The Masculinity Problem: a delicate truth

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This is rather different to the usual politics I write about, but when lives are at risk, we need to talk about false and outdated expectations of men and women in society.

You must have a career. You will have a family. You have to step up and become the breadwinner.

This is the message. 

76% of all suicides in the UK are that of men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35.  Men are three times more likely to become alcohol dependent than women. Male attainment in school is consistantly falling year-on-year, with a male-female gap of 8.8% occuring for 2014 GCSE students in England and Wales.

This is the truth.

Most boys play off one another’s masculinity. You can see it everywhere from a primary school playground to the business rooms of central London. We challenge eachother to surrender our self-identity and become numb to emotion. It is, we are told, the route to success, a way to prepare for a hardened life ahead.

But in the end, we boys are lied to. We lie to each other. ‘Emotions mean nothing’ we’re told. Immediately, we’re stripped of the ablity to express thought, ideas and react to our surroundings. At such a young age, we’re clueless, defenceless and met with the cold demand  to ‘man up’ whenever we break this code of emotional silence.

Is this really how boys and young men ought to live? Surely, there’s a better alternative?

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Heracles: a Greek symbol for masculinity

In truth, masculinity is a club. There are set rules and expectations, we are judged by fellow members who retaliate, physically and verbally, whenever we do anything that may cause them to question their own identity. This way, the club stays together. The common surrender of self-identity survives.

Over time, boys learn to police the emotions of others – often those younger and weaker than us. We get a kick out of doing so. Apparantly.

Masculinity is fine – necessary even. It’s a product of social interaction. But when it creates such a tense environment of impossible expectation, undesirable goals and forced lives, it becomes something dangerous. Unknowingly, we match the social pressures against us by being a danger to the mental wellbeing and confidence of others.

In the UK, attacks against women, young men, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTI community are on the rise. All around us, society is thankfully – albeit gradually – removing the ‘traditional’ role of men as the main provider for the family. The idea of a financially successful women or a same-sex couple starting a family of their own questions the limited and grim outlook so many of us boys are encouraged to adopt in our early childhood.

Slowly, we are as individuals, able to publically challenge an idea that has reigned unopposed in some form since humans first emerged. The kneejerk response? Shut that opposition down. Protect yourself from self-enlightenment of your own identity of who you are and who you aspire to become. Why? Because it’s the masculine thing to do. It’s all you’ve been taught of course.

When someone expresses a public dislike for two men holding hands, raising a family or getting married, surely it’s a call for help? At their root, that person is expressing a dislike at the fact their perception of the world is wrong and so is their perceived role in it.

They are not disgusted at the couple, but rather their vulnerability to the many lies told throughout their lifetime about identity, role and respect.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a bizarre response towards the growing crisis in mental health issues through an attack on the British feminist movement. Most prominent, is the development of the ‘manosphere’ – yes that really is a thing – a community campaign to ‘protect men against the evils of a society controlled for and run by women‘. Now clearly, this is the wrong response. I know this as a man. I know this as a feminist. But it is an interesting form of protest against the existing situation. A growing movement of men are turning against women and blaming them and the long fight for women’s liberation in Britain – in art, at work, at home and in wider society – for their own economic and hierarchical demise.

The idea that men must be the economic providers in the home is rubbish. It’s never been the case.

Instead, the threat to the further deterioration of men’s mental health issues is not women but austerity. From 2010-2016, under David Cameron’s leadership, real term cuts of 8% were made to budgets of mental health services across Britain. During this time, demand for these services increased by 20%. Infact, as of January last year, mental health, although making up 23% of the illnesses treated by the NHS, received a small 13% of its annual budget. In other words, there was an £11bn funding gap.

The idea that men must be the economic providers in the home is rubbish. It’s never been the case. Over the centuries, most families in Britain and around the world were too impovorished to even have the option of one parent remaining at home. Instead, it was a concept devised by and exclusively avaliable to the narrow middle-classes.

This disequilibrium of expectation on men and women is creating an excess of pressure for box sexes, it restrains productivity, creates illegal wage inequality and works to increase the number of mental health cases around the world.

But rather than reflecting a ‘natural’ behavioural norm we have inherited through generations gone, our common concept of masculinity is infact the cause and controller of our behaviour, growing in intensity with every new generation. Masculine ‘traits’ for example, are the basis for capitalism – a system which emerged from feudalism and mercantilism – theories which themselves encourage the ego and recognise oppression of others as a demonstration of man’s physical hold over the world. Self-greed and the maximisation of profit  all contribute to the idea that men must be the ‘breadwinners’ for a secure family unit. Capitlism is simply the collective result of this attitude.

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The New York Stock Exchange: a hugely male-dominated industry and a symbol of capitalist power.

For all men seeking to find their masculine identity, unregulated capitalism serves in two ways. First, it facilitates the opportunity for wealth accumulation. Here, status is found and men and women are able to compare their success against one another numerically. Second, capitalism allows men and women to obtain physical posessions – houses, cars and jewelry – which become symbols of power and authority to their counterparts. It gives men and women the wealth that allows them something another man or woman desires. This creates the medium for exchane which is afterall, the basis of the capitalist system.

But masculinity goes further than capitalism. It’s at the centre of almost all our news stories. Everything from expansionist wars to violent coups to economic crashes following excessive risk taking. Nearly always led by men, for men and for the promotion of men. Proponents of capitalism explain how the system encorporates our natural instincts and succeeds only on that basis. They’re right. It does encorporate a set of instincts – just the wrong ones, developed in childhood through an environment cluttered with references to need, greed and over consumption. Unregulated Capitalism never for example, fosters empathy, social cohesion or respect for others, the self or the natural environment. And that’s why its failing in its current, uncorrected and extreme form. There has been a miscalculation of our ‘natural instincts’ into the system.

So what’s to change? How can we address the issue of masculinity and from that, the incredible growth-rate of mental health issues amongst boys and men? How do we restore self-confidence and break down the social pressures which force onto us, expectations of ‘male norms’?

First, there has to be a change to our understanding of what it means to be ‘masculine’. No longer can anyone expect a man to become the sole provider for a family. Our language must change. This means divising a realistic expectation of what men and women should strive towards. But what is this? Whatever they want to.

In 2015, the coalition introduced the Shared Paternity Leave Scheme (SPL/ShPP), to help new families have control over how much time each parent, if they choose to, takes time off work. The aim of the scheme was to encourage mothers and fathers to share responsibilities, making it easier for women to go back to work after giving birth. However, in April 2016, it was reported that just 1% of new fathers take up SPL.

It seems that although the legal substance is appearing, societal pressures are preventing men and women from using this opportunity. The problem of masculinity has not been dealt with.

Until our language, perception of masculinity and terrible bias against female leadership in business and politics changes – the problem of masculinity will continue to grow and claim more lives.

Start with yourself. Should YOU change your use of language around the subject?

We’d all be better off if we did.

 

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