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victims or villains?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 31 august 2006

KENAN MALIK What is it with men? One minute they’re ruling the world, the next they’ve become the new victims of the sexual revolution.

MATT O’CONNOR A lot of men go round as being sort of limp-wristed, metrosexual pygmies, you know, emasculated by feminists. If you’re passionate, you’re angry; if you’re angry, you’re violent, QED. You can be a man, you can have meat and two veg and not have to go round apologising for that fact. The problem for men is that they have been to some extent disenfranchised and their core values have often been eroded, and I think a lot of men are lost.

KENAN MALIK Matt O’Connor, founder of the pressure group Fathers for Justice. Men – lost, limp-wristed pygmies yet proud of having meat and two veg? Why is there such confusion about what it is to be a man these days and what does this tell us about our society? In a controversial new book called Manliness, Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard University, argues that we in the West have done ourselves no favours by deprecating men’s core values.

HARVEY MANSFIELD A manly man is a confident man, stoic, not a complainer, aggressive, assertive, hard instead of soft. So the greatest instance of manliness would be in battle. Manliness thrives on conflict and war. Even in peacetime, on disagreement and disdain.

KENAN MALIK And what do you think is the state of manliness in the world today?

HARVEY MANSFIELD It has very little reputation and I’m talking about the Western world, the world of liberal democracies, which I would call gender-neutral societies. Those are societies in which your sex matters as little as possible. It doesn’t give you your rights or your duties and it certainly doesn’t give you your place. It denies that there are important sex differences, but it seems that they are, and manliness is the main one and there I think the problem lies. It’s characteristic of manliness that manly men don’t want to fit in - they want to be different; they want to stand out - and so a society which demands that you fit in has no appeal for the manliness in men, and you see that they react against it.

KENAN MALIK 'A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.' 'Come on punk, make my day.' Not Hollywood clichés, says Professor Mansfield, but the natural imperatives that define a man, and sentiments that echo through the ages.

HARVEY MANSFIELD Right at the beginning of Homer’s Illiad, Achilles has a private grievance: his boss, Agamemnon, has taken his girlfriend away from him and he wants her back. But instead of just asking for her back, he blows up the issue and expands it, makes it much more abstract and theoretical and says: ‘ People like you shouldn’t be ruling, but people like me – manly, heroic men – should be’. That’s the assertive part of manliness.

KENAN MALIK Achilles and Alexander. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. It’s men as hard, strong, silent, assertive. Fashioned by battle and by countless Hollywood Westerns. The trouble is, says psychiatrist Sebastian Kraemer, the Westerns got it wrong. Men are born to be anything but heroic. More Clark Kent than Superman. A consultant child psychiatrist based at London’s Whittington Hospital, Dr Kraemer coined the term ‘The Fragile Male’.

SEBASTIAN KRAEMER The fragile male is biological in the first instance. That’s to say that he is not as strong as the female in terms of resilience to disorders that can happen before you’re born. Firstly, the male embryo is more likely to die than the female, so there are more males conceived than females, but the majority of them die so therefore you have an almost equal proportion of male and female babies born. Secondly, anything that can go wrong in obstetric terms like things going wrong with the placenta, things going wrong in the womb, is more likely to affect a male foetus than a female foetus. Almost everything except spina bifida is commoner in the male. And also in social terms the female is more able to manage in the modern world. Managing in the modern world means that the skills that males needed and gave as privileges in the past are less necessary now than they were then. For instance, muscle power is not so important. In fact it’s not important at all unless you’re doing furniture removal.

KENAN MALIK So in broad terms men are disadvantaged, is that what you’re saying?

SEBASTIAN KRAEMER Well it doesn’t look like that. I mean men are not disadvantaged in the sense that they still run the world, but they are
disadvantaged at lower levels, at the ordinary levels of society where it turns out women are much better at doing the things that men used to do like managing, like running businesses, being educated, like being articulate, even writing.

KENAN MALIK In a sense you’re saying that maleness is a disability.

SEBASTIAN KRAEMER Maleness would be a disability if the only measure of ability was modern society - unless you regard running the world as a success, which I think we might question. But you have to remember that we’re talking about biological differences here and that maleness is designed for a particular role, which is one of two sexual partners, and that actually to produce a baby you need a male. And you don’t need very many of them. I mean the most striking statistic that I know of is the male elephant seals, only four percent of them actually impregnate the female. So what you’ve got is a sex which is mostly redundant. Most of the males are useless.

