I want to share two memories:
As a kid, a crowd of bullies descend on me and my wee brother, we try to deflect them by being wide, they begin swiping at him and look about to pile in, afraid and angry, I say ‘dinnae greet, ya wee pussy’. He continues to cry. They laugh, no need for punches now. The awkwardness and humiliation cuts through the violence.
As a grown woman I intervene as a drunk guy verbally abuses a woman in a supermarket. ‘Oi, stop gien’ her abuse, leave her alone and stop bein an arsehole!’ I am not the hero I think I am, he turns on me and begins abusing me. No one intervenes. My boyfriend stands back and waits for it to end. I storm off down the road, outraged at my impotence, vulnerability… and his.
‘Why didn’t you stand up to them?’ ‘What do you mean, you were SCARED??’
Moments of crisis.
But in public the drunk guy wasn’t likely to actually hit me. He would have hit my boyfriend.
Moments of crisis, for men. ‘Manliness’ in such out of control situations, would have caused destruction rather than mitigate for it.
It was not a good survival strategy.
The world is inherently designed to belittle and prejudice men, unless they fit into a very narrow definition of masculinity.
Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Brusque. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.
I don’t actually think or believe any of those things about men that I uttered in those memories… I know that’s not what men should be. I know it’s fantastical and reductive. But I was frightened. It came out of my mouth because I was cornered and fight or flight kicked in. I wasn’t thinking.
I quite literally, don’t know where it came from. It came from the air. From the stories the world tells us about men.
Like most of you I’m sure, I work hard not to default to base definitions of people, but I can’t always beat my programming. As psychological researchers like John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth discovered, at moments of high stress and pressure we are most likely to default to our childhood cultural programming, patterns of non-attachment and alienation of others.
The best of us during moments of high stress or fighting to meet impossible deadlines, my lizard-brain kicks in and that’s when I’m most likely to forget all my higher impressions of my fellow man and expect him to be the default image of masculinity.
But men are not machines, men are human. Men have every right to be scared. Things are scary. Humans feel fear. Humans have the right to make their own decisions. Men have every right to choose not to fight. It is not right to be forced to be ‘manly’ when you know it would be to your detriment.
A man is not a ‘pussy’, nor a ‘loser’, nor a ‘girl’. A man is a human. He feels. And therefore he is. And he is worthy of love, not by being a model ‘man’ whatever that is… but by virtue of just being a person.
But like all of us who are part of western culture, I have been conditioned to understand things around me in binaries. My cultural programming prescribes a binary of misogyny, and that of course infers a flipside.
The binary, of misandry. The everyday misandry of western culture.
… and the binary question our society asks at every turn, is: Are you a winner?
About six months ago, I was in a room full of feminists (women and men), talking about gender. We heard statements about how women experience the brunt of poverty, how women’s economic and leadership role is largely invisible because it isn’t remunerated, how women’s rights, pay and representation in power is now worse than it has been in decades.
Then one of the speakers on the panel, a man who works with troubled young men asked one of the panelists, Jeane Freeman, ‘What can feminism do for these men?’
A collective intake of breath was followed by jaws hitting the floor, and then Jeane’s response, ‘what are YOU going to do?’
It’s a call we often hear when there’s a discussion about women’s rights… ‘But what about men’s rights?’
I wish the guy had an answer to Jeane’s question, what are men going to do about vulnerable young men? In lieu of an answer, I’ve got some suggestions. Because you see, although I’m a feminist, it doesn’t mean I’m not also concerned about men’s rights. I’m from an ex-mining family and the big sister of five wee brothers, spent my whole childhood watching them play football from the sidelines. I was the one hanging out of trees and getting told to git away and play wi the lassies; and I spent my young adulthood drinking with the boys and talking Big Ideas; and have since then watched my brothers battle deprivation, drugs, and the draft to Afghanistan.
I’m concerned. But don’t get me wrong, part of that concern is because I am a misogynist. I have from childhood, internalised the values that tell me that everything men are and do is important and everything women do is fluff.
I am horrified now to remember that in my early twenties, I told a university lecturer that I wasn’t interested in making things about ‘women’, that ‘I wanted to make important things, for people, not sit around talking about kids and knitting. So I feel for this increasing number of young men, who are being robbed of their right to an important life. My tongue is in my cheek, but its a serious joke that illustrates the complexity of the issues.
Lets look at the plague of problems we are told our young men face: high suicide rates, addiction, violence. The appeal from men is what feminism could do for them?
