This primary season has inspired many accusations of various forms of _____-splaining. We've had call-outs of “Bernie-Bros” for the original tactic of "mansplaining”; responses to those call-outs as white feminist “Old-Splaining” or “Boomer-splaining” and most recently, a reference to white "Bernie-Splaining" to Black voters.
I won't get into the origin-story of the term, which you can read here. What interests me is that on all sides, it seems that political arguments go wrong when they are perceived to be patronizing attempts to tell other people what their real interests are.
That is, if I'm being Boomer-splained, as a woman, I am supposed to know that my REAL interest, my most important interest is to preserve Roe v. Wade, in internet parlance "because, the Supreme Court" and that the only way to do that is to vote for a viable Democrat. Thus, the only reason to explain why I would not vote for Hillary Clinton would be that having grown up after Roe, I must take this right for granted. For these particular splainers, I am both ignorant and a traitor to womankind if I don't reach the same conclusions they do about my interests in this political campaign season. My political behavior can only be explained by "not knowing my real interests". My interpretation of my experience is wrong; theirs is right.
Another popular argument that "Boomer" voters make to younger leftists (regardless of what election season it is) is that they are too young to have learned the vital lesson from the election of 1972, that ANY left candidate, would, like George McGovern inevitably lose in the general election. Thus, any vote for a leftist candidate in the Democratic primaries is a vote for the Republican party. This lesson has fueled a great deal of the strategy of the contemporary Democratic leadership as well as its rank and file since 1976. That there might be another interpretation of the 1972 election is not considered. To suggest that electing a conservative Democrat might be as bad as electing an actual Republican provokes exasperated exclamation. That the person who fails to learn this “McGovern lesson” is not ignorant, but has a different interpretation of recent history along with a different experience of the last several democratic administrations is not considered. Only one interpretation of the past can be right.
A final patronizing "splaining" politics that I have encountered in my voting life, which began when I voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primaries, is the argument to people who don't vote at all that they are failing to recognize their real interests and are letting the country go to the dogs because of their stupidity and apathy. These non-voters are the most 'Splained" of all during election seasons. “Just get out and vote,” the mantra goes. Therefore, I find it somewhat ironic to hear the supporters of the Democratic Party's center-right wing accusing those on the left, who have been "splained" and "splained" to for their entire voting and non-voting lives, of being the new Splainers-in-Chief. No one is up in arms about "splaining" to non-voters about how much difference a vote makes. There is plenty of evidence that it barely matters who you vote for, and that you can make change more effectively by joining social movements regardless of the year or season, than you can by throwing your energy into a political campaign. However, to argue for the rationality of non-voters instead of denouncing them is to evoke hyperventilation among believers in the electoral process. I am not spitting on voters who see it in their interest to do so. However...let the splainin begin.
My focus on boomers and democrats above, is not meant to imply that the Left has not often done a great deal of patronizing "splaining” of their own. The most odious form of splaining I’ve encountered comes from those who deny the significance of race relative to class or deride what they call "cultural politics." These splainers share a goal with me, but they have a different analysis of why it's failing to materialize. Based on what they write, and where they focus their energy, they seem to believe that the biggest obstacle to the creation of a strong multi-racial left is a competing left for whom race, gender and/or sexuality are as important, or more important, or even just inextricably intertwined with, the United States class structure. “If only these people would stop believing that race/gender/sexuality matter so much and realize that class was a more significant determiner of their experience,” these class-first analysts argue, “we could all join together and change the world.” Most of these splainers don't go quite so far as to blame working-class women, Blacks or queer people for what they see as bad analyses. Instead they describe the bad Black, women and /or queer leaders as bourgeois hucksters who are successfully bamboozling working-class members of these "cultural" groups to foreground these other aspects of their identity, ally against their own class interests and hitch themselves to the parties and agendas of wealthy Black people, women, queers, etc. Now there are of course real examples of such politics of bourgeois nationalism, feminism, etc. but not everything that places race, gender, or sexuality first is a bourgeois trap. Moreover, even in cases where there is BS going on, just telling people "here's what's really happening to you" is not a good way to engage in movement building.
To insist, and insist, and insist again that people's felt experience of race, gender, or sexual inequality is wrong only replicates the dismissal of their reality that they already experience from people who they see as their direct oppressors. This version of splaining is, in my view, a bigger obstacle to the growth of a multi-racial left coalition than any Beyoncé video. The biggest obstacle to building a multi-racial socialist movement in the US is what appears to be the continuing insistence of some socialist activists on adhering to a color-blind class politics that aggressively denies the lived experience of people of color.
My point is not that people's interpretations of their own experience cannot be questioned or that we cannot engage in conversations with people in which we try to get them to reconsider how they interpret their own experiences. I have engaged in many such conversations with white working-class conservatives; I have learned a lot when doing so. How things “really are” is often much more complicated than it appears in our day-to-day lives. But how we make political decisions is not usually based on sifting through the very complex nature of that reality either. The fact is that people get excited about a political message if it resonates with the way they interpret their own experiences in some way. We cross into the territory of patronizing "splaining" when instead of listening seriously to what someone else is saying about how they reached a particular political conclusion, we treat their analyses as inexplicable, pathological, malicious, the product of bamboozlement or stupidity. I mean this even for Trump supporters.
I know from the thrill I got when hearing Bernie Sanders say "political revolution against the billionaire class" and from seeing that Together video that my own political attachments are not just rational and fact based. Why should I expect anyone else's to be? Our own experiences inform what resonates with us. When we disagree with someone and get offended, it's worth asking ourselves: Could it be that we are missing something because we have blind spots based on inevitably limited experience? Could this person know facts that I do not know or have forgotten? I was recently swept up in the "free tuition" plank of Bernie Sanders' program as a purely populist one based on my history at CUNY until a friend reminded me that given the whitening of many state universities (which is not just about tuition), that this particular plan of redistribution could continue to advantage middle-class white people.
We know this: people are emotionally invested in particular interpretations of what has happened to them during their lives for complex reasons that cannot be "splained" away. If we are interested in building a strong multi-racial feminist socialist movement, we will never get there by splaining.
Finally, “ splaining” and argument aren’t the same thing. Not everyone who offers an alternative analysis or a new set of facts about something that happened, even if it is something that happened to us and not to them, is guilty of ----splaining. If we roll our eyes and call "SPLAINING!" every time we encounter someone who disagrees with us, if we can’t get past a defensive reaction to even an angry articulation of someone else’s point of view, we will never be engaged in real politics at all.