We don’t even know what we are supposed to be anymore, us men.
Not so women.
Women’s struggle for emancipation from the shackles of the kitchen and home has been a righteous one. Any feminist will tell you, with some justification, that there is still much to be done. Women’s salaries are still not on a par within the workplace and so on. But theirs is an ongoing, forward march, preferably in great shoes and with regular breaks for cupcakes and latte. It gives them a sense of impetus, a striving towards a better future for the sisterhood.
Right thinking men, that is those who are neither misogynists nor traditionalist dinosaurs, find themselves both applauding the erosion of ages old barriers to women and simultaneously feeling increasingly uneasy about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. How are we supposed to behave, we the enlightened?
21st century man. The pinnacle of 1 billion years of biological evolution. Consider our past: Eons of hunter-gathering, tribal warfare. Bringing home the kill. A respected elder of the tribe; a skilled craftsman perhaps. Bodies grown strong and fast by living by our wits and strength. A brotherhood of tribesmen, mutual respect and honour. In times gone by there was no doubt about what being a man meant.
Humans have been around for a few million years. We are Johnny-come-lately’s on the evolutionary playing field. Even so, what we would call ‘modern humans’, homo sapiens, have been about for a few hundred thousand years. For the great majority of that time we were hunter gathers. Social groupings into tribes comes much later. Settled habitations grown from the development of farming skills is relatively very recent. Do you think that hundreds of thousands of years of behaviour doesn’t leave an imprint within? We have instincts alright, we have just learned to supress them to fit in with our ‘logical’ modern world.
As Adam Ant (that great thinker of our time) once observed “I feel beneath the white there is a redskin, suffering from centuries of training.”
So, the proverbial redskin brave finds himself constrained in an environment (modern civilisation) where he is expected to suppress these instincts. The testosterone swilling around inside him, once his great asset, giving him strength, virility and aggression is now his downfall. He may learn to suppress it (as most do) and conform, living and working in an increasingly feminine-oriented world until, at some point in his 40s (perhaps) the tension created by it all leads him to react against it and do some out of character things. This is dismissively written off (mostly by women) and described as a ‘mid-life crisis’.
Many men have issues with mental health as they get into middle age. Some try damping the feelings down with alcohol. The rising sense of panic that has been with you for years but you don’t want to admit to because, well, it’s not normal is it? It’s just me – I’d better try and snap out of it.. That’s what a so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ actually is. It’s a reaction to the feeling, which has been growing within for decades, that there is something terribly wrong with your life and no amount of stuff that you buy to wear, drive or play with will resolve it.
Others do less well at keeping a lid on it. They may become abusive partners. They may be the men you cross the street to avoid when you are walking in a town centre late on a Friday night, spoiling for a fight. They may prefer to have running battles with opposing fans of a rival football team. Ever noticed just how tribal football allegiances are?
Vast numbers of lost men, fighting in the street in the small hours of a weekend morning.
So, what are we supposed to do about it? Of course we can’t go back to living in caves and courtship conducted with a heavy club, and, of course, we don’t want to. The challenge is to find a new manhood, a new masculinity for the 21st century and beyond. One that enables us to live in harmony with the modern age yet honours what it means to be a man. Violence, aggression and being abusive or controlling of women is not the answer. So what is?
I aim to develop the ideas here in future posts but, for the meantime, here are some aspects of the modern age which, I believe, contribute to this crisis in manhood:
- Being a ‘wage-slave’. Yes, trading your valuable time to make someone else wealthy. If you work in an office environment especially how does that make you feel? Empowered? Thought not. Work is essential for your wellbeing though. Also, you live in a society so you should be making some contribution to it. There is no honour in dossing about expecting someone else to pick up the tab for your lazy arse. However, is working for someone else the best way to be fulfilled at work? Being an employee can quite easily make you feel like a loser. However it is still by far preferable to not working at all.
- Education, especially at primary level (elementary). Been to a primary school recently? How many teachers are male? There may be one or two but most, if not all, are women. You don’t just learn to read and write at school, there is something which sociologists call the ‘hidden curriculum’. It’s the stuff we learn which we don’t realise we’re learning. Some of it is great; how to get along with other people, and treat them with respect, for instance. Does a little boy in the class get exposed to positive male role models in school though? Unlikely. What is he learning about being a man? Nothing. Primary school is an overwhelmingly feminine environment. In a lot of other, non-western cultures, it is considered essential for men in the society to be involved with teaching and nurturing boys. At what point did we turn into a society where teaching of all young children, of whatever sex, was exclusively ‘women’s work’.
- The increasing prevalence of absent fathers. Being from a home where your parents don’t live together is not necessarily the issue. Its fathers who then have nothing to do with their children. Arguably worse are the fathers who are drunks or druggies or violent or abusive. They may still be at home but give the child an awful role model. There are huge numbers of little boys who are growing up without any positive role models. In fact there a lot of boys who are growing up with virtually no meaningful contact with adult men at all.
If women’s lib is the struggle for equal rights for women what is the male equivalent? What does ‘Men’s Lib’ look like?
For me, it would be a way of living where I am in control of my own destiny, living in harmony with my fellow man (and woman) but with dignity, respect and on my own terms. Impossible dream? I certainly hope not.