Let me come back to how society defines a ‘man’: Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Brusque. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.
These problems correlate with the definitions of ‘manliness’.
I once wrote about leadership and about how we have a problem with how we practice leadership because of what we think it looks like. It looks like a certain type of man that our troubled young men could never be because they are already at a deficit by lack of financial capital.
Money makes the world go around and it allows men to move in that world. Grayson Perry describes him brilliantly as Default Man. Most of us are not Default Man, our young men growing up in an increasingly disenfranchised economic down spiral and are less and less likely to ever be able to become Default Man. The world of Default Man benefits very few people beyond a tiny percentage of middle aged able bodied rich guys, and yet we are all forced to exist in a world that works by his rules.
To be a winner is by definition to ‘beat’ all others. So how many winners can there ever be?
One. So what about the rest of us?
What does a man do if he can’t be a winner?
If by virtue of fate you are not born into the most privileged economic group, no matter how smart you are and how hard you try, the average poor student cannot attain the same level of academic success as his or her richer peers – this has been evidenced by many studies including those by the Joseph Rowntree foundation and the Brookings Foundation. Poor students can’t attain the same levels of success despite a level playing field in all other respects, so when you get into multiple unequalities such as deindustrialisation, undeveloped infrastructure, generational cycles of emotional abuse, ‘success’ becomes almost impossible. For a gender whose worth is predicated on ‘winning’ that’s a huge problem. People who are not rich have a very narrow set of possibilities for ‘winning’. Breadwinning today is near impossible. If you cannot enter the economic system and earn a good wage, you face destitution. It’s difficult to be Decisive, Active or Rational then, because you have few options and low self esteem.
So what are you left with? If you want to be a ‘man’ you still need to be a winner.
Ladykiller. Strong. Brusque.
Aggression against others and violence against yourself. Not a fulfilling prospect for a long and healthy life, is it?
All the men that I love in my life face problems because of our society’s gendered definition of success. To be successful is to exude that list of supposedly ‘male’ attributes, which as we know is impossible. No one can be that image of maleness every day, at every moment. Not being able to live up to those qualities, is to be devalued, to be less, to be invisible, to be the opposite… and be female. Men who are not ‘real men’ are ‘girls. To be female is to be wrong, to be weak, to be malleable, to be inactive, to be yielding, to be worthless, to be pursued, to be a loser.
These are the binary opposites of:
Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Assertive. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.
Misandry is the other side of Misogyny. Misandry is not to take down men for ‘being men’ it is instead to insist that men behave ‘like men’ instead of allowing them to be human. Humanity is complex and multi-dimensionsal and ‘masculinity’ dehumanises men because men can only ever fail if they try to live up to those unrealistic values.
If you can’t win, society says you’re… basically… a woman.
So what do you do if you’re a man or a woman that needs to be winning? There are no choices except to out-masculinise the other men in the game. Assertiveness becomes violence, Rational becomes dictatorial, Strong becomes destructive, muscular becomes hyperactive/aggressive, breadwinning becomes winner-takes-all, Ladykiller becomes sexual dysfunction and force. Winning becomes a zero sum game in which there are very few winners and many more losers whose anger and dysfunction is turned inwards to themselves, and outwards to everyone around them, in order to snatch whatever power they can because that’s the only way they can feel better about themselves. If you don’t have power on the terms of Default Man, you don’t exist.
This is what our young men feel. That they don’t exist. That they’re not valued. That they’re seen as failures.
To try to exist in that world, to feel real, they seek power wherever they can. At the sharp end of all of this there are few strategies to wield power: Among men I know some have sought power of status through violence, a thugz lyfe in the drug and gang culture. Others seek it through the power of violence against themselves, suicide and self obliteration through drink and bad health. Others seek it through the power of the anonymity of the internet, becoming the gods of chatrooms and online games. Others still take that online life further down the spiral of extreme masculinity, trolling, violent pornography, inflicting abuse, causing suffering to others and suffering to themselves.
Feminism addresses these issues because they are created by the same mechanisms that say everything women do is not valuable. Feminism is about a deconstruction and reformation of the structures and processes of debate, leadership, and power. Change your models of power, listen and collaboration instead of trying to ‘beat’ everyone else, and you liberate women and men.
