Book review: Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
Last week, a man I’ve worked with for quite a long time now insisted on explaining something to me. Unlike the understandably infuriating situation described in the title essay of Rebecca Solnit’s book, this wasn’t a case of explaining a subject that a woman understands very well, in which she might even be an expert, in fact. In my case, it was a lengthy harangue about how my personal opinion on something was completely wrong. As if I wasn’t entitled to my own opinion on the topic, or my response and feelings about it were inherently invalid.
I was also informed that maybe my negative feelings/opinion about the situations I experienced were different from his because by their very nature of being negative, I was attracting more negativity to myself. Hence, I got the bad experience I deserved, thanks to my own attitude, and his feelings and experience were positive because he faces things positively. Unlike me, where my negative experience can only mean that I brought it on myself, by asking for it. Uh huh. Do tell me more.
To top off this invalidation, anytime I tried to explain why I felt like I do, or give an example to back up my opinions, he just pitched his voice louder and continued talking over me. And I’m never going to yell over someone because I’m not an inconsiderate asshole who thinks that whoever shouts the loudest has the worthiest opinion and deserves the time to voice it. I was so pissed, and immediately exhausted, because of course this wasn’t the first time this has happened, just the shittiest in recent memory, and in the uncomfortable position of a form of workplace relationship, that I didn’t pursue it as wholeheartedly as I’d have liked to. There are times when the energy required to argue someone is just never going to match up with the hardheaded aggression they’re ready and capable of lobbing at you.
But I’m totally positive (just not positive in the same way as him, obviously) that this was a conversation that never would have taken place in exactly the same way if I’d been a man.
I seethed about it for awhile and then decided that the best course of action, besides never again voicing personal opinions to this person, was to read Men Explain Things to Me, which has been on my reading list for awhile now. It’s a great essay, well-deserving of its popularity and circulation, that verbalizes a lot of the casual insults that are thrown at women despite education, accomplishment, and eloquence. It’s unfortunate that reading it leads to so much head-nodding, and that the essay exploded in popularity thanks to its universality. It sucks that so many of us have been in situations like this, and that so many men see themselves in positions of power to be able to tell us, wrongly, all about what they think and what they think we should think. Fuck off. I can’t be more eloquent about it than that. Solnit is more eloquent thankfully, referring to an “archipelago of arrogance” that some men inhabit. Ain’t that the truth.
The essays deal with equality amongst all groups of people and how we’re failing spectacularly at achieving it – just basic equality for us all as humans in general. I can’t believe it’s even a subject we’re still forced to discuss like this. They’re full of clear but horrifying statistics. I was particularly struck by a lot of what was presented in “The Longest War”. Just read it. It’s so important.
I’m not crazy about Virginia Woolf so that essay fell flat for me, and occasionally I couldn’t quite follow where she was going with a train of thought. But on the whole these are vitally important to read and consider. Regardless of gender, you owe it to yourself to get this small but crucial piece of education.
Men Explain Things to Me
by Rebecca Solnit
published 2014 by Haymarket Books