I need to explain something. Because there seems to be quite a bit of explication directed at my writing. Well, truly, aimed at me. Those who are explaining have normally not read what I’ve written, never mind all that I’ve read and researched on each essay topic. That is to say the explainers frequently do not know what they are explaining, only that they are explaining to me.
This is, of course, a common problem for women, one that Rebecca Solnit has wryly — and perfectly — named “men explain things to me”. Have you noticed the letters emphatically bolstering obviously feminine names on Twitter? These are the mute cries to be heard. To be accorded respect. To be listened to as an expert. Or even as a person. I can’t say that those dangling letters make much difference to the explainers however. The explainers are not engaging with what is being said, but rather with the gender — and, to a much lesser extent, the age, race, and socio-economic status (all entangled qualities) — of the person who is saying it. Those letters confer expertise on the subject matter, but do nothing to change the inherent hierarchies in our culture in which a person with a feminine name is not automatically conferred respect but must work to prove herself. Constantly and futilely. Because all her efforts will not make her a white male. In our culture any average white male is ranked above any and all women, maybe particularly those with dangling letters. In our culture, men are free to explain what they do not know to women by virtue of their status in society. Not because they understand or experience the subject, but because they are assumed to be of superior intellect and rationality and therefore expert relative to women in all subjects. They assume this because our culture has taught them to do so.
Our culture is created to maintain status hierarchies. The underlining structures are often hidden deep in the ways we view the world, in our language, and in our responses to our lived experiences. We are conditioned, enculturated. We are bombarded with these assumptions, taking them in with our mother’s milk, seeing them in every image, hearing them in every word. It takes extreme effort to simply observe the ways in which hierarchy is maintained. These explainers are very likely unaware of the misogyny they are enforcing. They may even feel that they are standing in solidarity with the author whose words they critique. Some of the explainers may even call themselves feminist.
Which should be an incandescently red flag.
I do not dangle letters after my name. This does not mean that I do not not have expertise and knowledge. I consciously chose to hide my credentials and education for many reasons, not least because after a life of playing those games (and dominating many playing fields, I might add) I realized, horrifyingly, that I was part of the problem. In chasing after credentials I was supporting the system, supporting the status quo. Look at that phrase. We loosely define it as “how things are”, but it actually means something much more like “existing height”. As in “this is how things are ranked in value and meaning”. This is how you are ranked relative to higher beings. In naming my successes within this ranking system, I was perpetuating the system of rank. I was confirming the idea that successfully engaging with this ranking system conferred higher status on my experience and knowledge. That is what those letters mean. I am higher than you. When I realized that, I nearly cried in frustration. And I stopped dangling the letters. I dropped out of the meritocracy forever. The meritocracy is exactly the thing that needs to be destroyed if we are to have a level playing field, if we are to be equal in opportunity.
I am not higher than you. Nor are you higher than me. We are equal and different, same and heterogenous. We are each the sum of our lived experience and we are each expert at that and only that. I am not an expert at being you. You are not an expert — or judge — at being me. I may have information that you do not possess. That does not confer rank on my intellect. That just means I have lived a different experience than you. (Well, of course!) You have information I do not possess. You are not my superior, even in that subject matter. You simply have done things that I have not. Yet. Though there are many things you have experienced that I will never get to in my living, because I am unable or because I choose not to. This has no implication for our relative merits. It is just how and who we each are.
There are not male feminists. There may be men who actively support a system of thought and deed that does not separate male and female into permanent hierarchies though I have not yet personally met a man that has completely excised that system from his conscious and subconscious thinking. But men have not lived a female existence and can never be experts in that experience. This does not make them lesser than women. This makes them different. Difference is not rank. Or it would not be if we could get ourselves free from this culture where everything is rank (because everything must have a relative value, a market value, a price tag). Nevertheless, equality of rank will never make a man a voice for women. Women have their own voice and should be free to use it, should be expected to use it, should be required to use it. We need those voices in order to understand our whole combined living experience. We don’t need men who name themselves feminists. We need people who live as equals.
And we need all manner of experience. That is how we obtain real factual information about this world. That is how we succeed. The more we celebrate our different perspectives and heterogenous ways of being, the more we comprehend. And that comprehension is how we are made free to live in contentment.
I do not flaunt my rank because I no longer believe in it. But an unexpected benefit of dropping out of the ranking system is that I feel so very much happier. You don’t realize how much effort and stress you are putting toward maintaining that rank. In the case of women, it is largely useless effort. We will never achieve higher status because the entire system is created so that we can’t. Look at the statistics. There are more female college graduates in the workforce, but men still dominate in positions of leadership and of course in the resultant wages. There are more women with letters dangling behind their names, but male names still vastly outnumber female names in professional publications. Women outnumber men by a significant margin overall on this planet, but our needs and voices are still suppressed and secondary. It feels great to abandon all that pointless striving and name it for what it is: stupid fear.
Which underscores something Rosemary Ruether once said. Men need other ways to feel confident in themselves. Women seem to have integrity just by being women. Even if we never choose motherhood, we are built with that extraordinary capability. One that men will never have, one that has bred awe and fear and envy throughout human existence. Men need that type of experience also. Not relative to women or to other men. They need pride in being themselves independent of rank and value. Men need something inherent and interior to themselves. Men need to be celebrated as men. Men need roles. It is dumbfounding that there are no celebrated male roles that do not entail rank and domination — and, it must be added, the violence that comes with rank and domination. Fatherhood is sort of a lost cause in this society, perhaps permanently tainted by patriarchy, certainly presently weighed down with too much negative historical baggage. But why do we not celebrate craftsmen? Not for the value of what they produce but for the work and expertise they embody. In any case, men need inherent integrity, not relative rank. And until we can figure that out as a society, men will always be trying to out-rank women.
And there will be more desperate explaining…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021