I need this world to change because it is not the world I want for my daughters and it is not the world I want for my son. This is not the world I want for my lover(s). This is not the world I want for my brothers. This is not the world I want for my grandfathers, for my neighbours and friends. This is not what I want for boys or men.
I look at my baby son and I will never understand how we can think that boys ‘cry less’ than girls or that boys ‘shouldn’t’ need hugs, empathy and love. This is where it starts.
My boy will be brought up by me to cry whenever he needs to, to get and give as much love to the world as he can. He will be taught that he is important and clever and valuable and beautiful as he is, and that he doesn’t need to be a ‘winner’ at anything to prove himself. He’ll be given the same opportunities as his sister and he will grow up in a household where he will learn to look after himself and others and will learn as much about keeping a household as he will about how to keep a good society functioning in the wider world.
He will learn negotiation, tolerance, responsibility, respect, making space for others, balancing the needs of others with the needs of himself, how to follow his own purpose and interests, how to organise himself, how to help others organise themselves, how to love, how to accept love, how to cope with heartache and disappointment, how to rest and be calm, how to inspire himself to problem solve, how to ask others to give him space when he needs to focus. Many of these things would be considered to be more ‘female’ traits. But these are all the things that make a happy, confident human being.
Co-incidentally, these also all the things that are considered competencies of success in leadership of innovative businesses.
Hang on. Success??
When you actually research what makes a successful business sustain over the long term, or measure what factors make someone a good leader or a good employee, you find the charachteristics that actually contribute to making a system function successfully, are actions that we would consider Female. Note, these are not the sole preserve of women, and not necessarily actioned by women, but they are not ‘masculine’ ways of being and behaving. Jim Collins seminal business text ‘Good to Great’ describes ‘why some companies make the leap… and others don’t’ and throughout the book it evidences the surprising truth that heroic-looking leaders and what society would consider ‘masculine’ behaviours lead to failure, burnout, and speculation bubbles; and the behaviours that lead to long term business sustainability and success are those we consider ‘feminine’.
That’s all very interesting. But what is most interesting is that we find that surprising. It was a surprise to me, and I already know that these supposedly feminine behaviours work brilliantly. I mean, jings! I’m a woman, a feminist, and so surely I’d have noticed that my own successes were down to things that were other than what the Default Man narrative prescribes?? I did… but not until the data was in black and white and repeated over and over and over did I really believe it.
That’s the funny thing about narratives. Is that they stop us seeing the truth, even when we know better from our own experience. We default to the narrative we’ve been given because… it’s a default. No matter how true it is that we shouldn’t box ourselves into behaving like Default Man to be successful, we can’t believe it. The collective unconscious of society decides for us, unless we try really, really hard to consciously work against our default bias and give more weight to the supposedly female values and ways of being.
The evidence shows it’s true. You don’t have to work to be a ‘man’ whatever that means, instead to work to be ‘yourself’ and not fight against your supposedly ‘feminine’ traits, they’ll help you. You’ve already got it in you and you are a winner already.
It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to make the others believe. So when the whole world is rigged against you, it’s sometimes less painful to opt for a Thugz lyfe. There’s a film on the internet by a 17 year old boy, filmed in 1988, talking about how he gets called names for talking about love and how doesn’t get why his pals keep treating women badly and even though girls tell him he’s ‘too nice’, he’ll keep on telling them that he loves them… It’s beautiful. It’s powerful stuff. They 17 year old boy is Tupac Shakur. The school boy, actor and ballet dancer, who would grow up to be a gangster rapper. The film is powerful because it shows him in a moment of joy and confidence with his ‘difference’.
It’s heartbreaking because it’s completely at odds with how the story ends: five years later, Shakur and others were charged with gang raping a woman in a hotel room. Then when he was in imprisoned for it in 1995 he famously read many books by Niccolò Machiavelli, Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War and other works of strategy. One year later Tupac died after being shot multiple times in a drive by execution. The killing was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier. Tupac has become a hero to young men like my wee brother who see their lives, and the inevitability of their demise, reflected in his lyrics.
It’s a problem. So when our panelist asks , ‘what can feminism do for these men?’ You have to work with us and work for us first.
Men, you have to remember that since society values ‘winning’ and the ‘default man’, even disadvantaged men have a head start above women because they can at least look like that winner even if they don’t feel like it. There are still so few women in visible leadership roles that society turns these women into tokens, pariahs… the entire game is rigged against women to much higher degree that it is for men. To ask that question of that room full of women who had been fighting their whole lives for equality, is a kick in the teeth, because dude, we are already down.
