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"Nothing and no-one will stop me," said Boris Johnson yesterday, in an attempt to impress parliament and the country with his sheer force of personality, his ability to bend reality to his will and his unshakeable belief that he – and he alone – should lead Britain after a confidence vote in which 148 of his own MPs voted against him.
Obviously the contents of these statements are less convincing under scrutiny, but I can’t help but feel that the Blitzkrieg style of this pronouncement is also worthy of examination. Because whilst the arguable degradation of standards in public life could be described as a problem unique to current circumstances, Johnson’s “manstanding” approach sadly isn’t.
Yes, I’ve made up the above word. But, much like mansplaining and manspreading before it, sometimes you need new vocabulary to make an invisible problem visible. Thus, “manstanding”, noun, derived from “grandstanding”. When a man enters a conversation and states his opinion or perspective as unquestionable fact, in a loud, showy way designed to dismiss all other contributors to the discussion as simplistic and naive (even those he is broadly agreeing with).
Manstanders often claim a kind of omniscient position free of the biases and frailties everyone else is subject to. They also love a good soliloquy, (manologue?!) so think carefully before you dare to interrupt them.
See also: privilege, male. (Not because men themselves can’t also be victims of manstanding, nor because women are never also guilty of it, but because it’s pretty much always men who are rewarded and admired for it.)
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take narcissism or high political office to create the circumstances for manstanding in everyday life. As you might expect, social media is fertile ground for this sort of thing, a space that often encourages the ditching of nuance in favour of certainty and broad brush strokes. Nor is it a phenomenon split along political lines, as much as I would almost certainly disagree with Johnson, however he phrased his wilful desire to stay in power.
In fact, those with whom I broadly agree politically are often just as guilty as those I disagree with – comic creation Jonathan Pie, for instance, is the original “manstander”. Usually, we’re on the same side of the argument but his ranty, sweary, “don’t interrupt me, I’m on a roll and I’m about to tell you what you’ve all been missing” delivery turns me off, even as it seems to inspire adoration in others.
Perhaps this is because at its heart, manstanding is part of the “everyone else is stupid and I’m edgy enough to say it” school of thought. It values traditionally “macho” traits, such as certainty, forcefulness and arrogance, and it sweeps people along because it appears to be strong and decisive. Manstanding seizes the narrative, screaming "Here I am to lead you!" but it’s not interested in collaboration, or empathy, or listening, or any of that other namby pamby, feminine stuff.
We’re talking about those men who jump on to your status to make a point someone else (usually a woman) has already made as if they’re revealing the secrets of the universe. Or the ones who announce: "What you’re all missing is..." It’s a generalisation, yes, but while women are taught to couch their views with all sorts of qualifiers (“I think”, “perhaps”, “in my opinion”), some men seem to be under the impression that theirs count as unassailable fact.
In the past, I’ve worried that if I challenge these men, I’ll look defensive somehow. Perhaps they’re right when they dismiss the whole world as stupid… and since I’m part of that world, I must be stupid too. This is actually at the root of my issue with manstanding – making everyone else feel “less” is not an accidental side effect, it’s a key part of how this technique is used to win the argument.
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For example, the suggestion that Johnson has made so many enemies in his own party because his government has done “very big and very remarkable” things that has also been trotted out this week is specifically framed to make his critics seem petty and small-minded and lacking his vision or leadership. If you don’t also want to seem petty and small-minded, best to just agree.
But I’m feeling more and more that this approach to debate benefits nobody. Countless studies suggest that we judge men and women very differently when speaking up; that women speak less in meetings where men dominate – and yet we continue to view manstanding with a certain indulgence and admiration, as the 21st century equivalent of holding court.
The thing is, manstanding, like grandstanding, is ultimately empty, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. It seeks to obfuscate rather than to reveal, like a cheap magic trick. So what if we viewed these statements, when they do occur, with curiosity and cynicism, rather than allowing ourselves to be swept along by them?
Even more importantly, what if we looked to and valued conversation, cooperation, humility and growth as much as we do the booming certainty of men like Boris Johnson?