Men Just “Know Things” by Esther Nelson

One of my Facebook friends, a young woman academic, recently posed a question, inviting discussion. (I’ve abbreviated her post for the sake of space.)

“What is it about white male liberals that just MUST have me buy [into] their ideas when they diverge from mine? I am struck that over the years, I have had a handful of white male liberals make it a mission to convince me that I am WRONG about Hillary. When I say, listen, the case is closed, she cheer led the Iraq war, I am done, [t]hey just cannot handle it.”

She continued:  “What is it about needing to convince me, needing to prove me wrong about my respect for Iraqi and Palestinian life (good luck with that one!!), needing me to stop talking about it? I’m not going to validate you, brother, especially not over the lives of innocent civilians, the fates of which your privileged self cannot even begin to imagine.  

She then said:  “I’m interested in the thoughts of WOMEN OF COLOR on this question, and MAYBE the thoughts of allies…but what I am NOT interested in are denials of my premise.”

I’ve wondered the same thing.  Why do many liberal white men, when faced with my point of view—different from theirs—attempt to “set me straight?”  

Placing myself in the ally category, I replied.  “Our culture puts women and men in different social spaces. Women and men don’t experience the world identically, and so what we (women) often say about the world doesn’t make sense to many men…[who] are socialized to ‘just know things.’”

A woman of color responded: “I’ve had this happen to me with radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates…they all want me to know that if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind. It is racism and misogyny and entitlement and while I experience this from people of other demographics it is especially special from white dudes.”

This resonates with me big time:  “…if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind.”  

A liberal, white male colleague of mine, whenever we discuss patriarchy, assures me that not only men dominate.  He’s quick to give examples of women who do so when occupying positions of power. “It’s a human thing,” he says.

I don’t completely disagree with him.  However, the reality of the situation within patriarchy is that all women have secondary (less than men) standing and must navigate their lives from that secondary status—a place men are not familiar with.  No matter, my colleague holds fast. “Both sexes dominate. It’s a human thing.”

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist published an essay titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  The “they” refers to men and the “us” refers to women. Even though her immediate context is the Egyptian uprising known as the Arab Spring, misogyny blooms wherever patriarchy has taken root.  She writes, “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”     

Eltahawy explains that all Egyptian citizens have been (and continue to be) oppressed by a long line of political dictators.  But when we look at things in a more nuanced way, we find that women are doubly oppressed as Egyptians turn a blind eye to the “oppressors on our streets and in our homes.”  

It’s not just Egyptians who turn a blind eye to misogyny.  Most people don’t “get” how systemic misogyny seeps into the structure of our cells, shaping our thinking and behavior.  We (women) learn to hate ourselves. Misogynistic men don’t usually hate themselves.

Men have also absorbed entitlement.  They are presumed to “know things.” So, for many women, it’s “natural” to think, “if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind.”  If we (women) are lucky, we eventually get to a place where misogyny in all its forms and manifestations doesn’t feel “natural” anymore.

My friend who started the Facebook discussion was wise to stipulate, “I am NOT interested in…denials of my premise.”  I think it’s easy to become sidetracked by the argument my colleague makes. “Women can dominate as well as men. It’s a human thing.”      

Poor people, people of color, and immigrants experience oppression in patriarchal societies.  Additionally, women experience oppression from the misogynistic “givens” in our society. Even though these “givens” are freely absorbed by both women and men, there’s a difference.

A young friend of mine, walking along in the mall with her husband, told me her husband eyed up a woman and said, “If I were not with you right now, I’d be tasting her.”  (This incident is troubling on many levels.) When I mentioned the anecdote to my liberal, male colleague, he said he’s heard women speak that same way about men. “There’s a difference,” I insisted.

I had just finished reading The Last Girl, written by the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia Murad.  Nadia is an Iraqi Yazidi and when the Islamic State (Daesh) captured her village, young women were abducted to serve as sex slaves for the men of the Islamic State, often passed around from one man to the next as if they were a piece of jerky.  One does not hear about women enslaving men in the same fashion. Therein lies the difference. Women’s experience in patriarchy is not the flip side of men’s experience in that system.

Most men find it easier (and more comfortable) to chalk up domination in patriarchy to being “a human thing” when really, it’s far more nuanced.  As Mary Sharratt, in her 12/5/18 essay on FAR, wrote: “Although female bullies exist, women, from my experience, are more likely to experience the most severe forms of bullying at the hands of entitled males. I would even argue that female-on-female bullying is a direct symptom of patriarchy’s attempts to divide and conquer us.”  