The frame of the question was insulting, because he misunderstood the stakes. He misunderstood that he had more power and agency than any of us could. And please don’t misunderstand that even though women are more disadvantaged than men are, we do accept that poor white men are an intersection of disadvantage which is massive, and the best way of helping those boys is to help us first.. get out of our way, shut up, let us lead, let us create another value system that won’t marginalise the ‘losers’ and the ‘pussies’. The ‘masculine’ cultural reverence of the winner serves a very practical purpose… it is the ultimate divide and rule tactic. Misogyny is the basis of divide and rule, ‘trickle down’ economics. The misogyny / misandry paradox is a class issue.
‘Feminism’ can indeed do something for men, if men take on its cause, because only that will break the binary of squashing all men into a narrow frame of identity towards that zero sum game of winning. The binary of feminine objectifies women, as the binary of masculine dehumanises men. The status quo separates women and men into a hierarchy; women as properties to own or use and men as people that act and build the world. That hierarchy goes much further, it separates men into winners and losers, leaders and the expendables. We know that this kind of power is not sustainable: the 7% have become the 1% and become the 0.01%… almost all men have become losers.
He and he and you and we, will continue to be losers as long as we keep dehumanizing ourselves and each other, if we buy into the rhetoric of the ‘winner’ and try to become that rich man.
We KNOW all this, we KNOW that big power in our society is concentrated in economically privileged groups of white men, and while it is fact that men (in general) continue to be the most powerful group in society regardless of how rich or poor they are because they look like what power looks like.
Compared with any woman from the same social group, all men look more like our default vision of strength, rationality and winning. Men have more sway and therefore effectiveness to change things, even if they feel they are not winning at life themselves.
So, back to the man who was asked by the feminist to get feminism to ‘do something’ for these young men… my solution is this.
We all need to rewrite this heroic, ‘winner’ story which is damaging all but a few of us. Women have been trying to do that for a long time, with initiatives like ‘Herstories’ to show that women were (shock) important players in history; feminist economics by trailblazers such as Ailsa MacKay, and making testimony of how good leadership works, talking about the overwhelming evidence that soft-power and collaboration are much more effective processes.
The solution is for men to rewrite power too and visibly practice a different model of leadership – to reject the heroic model of leadership and power and engage in their more ‘human’ behaviours. The binary thinking leads us to call these ‘female’ behaviours, because they don’t play the knock-out competition of ‘last man standing’. So If he (and we) were to eschew the lizard-brain programming and value our other ways of practicing leadership; like consensual decision-making, empowering others and making space for them to exert their own agency, he (and we) would then hold even more power to effect change.
We can agree to do this in theory, it sounds great. But in practice it is very difficult to do – the more pressure feel, the more we default… to our lizard brain, and our binary programming. A good example of that emerged during the indyref campaign where a number of groups that started out collaboratively, lost many internal behaviours of democracy and ‘empowerment’ under the pressure of the deadline and the campaign.
Academic and writer, Lesley Orr, once told me about how emergent groups are particularly vulnerable to regressing into disempowering patterns and unequal power distribution, with didactic leadership models, as pressure and deadlines gather. Groups with no formal structure and no internal democracy are typical sites for this regression and can very quickly become spaces where soft power leadership skills are dismissed in favour of brinkmanship strategies which favour the people that already ‘look like power’. This self-selection of leaders tends towards devaluing the skills and experience contributed by women, economically disadvantaged folk and minorities. It’s a paradox. And a destructive one that emerges precisely when we need these empowering or feminine leadership skills most, at any times of big social and institutional transformation.
When we are stressed we revert to our most oppressive patterns of behavior. Fight or flight. Building a new future is as stressful as it is invigorating. At times of great change we must work hardest to overcome our internal programming and biases and create the culture and values that we truly want to exist within. The outcome of the referendum gives us the opportunity to work on our internal democracies, and develop our understanding of leadership practice. If we want to value people and create a great society, we need to focus on our inter-dependence and create and practice an internal democracy which empowers others. As we examine social justice we need to develop a justice of power, those that have the most should give away the most.
Lets rewrite the leadership model that pits dog against dog.
Let’s make space for all the voices who still feel they cannot speak. And men, sometimes that means championing female voices and ways of being, and sometimes it means stepping aside, listening and supporting women so that ultimately this becomes a better world for men too.
It’s not a zero sum game, after all.