previous understanding.  What I do think, and I’ll offer this for your consideration, it that it might be a bit better in terms of helping us unpack what’s really going on inside mansplaining.

Mansplaining is hierarchical in that its primary purpose is to promote power relations.  It’s genderized in that it does so along gender lines, specifically according to the dictates of patriarchy.  And it’s a monologue in that it’s a one-way form of communication.

The end result, it seems to me, is a form of discourse where what’s communicated is a view of men as superior to women, with very specific demands made on the listener.

As an aside, here’s where I may differ from others.  I think conversations like these have been happening since time immemorial across race, class, religion, social, and economic lines, as well as between adults and children.  This leads me to suspect (and I may be on thin ice here) that the genderized piece is secondary to the hierarchical one.

Now you may disagree with me completely here, and your options are far from limited.  You could say there is something qualitatively unique about genderized inequality as a matter of history, and that this makes the gender component primary rather than secondary.  You could also say that situating mansplaining within the broader context of power relations intrinsically diminishes the gender component, thereby relegating it to secondary status.  This could even be seen as yet another instance of simultaneously and covertly masking male privilege while reinforcing patriarchy (ouch).

In defense of my definition, I think it allows us some important conceptual and political flexibility.  It follows from the sketch I provided that while mansplaining is typically and predominantly done by men, it can be done by anyone who identifies with male privilege.  That is to say, in this view mansplaining is (usually but not always) men explaining things to (usually but not always) women in an uniquely condescending, patronizing or even infantilizing way.

Can women do it?  I suppose so, in the sense that oppressed groups often act out among themselves the inequalities, injustices and injuries visited upon them by outsiders.  Have to say, though, the vast majority of mansplaining I see is done by men.  And to anticipate another set of objections, I don’t think that’s completely because of biology or anything essential to the concept of maleness; I think, rather, that it’s largely due to men being raised to think and behave along particular lines.

So while this doesn’t absolve men of the responsibility to cut the crap (instructions provided below), it does suggest powerful social forces are at work in mansplaining, alongside often critical personal and moment-to-moment choices, as well as qualities.

Now I don’t think we have to agree on what comes first or is more important (the gender or the hierarchy) to have an effective dialogue on mansplaining.  I could be wrong here, perhaps even egregiously so. Nevertheless, I still think the key point is that both get mixed up in an interesting way such that what’s being communicated is not so much information but (the importance of) a patriarchal relationship.

So what’s inside mansplaining?  It occurs to me that the mansplainer is attempting to sell you (his target) a number of Very Important Ideas, ideally without question.  I’m assigning them numbers not so much to rank them in order of importance (though some of them do depend on others) as to make it easier to refer to them in case they provoke any discussion:

  1. that they possess something you lack (usually knowledge or expertise, but sometimes also wisdom, maturity, or even moral fiber)
  2. that this something is not just a quality or skill, but a human virtue
  3. that this is not just true of you but everyone in your (let’s say gender) group
  4. that this makes it even harder for you to understand what the mansplainer is trying to tell you (or, in some cases, appreciate his wisdom or brilliance)
  5. that this, in turn makes any difficulty understanding or accepting what the mansplainer is trying to say (or any communicative failure at all) entirely your fault
  6. that all of the foregoing makes the mansplainer qualitatively better than you (once again, along some dimension of consequence), which in turn justifies a number of attendant social, economic, and political privileges
  7. that this is (or ought to be) as clear to you as it is (or ought to be) universally acknowledged
  8. that your primary socially obligations are to internalize all of these Very Important Ideas (e.g., believe them deeply and without question), work hard to promote them, and prove to any and all mansplainers that you have done so to their satisfaction (usually through a display of social deference; professional titles are especially helpful here)

Another thing: while the bulk of the communication is verbal, there are often important non-verbal components as well, such as a sigh or a well-timed eye roll. All these combine to reinforce the “I am better than you and you’d better publicly agree” message.

The sum total of the interaction is to make the mansplainer feel better than the listener at her expense.  That is to say, it’s one of many ways people have of boosting their self-esteem by taking someone else’s down. When this happens in a blatant or egregious manner, it’s easy to see and call out.  However, I think it happens far more often in far more subtle ways.

This brings me to the notion of microaggressions: tiny little paper cuts to the self-esteem that add up over a lifetime to destabilize or even erode the listener’s own confidence in her intelligence, perceptions, virtue, or even adequacy.  It’s saying “I’m better than and in charge of you” or “you are defective compared to me” through a gesture, a tone of voice, an image, an advertisement, a song, etc.

Now it’s bad enough when this happens to grownups, who’ve already had some chance to build up a sense of self as well as self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Here we’re annoyed at best, but our basic confidence in ourselves and our abilities remains intact.  You can imagine the damage it can do when it’s targeted at a group of people from the earliest age.

So that’s the basic process I see at work.  Given this analysis, how do we stop it?