KENAN MALIK So who am I? Hero or wimp? Achilles or Frank Spencer? A bearer of essential manly values or a useless appendage to women? The old certainties about manliness have been replaced by new confusions about what it is to be a man. As women have transformed gender relations by making their way into what have traditionally been male arenas – from work to politics – so many men have started wondering about their own place in the world. It’s led some to talk of a crisis of masculinity. Lynne Segal, Professor of Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

LYNNE SEGAL People react to seeing men in crisis in totally opposed ways – some by saying men should be allowed to be the tough, heroic characters they once were like Ernest Hemingway, forgetting that Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out because he couldn’t be the type of tough, heroic person he wanted to be. Or, on the other hand, people are saying we have to encourage men to be less rigid in their understandings of masculinity. Men deal variously with being labelled ‘the problematic sex’. The knee jerk response of many is to say all our problems come from women. And of course the idea of blaming women for men’s problems is a very old one in Christian cultures, of course, going back to the Garden of Eden and I’m in sure in other cultures going back to their founding myths.

KENAN MALIK Perhaps nowhere has the debate about male roles been more fractious than in the discussion of fatherhood. As women have rolled up their sleeves and entered the workplace, so there have been demands that men reciprocate at home. And for those men, like footballer Michael Owen, who find things like changing nappies ‘too complicated’, there are even glossy magazines like FQ that treat buggies like fast cars, provide ‘The Bloke’s Guide to Pregnancy’ and have a special supplement on ‘Dad stuff’. Yet, many men complain that society refuses to take seriously the idea of fatherhood. Among them is the controversial but influential founder of Fathers for Justice, Matt O’Connor.

MATT O’CONNOR If you look at the family division judges, there is a presumption that mum still stays at home and look after their kids and dad’s almost superfluous. We are second rate citizens. There’s a gender apartheid practising in the court system. In certain areas of society men are increasingly subject to discrimination. And that’s the point – it’s looking at those pockets of discrimination. But I mean, for example, people say, 'Well why do fathers want to be hands-on parents?' Well a third of all childcare now is actually provided by fathers according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. That is a massive increase over the last 10 years.

KENAN MALIK There have certainly been many horror stories about the treatment of fathers by the Family Courts. But the judges are now at pains to point out that there is no presumption in favour of the mother as the natural parent. Many people may bristle, not just at Matt O’Connor’s view of men as losers in a system of gender apartheid, but also at his ideas about how to deal with recalcitrant mothers. The government is suggesting confiscating the passports of fathers who default on child support payments or electronically tagging them. Right solution, wrong target, says Matt O’Connor.

MATT O’CONNOR Actually, it was Fathers For Justice that first floated the idea of tagging mothers who flouted court orders. We floated the idea. It was rejected on the grounds that it was inhumane. So yet again, you know, we have a system which practices a kind of gender apartheid – it’s okay to tag dads if they don’t pay child support, but it’s not okay to tag mums who don’t send little Johnny to go and see dad.

KENAN MALIK The idea that men are somehow the downtrodden race, that somehow they are being put down upon by society seems to me, would seem to most people, faintly ridiculous. Aren’t you simply playing the victim card to try and get a bit more sympathy?

MATT O’CONNOR Listen, I’m no victim, and I’ll tell you that now. The point is that a lot of men revert back to stereotype – you know it’s watching the football, going out and having a beer. And I think, yeah, there are certain oxymoronic things happening, which men find very difficult to deal with – you know are we supposed to be hands-on and caring or are we supposed to be daredevil dads? Sperm are swimming against the tide these days, there’s no two ways about it, in modern society. Men are denigrated, ridiculed, demonised. We’re mug dads. We’re cash cows. We’re dodgy dads. We’re deadbeat dads. Dads are demonised in adverts, ridiculed in greetings cards, across the board. You know a nation of once proud fathers are now living in a society where ‘dad’ has become a dirty word.

KENAN MALIK Fathers for Justice has pushed itself into public consciousness with a series of publicity stunts in which activists have climbed landmark buildings dressed as comic-book superheroes, from Batman to Spiderman. It’s interesting that Matt O’Connor should want to be associated with fantasy heroes in order to promote the idea of fathers as hard done by.

Anastasia De Waal is head of research into Family and Education at the right-leaning think tank Civitas. Does she buy the idea of the victimised father?

ANASTASIA DE WAAL There is a growing feeling or perhaps it’s just being more vocalised, a feeling that men as fathers are being victimised, that they’re not getting a look in on their children. There can be some sympathy for this, but this is against a background of the mother being generally the person who is taking more hours spent on childcare. In that sense it’s quite difficult to feel sympathetic about these apparently victimised fathers. I think the reality is that this rather more a fashion thing about attitudes changing than a real cultural shift. Fatherhood has not changed in the way that perhaps we think it has. Since the '60s, women’s role in the paid labour force has gone up by about 36 per cent. Now the shift for men, the corresponding shift, is only 13 per cent involvement in childcare. In other words, there hasn’t been the same sort of shift there has been for women going into work as there has been for men going into household work in terms of childcare. And when fathers are involved in childcare, it often involves watching television with their children.