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

25 thoughts on “Men Just “Know Things” by Esther Nelson”

  1. “it’s a human thing” is just as silly as “all lives matter”… or “blacks are racist” too… the fundamentally, systematically oppressed are not like the occasionally oppressed…one is not the other, and equating one with the other is the fallacy that is at the core of our societal divide…we simply cannot debate ideas and discuss solutions when folks’ whataboutism enables them to raise the fate of the one fox pecked by that one hen in the midst of a discussion about the infinite number of hens that fell prey to foxes.
    And kudos to your friend about her stance re hillary and palestine…a wise woman indeed.


    1. Yes, great, po! Thanks for your excellent and succinct, “on target” comment–“a human thing” is as ridiculous as “all lives matter.”. Love the example of the fox and the hen. Also, like the word “whataboutism.” Will have to remember that one!


  2. Oh yes they do. Recently I was at a table where 2 non-US men were discussing US politics and though I did manage to interject a few comments, do you think they said to me, “You are American, do you have any special insights?” Absolutely not.


  3. Very well said, Esther. Most men I know have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be female, navigating patriarchal society. I feel sick when I read over and over again how women and girls are abducted, raped, and murdered. Why do men feel they have the right to do this to female human beings? I often wish there were a country inhabited only by female persons, where we could live free of constant fear.

    We have to keep demanding our rights, including our right to live free from physical harm. If I were in charge of the school system, I’d make sure that every female student who was physically capable learned some kind of martial art to defend herself, starting at age five. Yes, I understand that even a black belt degree would not be proof against a gun. But it would help in a good many situations, and isn’t that the same as saving a solitary starfish? And I’d also ban guns except for hunting if I were in charge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you goddessfiction. Certainly agree with your statement “Most men I know have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be female, navigating patriarchal society.” But many men THINK they do. That’s where it gets frustrating for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Agree. I get SO TIRED of the woke mysoginist. And porn plays a role. Men who jerk off to the violence and degradation of women cannot help treating women as less than human in other spheres of their lives. Rebecca Sonit is my therapy reading!!! And Gail Dines!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. even those of us who are white, male liberal and homosexual are often guilty of playing the “smart boy” card. thank you for calling us out and reminding me that my opinion is just that(as is yours), based on my experience and hope to be heard. truth is not based on gender.


    1. Thank you, Brooks, for your honest comment. One of the “truths” I attempt to communicate in my essay is that my (and my extension, many women’s) thoughts are dismissed without due consideration by men (especially) with whom we engage. Sometimes, as Carol noted in her comment, we are not brought into the conversation even when we have the credentials and experience to offer meaningful insights. Certainly many groups are dismissed within patriarchy. Women make up one of those groups.


    2. Hi Brooks, I’m not sure what you mean by “Truth is not based on gender.” I must be misinterpreting what you’re saying, because I actually think “truth is based on gender.” My experience of reality is not your experience of reality, mostly because we are of different genders (and also because of our different sexual orientations). That’s what this whole discussion is about.


  6. Regards being right or wrong about Hillary Clinton, I love this quote by her, so fabulous, Hillary comments: “In the Bible it says they asked Jesus how many times you should forgive, and he said 70 times 7 — Well, I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart.”


  7. I know a guy like this! He KNOWS Everything. EVERYTHING!!! He likes to “man-splain” to us “little ladies”. But he has “improved” with age, and finding the “little ladies” can be quite argumentative.


    1. So, does he listen to the “little ladies” and seriously consider their points of view, integrating those points of view with his own experience? How has he improved? Thank you for weighing in, Barbara.


      1. I think he is a little more thoughtful Esther, and less “all knowing”, and I think he found that these ladies are not taking his opinion without question. Well, that’s how I find him anyway. I don’t know how he is with others. It might just be that my “opinionation” is stronger, or equal to, than his “opinionation” :-) !

        Liked by 1 person

  8. A liberal, white male colleague of mine, whenever we discuss patriarchy, assures me that not only men dominate. He’s quick to give examples of women who do so when occupying positions of power. “It’s a human thing,” he says.

    I am so tired of this argument which is used by both so called liberal men and male dominated women… tired of the deception and distraction, tired of all of it I am sick of exceptions when the rule is that women ARE the recipients of most bullying and sexual abuse.

    This is NOT a human thing.


  9. Let’s put it this way: the capacity to dominate is a human capacity shared with some other animals, for example, chimps. Patriarchy legitimates male domination creating a worldview in which men have the right and even the responsibility to dominate women, children, and others. White supremacy legitimates white domination of other groups creating a worldview in which white people including men, women, and children have the right to dominate people of other races. So in our world both men as a group and white people as a group have been taught that it is their right to dominate others. So we need to try turn the conversation from the human capacity to dominate to which social and culture structures legitimate domination and for which groups over which other groups.


    1. Yes, exactly. As with most subjects, there is a lot of nuance. There are a host of “particulars” when it comes to the subject of oppression and domination. “So we need to try turn the conversation from the human capacity to dominate to which social and culture structures legitimate domination and for which groups over which other groups.” Great way to move forward.


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