I have noticed that a certain preponderance of white men my age and older legitimately struggle to comprehend the concept of “mansplaining” specifically, and exhibit what I believe is accidental obtuseness when they are criticized for coming off like imperious gasbags, in general.
I don’t have to “make an effort to understand” these men. I am one. But I think I should make one effort to make them see themselves as other people see them—as I have tried to do in recent years. (If I don’t mind virtue-signaling so, myself.)
Let’s take a recent example of Edu-macated White Male Gasbaggery that I was personally involved in.
A Facebook debate pitted me and another acquaintance in another episode of the once-popular show, “Just a Couple of White Guys A-Kickin’ It Around.” After dozens of salvos from my debater and sallies from me over several days on a subject that doesn’t matter one bit for our purposes—the journalist, novelist, writer and speechwriter Tanya Barrientos remarked, “This entire exchange is a blazing example of white privilege—tossing intellectual ‘observances’ of morality, and the characterization of entire swaths of humans, back and forth like a tennis ball—whack, whack, whack, whack—from the pretty perch of white, male, upper class, straight, righteousness.”
White privilege! “Observances” in quotes—and the subject matter reduced to a tennis ball!
My initial defensiveness was real, is real, always will be real. Obviously, as a writer, however vulgar an example, I must defend my right to have a public intellectual debate with whoever I choose to engage. (That, or I have to go to DeVry Academy and become an electrician, and nobody wants that.) And I did defend my writer’s rights—before observing that the specter of the conversation had sickened me during the fighting itself. Whereas such a preening public rhetorical donnybrook was once what I thought I lived for.
My circumstances have changed, from pure writer to the leader of a professional community. And the world has changed. (For instance, Frank Sinatra is no longer, “the most enduring champion of them all,” and Howard Cosell is in no position to name him that anyway.)
And I have changed—no longer willing to do nearly as much for pure attention, because no longer much interested in fame.
The man I’d been debating, on the other hand, was having none of my simpering, mincing, waffling humility. If white male writers have to be self-conscious about debating each other lustily and bombastically in public anymore, “Well, there goes H.L Mencken, William Buckley, Christopher Hitchens …”
Mencken, before we could actually see him debate in person. In the only recording of his voice, he sounds oddly like Jimmy Stewart.
But Buckley and Hitchens, we can actually watch in action together, on Buckley’s long-running PBS show, Firing Line, episodes of which I occasionally gape at on YouTube in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep. Like the famous portrait of Kramer, the show is hideous, and yet I can’t look away. Here were Buckley, Hitchens and a very creepy looking and reedy-voiced third character, the then-editor of The American Spectator. You probably won’t watch long enough to get to his implication, in 1984 mind you, that women ought not to work outside the home.
But just look at the style of the show, the tone of the conversation and imagine how about 97% of the American population might have felt watching these guys carry on like they were the most enduring champions of them all. And this is not the worst example, believe me. I have spared you Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer (who actually did call himself the champion of the American novelists, and dared other writers to knock him off. Jesus!).
Now, can you see how you—how we—might come off to some people, who are goddamned sick of listening to our Theories of Everything? Are you at all interested in trying to not come off this way anymore, so as not to further alienate everyone else?
Of course, 97% of the American population never did watch Firing Line. And that percentage might be lower now—I didn’t even know it was still still on the air. It looks different now!
Aside from its obviously increased inclusiveness, today’s Firing Line conversation is much more cooperative and constructive and less combative. That’s the conversation PBS is now trying to set up, and these are the people they invited to have it, and this is the conversation these people had.
If you don’t see the difference—or think it’s only superficial—then you refuse to see at all.
And if you don’t think that difference is appropriate for our times—then I worry your thinking isn’t changing with these times.
And I think your thinking should. And maybe your communication style, with it.
And whether or not it does, others’ sure is. Tanya Barrientos’ remark, had she made it at all, would have seemed entirely out of left field 20 or even 10 or even five years ago. To me, it comes right down Broadway these days. Did you find #metoo completely without social merit? Did four years of cartoonish white-male White House pomposity not leave the slightest metalic taste in your mouth? In the wake of George Floyd, was your sound on?
I spent some time in a drug treatment center when I was a teenager. There, a rather recently recovering alcoholic-turned-counselor pointed a stub of a chopped-off finger in my face and told me I was an arrogant ass—and furthermore, that it was important that I learn to see myself as other people saw me.
I haven’t always been sure that’s right. Many times over many years I have asked, “Which other people? My enemies, or my friends? Or perfect strangers, who I hadn’t even known were watching?”
I have worried that if I saw myself too clearly through too many different pairs of eyes, I might be paralyzed. And if I heard myself too clearly through too wide a variety of ears, I might go mute.
I’ve recently realized that I am exactly the only person in the world who worries about me becoming mute.
Or even about me seeing and hearing myself too clearly.
What about you?