The subway in New York City is more than a utility. It's a microcosm of society. An environment where scenarios can symbolize abstract social topics.
So there I was.
Inside a crowded subway train. I stood in front of the doors, ready to exit at the next stop. As the train approached the station I felt someone push in front of me. It was a little girl determined to exit the train first. Her guardian stood by with a disapproving look but said nothing.
The scenario is no big deal. I had no need to exit first and easily took a step back to make room for the girl. And yet what bothered me was that neither I nor the guardian said anything. We let it happen - depriving her of a basic lesson in courtesy.
What if I had said something to the girl? Something like: it's rude to cut in front of people, you should be patient and wait your turn to exit the train.
Through one interpretation it's a favor. I offered basic courtesy advice that she may utilize in the future. I surfaced something she may not be aware of.
Yet through another interpretation I have ventured into "mansplaining" territory. Through my tone and word choice I just "mansplained" to this girl how she should behave. What if the girl actually needed to exit the train first and my condescending advice didn't help her at all?
The latter interpretation is becoming more common in our "politically correct" society. So even a simple comment on common courtesy can become misconstrued. The attention shifts from the comment to the intent.
The mansplaining interpretation makes my feedback personal. It implies that I said this to the girl because I'm a man, she's a girl, and I know better.
Yet what about the fact that she is a child and I am an adult?
Yet what about the fact that if she was a he, I would have said the same exact words in the same tone?
And this is why I have a problem with the word mansplaining. We already have a word for the scenario it describes: patronizing. What additional insight does the word mansplaining bring? Instead of value it brings harm and divide.
If you interpreted my comment to the girl as patronizing, that label is associated with that scenario. Gender stereotypes are not introduced. You acknowledge my intention (to teach a lesson in courtesy) but you disagree with my approach.
To interpret my comment as mansplaining, you now see me as someone that is reaffirming negative gender stereotypes. You don't recognize my intention (to teach a lesson in courtesy) and you fault me for trying because of my gender. You view me as patronizing and discriminatory.
And what can I say to convince you otherwise?
If you call me out in front of a group as mansplaining, that label is attached to me. People now evaluate all of my statements with the mansplaining lens.
I'm guilty without a trial.
And yet if you called me patronizing, the label attaches to the scenario. I was patronizing in that moment. The label doesn't persist. So future scenarios will be interpreted on a case by case basis.
A term like mansplaining is persistent. It attaches to people. It becomes a dark cloud that follows us, tainting everything we do.
So was I right to keep my mouth shut on the subway? I protected myself from being misconstrued. And yet I also deprived the child of a basic lesson in courtesy.