Tom McLaughlin is a University of Toronto M.D. graduate currently in his pediatrics residency at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He tweets about medical education and health policy @mclaughlin_tom. Joshua Sealy-Harrington is a University of Calgary J.D. graduate currently clerking at the Federal Court in Ottawa. He tweets about identity politics and criminal law @joshuasealy. They are former roommates from their days at the University of British Columbia.
In a medical school tutorial about post-pregnancy urinary incontinence, Tom was assigned to research an unusual-sounding treatment, Weighted Vaginal Cones, which physically strengthen pelvic muscles that control the bladder. When Tom shared his research on the efficacy of these cones with his tutorial group, a female medical student scoffed, saying "that's easy for you to say. You're a man."
It was easy to say, since it was based on research on 1806 women in 23 clinical trials. Nevertheless, because Tom was a man, other medical students and the doctor leading the tutorial discounted his opinion.
Maybe a 24th clinical trial would have made his opinion worthwhile.
Controversial issues (such as appropriate medical treatments) are best addressed through open debate. An individual's identity can inform their perspective, but should not discredit it. Most oncologists have never had cancer, and geriatricians are not frail elderly people, yet all of these doctors can provide excellent care. Discrediting an oncologist for never having had cancer would be laughable, but this is essentially what happened to Tom. He was unable to personally experience the women's health issues in question, and his research was challenged as a result. This should be unjustifiable in a tutorial setting designed to be an evidence-based and politically neutral forum for sharing research.
Joshua, a black law graduate interested in anti-discrimination, also had his opinion challenged based on his identity. In a Facebook discussion about the definition of "racism," he was accused of "mansplaining" – even though the issue centred on race, not gender – and of displaying "white privilege" – by a commenter unaware that Joshua is not white. In so doing, Joshua's opponents emphasized his identity (both real and perceived), rather than his arguments, in the debate that followed.
Both Tom and Joshua's stories exemplify a worrisome trend in our society: discrediting opinions (or even fact-based research!) because the individuals expressing them come from a privileged background, such as being male or white. Representing diverse backgrounds in a discussion is important, but dismissing opinions solely because of their origin does more to stifle progress than to hasten it.
Let's be clear – identity can be very important. Characteristics such as race, sex and class inform personal experience, and personal experience in turn colours viewpoints. Privileged individuals should strive to be attuned to this. Furthermore, our society should listen closely for the many marginalized voices that are still fighting to be heard. A black feminist and a poor law student, for example, bring unique perspectives to discussions on the limitations of the wider feminist movement and the financial barriers to legal education.
However, everyone's perspective can positively contribute. Discussing issues such as white privilege and masculinity without white people or men limits dialogue and disengages privileged communities. By contrast, initiatives like the "Don't be that guy" anti-date rape campaign succeed because they engage men, rather than ignore them.
The use of terms such as "mansplaining" (and its racial counterpart, "whitesplaining") can cause disengagement. These labels are sometimes used to dismiss arguments when men and white people simply disagree. But if a man or white person makes a poor argument, why not just refute it? Without such engagement, these terms become unconstructive ad hominem attacks that sidestep meaningful debate when an opponent conveniently possesses privilege.
Terms like "mansplaining" and "whitesplaining" provide easily-digestible labels for complex ideas, which can then be used to point out subject positions and inform discussion. However, silencing someone solely because of their privilege stifles dialogue and stereotypes them – an ironic consequence for social-justice movements that are committed to opposing the stereotypes that continue to plague marginalized communities.
The unspoken message of excluding an entire group from a discussion is that not a single person in that group has anything worth hearing – an astounding proposition. We are not arguing, as some misguided groups are, that people of privilege are facing a wave of reverse discrimination equivalent to the historical treatment of marginalized communities. We are arguing, however, that important issues would be better addressed if everyone were engaged. Sexism is not solved by making men leave the room, and racism is not solved by disengaging white people.
No one should have to earn the privilege to be heard.