I just don't know a damn thing about anything. At least, that's the impression I get the deeper I stare into the internet. It's overwhelming, this sense of ineptitude, and I put a lot of the blame on a smug culture of 'splaining that now dominates swaths of the digital media landscape.
It's hard to go a day on the internet without getting 'splained. There are just so many ways to be told what's what:
Mansplaining. That awful thing when a man explains something, anything, despite knowing less about the topic than the person at which he's aiming his 'splaining. It's an obnoxious, misogynistic power play that has been around for decades, perhaps longer. Man-on-man mansplaining certainly exists, although it's women, arguably, who get mansplained more often than men do.
In 2008, when Rebecca Solnit popularized the portmanteau "mansplain" in her essay Men Explain Things to Me, it struck a nerve, and for good reason. But in the years since, as the meme spread and the men's rights crowd misappropriated its original meaning, the word "mansplain" has lost a lot of its bite, if it hasn't been defanged altogether. More on this in a moment.
Whoever said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature is a flippin' genius.
— Christopher Mims (@mims) December 3, 2014
Blogsplaining. Is this what I'm doing right now? The irony is not lost. Literally any thinkpiece, any piece of Content from the "The [adjective] of [newsworthy event], in 9 Tweets" headlinebook, any piece of Content from the "No, X Is Not Y" headline book (and yes, I'm guilty), and any explainer Card on general interest news site Vox.com, is blogsplaining.
Mayorsplaining. Remember that one time the Mayor of London likened "shirtgate" to "something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot"?
Shoesplaining. Apparently a thing.
Dancesplaining. Also apparently a thing.
Exsplaining. When an ex tells the world why you're the worst. I'm thinking, specifically, of Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn's ex-boyfriend posting a sprawling essay with the intent to slut shame and punish Quinn. Nothing in the essay was true.
What even is 'splaining, anyway? Is it ad hominem? Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum defines "'splain" as "basically just a snarky version of STFU that combines pseudosophisticated mockery and derision without any substance to back it up."
I won't disagree. This type of 'splaining, let's call it trollsplaining, is snide, baseless rejoindering. Trollsplaining is being a dick in the comments section, and a dick on Twitter. Trollsplaining is racist, sexist, agist, and everything else awful. Trollsplaining is mansplaining, Mittsplaining, and exsplaining, among others. Trollsplaining thinks you should fuck off and die because you've got it all wrong, especially how you're not a white male.
But it's also so much bigger than that. Another, more insidious brand of 'splaining, let's call it thinksplaining, pervades the news cycles. Thinksplaining is techsplaining, blogsplaining, and Voxsplaining, among others. It masquerades as Cliff's Notes, when really it speaks truthiness to the less powerful.
It goes something like this: I'm an expert aged well beyond my years; so, because I am the keeper of knowledge, not you, the only way to get my point across is to break this down for you, and others like you who don't have bachelor's degrees (and live in flyover states) in a way that's variously insulting and mocking to your intelligence, gender, age, and race. That is essentially a thinksplainer's MO when he (it's often, though not always, a man) tells you what he thinks you *need* to know, even if it's not something you want to hear.
What is it about 'splaining culture then? Why is it everywhere? Is it because 'splaining is a lucrative business model for upstart media companies? Does it have to do with the resonance of a "successful" meme that's now too big to fail? What about how people who naturally are pricks in meatspace are even bigger pricks when they can simply be anonymous online trolls?
Entire media companies have adopted thinksplaining as a core pillar of their business models. Whether or not that's "good" business, time will tell.
People were trollsplaining and thinksplaining long before the internet, computers, even electricity. So perhaps 'splaining, broadly speaking, is the most "successful" meme precisely because it precedes the digital experience. The internet just made it a whole lot easier to 'splain, and be 'splained. One of the greatest (worst) tricks the internet ever pulled, and continues pulling, was to convince people that their opinions not only matter but that they must share them with the world, even if that means counterarguing someone else's case with threats of rape and death.
Which brings us back to the popularization, and subsequent misappropriation, of the portmanteau "mansplain." Salon's Benjamin Hart calls it "one of our most useful words," and laments how the internet ruined it for everyone: "Along the way, mansplaining has morphed from a useful descriptor of a real problem in contemporary gender dynamics to an increasingly vague catchall expression that seems to be inflaming the Internet gender wars more than clarifying them."
Nevertheless, Oxford Dictionaries, in a distinctly pop quarterly update last August, added "mansplain," as originally defined, to its online dictionary. That could be a good thing. Or, maybe it means we must now kill the 'splain meme, once and for all.
Either way, I'm a white guy paid to work for the internet for a living. I've got it easy, all things considered. Like very, very easy. I'm conscious of the chilling effect of mysoginistic trolls, but what do I really know about the chilling effect of misogynistic trolls? I've been mansplained, but I've been never Mansplained. I have seen the crusaders of the anti-woman internet, who say they're mansplaining as if it's a Good Thing, attack some of my closest colleagues, who happen to be brilliant women, simply because they're brilliant women.
The internet is telling me I don't know anything, but I know enough to say that is unconscionable.