Coincidental timing? Hot topic? Either way, the Indian External Affairs Minister impressed with the perceptiveness and balance of his words at the Raisina Dialogue that took place in New Delhi in 2018.
But let’s not jump the gun—first let’s take a moment to consider that clever turn of language that came out of the 2000s, mansplaining. A portmanteau of “man” and “explaining,” it is used to describe a situation in which a man explains something to a woman who already knows it, or even a woman who is already an expert on the topic, often using a patronizing or condescending tone. This sociological phenomenon is well known—the dominated talking and thinking about the dominator, while the great overlord enjoys his position thinking only of himself. This dynamic produces a feeling of superiority that, with a prescriptive influence, creates a sociological environment with mansplaining as one of the symptoms. Though the word is newly coined, the act is one as old as time. It is not, however, exclusive to the fairer sex.
To explain why, let’s take a look at this brief exchange in which our minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was answering questions from the moderator, Samir Saran, in front of attendees.
I’ve transcribed the discussion starting at the eight-minute mark (Youtube):
- Samir Saran: Let me ask you (about) Russia, and if you were to now make similar predictions for the next year (2019), when you’re speaking with us again and I question you on those. What will those be, so Russia and the next changes that 2019 could see as something that people we would all to content with?
- Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: Well, you know, to be very honest, if there’s one thing which baffles me about American thinking currently and to some extent European thinking, it is the obsession with Russia. You know, I think it’s so emotional, it’s so visceral…
- SS: Like India with Pakistan?
- SJ: You know, (…) in a way mostly.
- SS: Laugh
- SJ: We haven’t yet passed laws of sanctions against Pakistan. (…) I’ll tell you why (…) I mean, it’s interesting you make that comparison, because in our own part of the world, we get advice from other people saying: “you know, be practical, be rational, you cannot talk to the other guy… Okay, they might be doing bad things but you’ve got to live with it, you’ve got to get them into the tent.” (emphasis is mine) For people who give you all this advice in running our lives (…).
- SS: When it comes to (inaudible).
- SJ: I’m honestly… the extreme to which this has gone and I’m not sure it’s even smart, because I think it’s actually giving Russia less and less incentives…
- SS: To be a stable actor?
- SJ: No, I mean obviously then Russia will be angular, to assert itself, makes its point. So, I think this is an issue on which, it’s not an ideological issue at least for us, but I think we have a very clear sort of difference in perspective with the Western world broadly.
I won’t spend my time expounding on Mr. Jaishankar’s precognitive gifts, though he seems to have skills that surpass those of our constellations of experts, including our foreign affairs ministers. That is beyond the scope of this article.
But I will venture an intellectual twist, one that crystallized suddenly as soon as I heard this dialogue. The thought struck me to replace “man” with “West.”
The concept of the “West” expresses one aspect of the complex relationship between former colonizers and those they colonized, with this condescension rearing its head stubbornly throughout history. Some of us are former dominators, in need of time to adjust to the changing norms, while others are former servants, asked to endure attitudes which, while on the decline, are still demeaning. Regardless, we all perceive time differently depending on whether or not we live in thrall to the history of man.
But be careful—although the concept of -splaining is being used in a geopolitical context, the symptoms of its gender-based manifestation remain the same. This means the agents, whether men or women, can find themselves in similar situations in the formerly colonized world. Because although our former colonizers are champions of Westsplaining, this doesn’t mean those men who were formally colonized are immune from taking a patronizing tone with their beloved, thus reviving the grand tradition…
So, we have two concepts—mansplaining and Westsplaining—and two agents—man and woman—for a total of four combinations that we will explore.
Westsplaining is a broader vehicle, since it also includes ladies who undoubtedly adopt the same patronizing tone their husbands do when talking to people from the “other world.” But I would add some perspective. Since these women are actually on the receiving end of this condescension from their men, they are closer to their neighbours, those living in the formerly colonized world. Since their reality is not quite so far off, theoretically, they can be more understanding, developing a certain empathy toward the natives, because they share this experience of hyper mansplaining with them. Our women of this world, who are supposed to have internalized this pressure, act on differences, which creates this effect of relative closeness with the native population. Meanwhile, the colonizing man remains in his mythical haze of total dominion.
Wishful thinking or psychological reality? As is often the case, material and venal comforts have this extraordinary ability to modify speech and, through a feedback loop, drive the colonizer woman into her husband’s arms, and in so doing, make her as contemptuous as he is. She actually does double duty, because she also asserts herself as a woman with authority, making the locals serve as “vintage service boys” to provide our bourgeois matrons with intellectual decor. So, this should be put into perspective while staying somewhat open to this distinction.
To tie it all together, imagine a scale, representing the imbalanced relationship between our four individuals, centred on an ideal—no tension, no contempt. Our Western rooster, to no one’s surprise, sits on one far side of the scale. With this position, the result of history of intellectual and material conquests is solidified into a whole. Then, between him and this ideal is his lady, who doubtless benefits from the same discoveries, but not quite as much as he does. Of course, our two characters are a symbol both geopolitical and fantastical, so great are the disparities within this world—I’ll get back to that. Continuing in the same direction, and passing over the midpoint, the next person we encounter is the man from the formerly colonized world whose position mirrors that of the first lady, which pushes his own female counterpart all the way to the opposite end of the rooster. She is the one who, symbolically, is on the receiving end of both explanations, by the West and by the man. The pattern goes man-woman, then man-woman again. As we move across, so does the targeting increase; the closer we move towards the woman in the nonaligned world, the greater the pressure on the target, identified by the -splaining suffix. Now the stage is finally set to integrate both mansplaining and Westsplaining.
This concept of –splaining can be found within a single civilization, a single culture, a single country, and so on. It can extend even more broadly, since it is the result of a sociology of power, which, in this case, takes both a social and geopolitical form.
Looking in the mirror?
What should be made of Mr. Jaishankar’s observations? Who am I to advise a minister with a wealth of experience in politics and diplomacy, observing this appalling reaction from the West?
But I would venture a helpful remedy that, by turning a mirror on it, might cast a light on the appalling behaviour of our Western diplomats, a behaviour which cultivates self-centeredness and ignorance of others. Use the same language, observe our inability to foresee and manage the 2022 crisis. What would our Western minister think if an ambassador from a nonaligned country had the nerve to address him in such a patronizing, condescending tone, pointing out that he clearly does not know how to manage the affairs of his own world? That he, the former colonizer, should show composure, analysis and circumspection? That they know better than he what is good for him? I can already hear him moaning about his innocence, pointing the finger of responsibility at those who never asked for it, and swearing that he won’t be taken in again! A mirror full of malice where stupidity and bad faith go hand in hand.
The master cries,
The slave buys his tears,
The master laughs,
And sells him his happiness.
Auteur: Jean-Marc Pauli
Traductrice: Chelsea Rosendale