There he was, standing at the lectern. Scott Pruitt, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency and lifelong denier of climate science. Fires were ravaging the West, Houstonians were wearing respirators while mucking out moldy apartments, and Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were getting hammered by Hurricane Irma. Now is not the time, Pruitt said, to talk about climate change. It wouldn’t be sensitive. And just like that he disappeared. A quick lecture to all who were suffering on what would and would not be sensitive. From a white guy in a suit who looked like he had somewhere else to be.
In her now classic 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit writes of having a man who did not know what he was talking about lecture her about a subject on which she had written a book. She tried to explain to him that she had done the research, but he just kept talking, barely pausing for breath. She was captive to his ignorance. Aren’t we all, I thought, as Scott Pruitt talked at us.
After Solnit’s essay was published, the term “mansplaining” came into vogue. And that’s certainly what Pruitt was doing. He talked down to those of us who were suffering the effects of the fires and the storms and told us that our concerns didn’t meet his definition of propriety. When successive storms, drawing increasing energy from warming seas, strike major population centers, we shouldn’t ask why. When climate-denying governors don their rain jackets and play the hero, we shouldn’t question their track records. When an administration pressures scientists for political gain and scrubs their work from its websites, we shouldn’t wonder aloud. It would be insensitive, Pruitt explains. Now is not the time.
It’s a convenient line that public officials often use to avoid the matter at hand. We’ve all heard it before. It wasn’t the time to talk about climate change as the earth was ravaged by increasingly severe storms. It wasn’t the time to talk about taking down monuments after a woman was murdered in Charlottesville by white supremacists rallying around the same monuments. It wasn’t the time to talk about gun control after another supremacist came to our town and murdered our friends at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Because the time that things happen is never the time to talk about them, at least not according to the men explaining things to us. And I do mean men.
According to the most recent U.S. Census, we are a nation of women by a slim majority. Yet you wouldn’t know it. The current administration’s cabinet is 87 percent male. These are the guys lecturing us about our sensitivity during times like these. Closer to home, however, it’s no better. Charleston City Council is 92 percent male, Charleston County Council is 89 percent male, and the Charleston County School District Board is 67 percent male, making it the most egalitarian group because it has only a supermajority of men. Here we might pause for a moment to ask: Why are all these men making all the decisions? And why are they always explaining things to us?
In contrast to Scott Pruitt, who is not an expert, I might offer the voice of Elizabeth Kolbert, who is. Kolbert has been an environmental writer for The New Yorker since 1999. She has traveled all over the world and observed the effects of climate change firsthand. She has raised the voices of the men and women suffering as a result. Her book, The Sixth Extinction, won a Pulitzer Prize and is required reading for anyone who wants to know how dramatically the earth is changing. I’m sure Scott Pruitt hasn’t read it. He’s too busy talking.
I’m aware of the rich irony that I’m a man writing this column. But as far as I can tell, the only cure for men explaining things is allowing women the chance to speak, and I hope after you read this you’ll move on to one of the women writers mentioned here. We have no shortage of women’s voices; the problem is we still haven’t made space for them. All our institutions remain heavily composed of men, even more so in the Trump administration, which is led by a misogynist. Yet if the Scott Pruitts of the world have the microphone, then the rest of us must find a way to tune them out and listen to the real, lived experiences of women. Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Kolbert, or most any woman could tell you. Now is the time to talk about what ails us. The most sensitive thing we can do is hear each other.
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