FWD/Forward has a very good, succinct discussion of ‘splaining. I like it, because the discussion directly relates the concept to using your position of privilege to take away someone else’s power of self-expression. In short, it’s a man using his position of privilege to tell a woman her experiences of being a woman are less worthwhile than his opinions on what it’s like to be a woman, or a temporally able-bodied person telling a disabled person that their opinions on disability are more valid that the disabled persons experiences. A classic example is a minority being told by people who aren’t part of the minority, ‘You’ve got no reason to be offended by that’.
I’ve seen it used in a more general way, to refer to when a person of privilege assumes their opinions on anything are of more value then the opinions of a person they are privileged over. The guy telling my friend how to start her motorbike, for example. It’s a definition I have a few problems with, because it’s a bit vague and woolly and open to interpretation. If I was speaking to a female writer, for example, and made suggestions on how she could improve her prose, she could accuse me of mansplaining. Until she knows that I dedicate a lot of my time to perfecting prose, she would probably have every right to think that. Conversely, a female who doesn’t write could tell me how to improve my prose, and there would be no portmanteaux for that.
Something I’ve heard parents say a lot is, ‘you don’t have children, you don’t understand, you have no right to tell me how to raise my children’. It really, really gets my back up. Underlying it seems to be an assumption that when you become a parent, you are automatically granted access to a special set of skills and knowledges that only fertilizing an egg or forcing a baby out of your vagina can give you access to. I mean, maybe that’s true. When you decide to raise a child, maybe you’re automatically granted a few levels in parenting. Evidence seems to suggest that you learn to raise children the same way humans learn everything else, though: Trail and error; and imitation.
If I were to tell a parent that they shouldn’t treat their child like x, y or z, it seems that I would ‘splaining to them. Me, with no personal experience, telling someone who does have personal experience how to do it better. To an extent, I totally agree with that. I wouldn’t assume I could change a nappy or give a child a bath, much less tell a parent how to do it.
There’s a line somewhere, though. If I saw a mother smacking the crap out of her child in a restaurant, I’d feel morally obliged to step in. I also think that raising children on a diet of deep-fried pizza and chips is wrong, and I wouldn’t feel unjustified in telling parents they should introduce some fruit and veg into their children’s diet. If parentsplaining can, in fact, exist, then only people who are parents themselves should be allowed to work in child protection services.
If parentsplaining can exist, and people without children can tell parents that drying your child with a cheese grater is wrong, then parentsplaining is qualified. Those without personal experience can tell those with personal experience they’re doing it wrong under some circumstances.
Perhaps parentsplaining can’t exist. Perhaps parentsplaining can’t exist because parents are the socially accepted norm, and are therefore in the position of privilege over the childless. Perhaps the fact that demonstrable harm is being done to a child is a pretty clear and unambiguous line that doesn’t exist in other instances of ‘splaining. Perhaps the fact that children are a disempowered group themselves means parentsplaining isn’t comparable to other instances. Perhaps it’s the fact that being a parent is–a lot of the time–a choice, while being a woman, or disabled, or of colour isn’t that makes the situation different.
Clearly, I don’t understand ‘splaining yet. Before I can understand and assimilate a concept, I need to boil it do to its quintessential essence and watch the vital parts twitch and move. Then I can slowly, carefully, put the variations back in. This is just me thinking aloud here, fiddling with my Bunsen burner, my test tubes and my Petri dishes. Why do I need to write a blog post about it? Because I need to write about things to examine them. Prose is my laboratory. And I’m posting it in public because, I dunno, maybe someone else will find it useful. Plus, of course, I’ve got a ego to placate…