One hope I have is that a greater awareness of the viciousness and cruelty that lies at the heart of mansplaining goes a long way towards eradicating it.  But I’ve also come up with more specific suggestions as well.  I saved them for the end because I don’t think they have quite the same power without a closer look at the power dynamics, psychology, and social role of mansplaining.  Once again here they are, and in no particular order, although some typically occur before others:

  1. If you haven’t already, brush up a bit on gender and privilege (and especially if you have, resist the temptation to think you know all about it already).  Keep in mind nobody’s completely free from the effects of bias, prejudice, and bigotry; specifically, that everyone has biases and is victimized to some degree by inequality.
  2. Be careful about thinking of individuals as representative of particular groups, and privately acknowledge any biases you’ve likely inherited from your family of origin or the larger culture.  As with any belief, keep in mind the all-important difference between having a bias, reflecting on it, and acting on it.
  3. Keep in mind the difference between taking effective responsibility for bias and shouldering blame.  Blame is often an invitation to feel worse about something and can be deflating.  Responsibility, on the other hand, may include remorse but empowers individuals to make bad situations better.  Put another way, it’s one thing to make you or someone else feel bad about having bias, it’s quite another to say and do things that encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it.
  4. When your bias or privilege is exposed without your knowledge or consent, treat it the same way you’d treat falling trousers.  That is to say, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, just smile, realize everyone has a derriere, pull up your pants, try to extract the appropriate lesson, and move on.
  5. If you haven’t already, ask someone who knows and/or who’s studied it about the concept of microaggressions.  Learn about how they can affect the quality of a home, workplace, or relationship.  Learn how they add up over the course of a brief period or a lifetime to demoralize, deflate, and oppress individuals or entire groups of people.
  6. If you’re feeling especially bold, look into the ways we deauthorize people as knowers on a regular basis, often without knowing it.
  7. Before explaining anything, ask yourself if you’re really in a position to do so.  Some questions to consider here: do you really know more about the topic than your listener?  Is this really the best (or even the right) place and time for it?
  8. Ask yourself if you want the explanation to be more of a monologue or a dialogue.  Be mindful of the differences between both forms of speech, especially the different expectations each makes of its intended audience.  Have some plan to handle the frustrations that typically arise when certain expectations aren’t met (in this case, when you set out to have one kind of conversation and instead get the other).  Also beware of taking this frustration out on your audience; if you feel it’s appropriate or useful to share, consider using the most respectful words possible.
  9. Make sure you have at least one way of explaining the thing you want to explain.  Wonder to what degree these different ways of explaining take into account someone’s level of knowledge as opposed to social status.
  10. Consider also any effects your different explanations or styles of explaining could have on your listener as well as the larger audience, especially if there’s a mismatch along any key dimension.  How will you know if your style or mode of explaining is succeeding?  How will you know if it’s failing in some important way?  What adjustments are you prepared to make or willing to consider as a result?
  11. Remember that you are no more your explanation than your listener is their response to it.  That is to say, your explanation can succeed or fail without this saying anything whatsoever about how good you are in any of your most cherished roles (parent, teacher, supervisor).  Likewise, resist the temptation to judge your listener by the success (or failure) of your explanation, or their response to it.
  12. Be prepared to look at your explanation as pragmatically and non-judgmentally as possible.  Also, when listening to feedback, let past experience be your guide here, and don’t dismiss someone’s experience simply because you don’t share it.
  13. Ask yourself if you think the knowledge you’re about to impart makes you a better person than your listener. If the answer is yes, ask it again until you get the right one.
  14. Wonder how useful your information is likely to be to your audience.  Wonder how you might handle it if they disagree with your assessment of its value.
  15. Wonder about hierarchies and emotional overtones.  Will the explanation help empower someone, let’s say bring them up to your level of (not virtue but) expertise?  Or will it keep or even push them down?  Be especially careful here about sharing information that’s designed simply to show off what you know or make someone else feel stupid.  If you suspect that’s happened, ask, and if so, apologize.
  16. If you get into a back-and-forth (and especially if you didn’t set out to), keep in mind the crucial difference between positions and persons.  That is, it’s one thing to say a position (belief, view, etc) is wrong and quite another to say a person is wrong (i.e., don’t say “you’re wrong”).
  17. If you find frustration mounting (yours or your listener’s), take a step back and beware of taking it out on your listener.  One often key mental step is to avoid thinking (and saying!) that your interlocutor lacks certain virtues or values.  While entirely possible, more conversational (and hence more persuasive) opportunities are opened up by assuming the other person simply has values other than yours, however well they’re articulated or even known to either of you.  Put another way, assume everyone acts according to principles and that, for the curious, it’s just a matter of patiently discovering what they may turn out to be.
  18. If things get heated, consider the possibility that maintaining the relationship may now be a greater priority than communicating the explanation.  Be especially aware of threats to the respect of all parties to the conversation, such as the temptation to engage in name-calling and insults.
  19. When you’re done explaining, listen.  Keep an ear open to the possibility you may not have explained well, that you used the wrong words, or that others’ equally valid experience produced complementary or even contradictory information.
  20. Be especially tuned in if you find yourself losing self-esteem or social status if your listener doesn’t agree with you more or less completely.  That’s often a sign, in my view, that what’s at stake here isn’t sharing information but reinforcing power relations.  If so, allow yourself a small chuckle at your expense, go back to the beginning of this list, and start over.

I’m sure I’m going to be revising this list and post down the road, so be generous with your feedback 🙂

History and Critical Theory

One of my most vivid memories of high school was a beloved former teacher of mine saying, citing Thorstein Veblen, that education was a “leisure class activity.”

Whether or nor this is an accurate characterization of Veblen’s views, I remember howling at this statement. Sure, I thought, things like history and philosophy could be idle diversions for some. For others, however, especially (but by no means uniquely) those on the wrong side of a class, racial, gender, religious, sexual, or other divide, they were emancipatory disciplines, to borrow a term from Habermas (whom I didn’t hear about until college).

They weren’t leisure activities, I remember saying back. They were survival strategies. I only remember two other things: my classmates looking at me like I was from another planet, and my dear old teacher smiling at me.

Anyway, tonight I came across a quote that brought back that old memory in a wonderful way. Ostensibly about women, I think the point generalizes nicely across all forms of injustice rooted in inequality, as well as to those choosing the difficult but rewarding path of facing their family or personal history:

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (h/t @sacredflow)