KENAN MALIK Of course, some people might feel that changing a nappy is getting off lightly compared to watching yet another episode of the Fimbles. But de Waal’s point is that what distinguishes the sexes is not just the hours put into childcare but also the style of parenting.

ANASTASIA DE WAAL 'Instrumental' parenting involves the more economic aspects, the providing for, or the discipline - the role that we traditionally associate in fact with fathers. Now, 'expressive' parenting again is the role that we more traditionally associate with mothers – the caring in terms of emotionally but also practically in terms of making the packed lunches, doing the homework with the child. Now there hasn’t been a change in these roles over the last fifty years. It has more or less remained similar.

KENAN MALIK What’s interesting is that my personal experience, both my experience and the experience of my friends and my peers, is that what drives gender roles and gender relations in childcare are pragmatic and economic factors. Where (as in my case) the woman earns more, and where she works a less flexible time, then the man generally does as much or more childcare. Where it’s the other way round, the woman tends to do more.

ANASTASIA DE WAAL Yes, absolutely, and I think that if it’s pragmatic solutions that are working rather than on stereotypes, then I think that’s very positive. My concern is that a lot of women are doing both long working hours and long childcare hours. I think we need to have greater equality because it certainly seems that at the moment there is an imbalance.

KENAN MALIK If Anastasia de Waal is right, then things haven’t changed as much as Matt O’Connor believes and Harvey Mansfield fears. But the research into fatherhood can be read in many ways. Some studies suggest that men are not interested in taking greater parental responsibilities, others that quite significant changes have already taken place. What is clear, though, is that media-savvy men, from David Beckham to David Cameron, want to project the image of being a caring, sharing dad. Is this just cynical headline-grabbing or does it presage a deeper shift in the meanings of masculinity? Maggie Baxter is executive director of the women’s rights organisation Womankind Worldwide.

MAGGIE BAXTER I think that people like David Beckham and David Cameron are enormously important in terms of role models. I don’t think it should get men off the hook - there are an awful lot of men that don’t push the pram - but I think that, yes, they are great role models. Boys are beginning to reflect and have role models that reflect back to them that they should be more caring and should be more part of the family and bringing up the children, and I think a lot of men are entering into that realm. However, that’s then countered by the other things that are going on in society – about what it is to be a man and to be macho.

KENAN MALIK Well, it certainly didn’t do David Beckham any harm being seen wearing a sarong. Professor Lynne Segal of Birkbeck College, London.

LYNNE SEGAL Men, when they’re powerful, men when they’re on top, have always had much more scope to (if they want to use it) to express the softer, more diverse side of what it is to be human. After all nobody is simply tough and strong and rational through and through. Everybody has different sides to themselves. So the more men can take for granted the standard prerogatives of manhood – that is of being on top – then the more they’re able to show the other side. So there is something positive about it as well as reasons to perhaps be a little cynical that it’s these men who are allowed to show the softer side of themselves.

KENAN MALIK So real men do cry these days. But not necessarily just because they’re powerful. It’s become fashionable in our society to let it all hang out emotionally. In the past, weakness and vulnerability were seen as a woman’s prerogative. Now masculinity itself, it seems, is being refashioned, too. But Maggie Baxter of Womankind Worldwide, which is concerned with violence against women, fears that the New Man still has a long way to go.

MAGGIE BAXTER Men should not be excused of their violence. They ruin women’s lives. They also depend on women to bring up their children, to feed them, to gather the wood for the fire. To allow this unacceptable level of violence that women experience should not be accepted. Men’s feeling of inadequacy sometimes does result in them being violent. This is not an issue which is, as everyone might say, on that dump estate. It’s not true. This is actually in the rich houses of Hampstead as much as it is anywhere else. Violence against women is a very particular type of violence because it is to do with control of women – a feeling of 'I have a right, an entitlement to own that woman'. When things go wrong for men, they can take it out on those that they are close to.

KENAN MALIK There’s no escaping the headlines. 'Crazed Dad Jumps off Hotel Balcony with his two kids'. 'Paedophile held schoolgirl captive in cellar for eight years'. It’s the image of men as rapists, paedophiles, hooligans. Not surprising, says Lynne Segal. For attached to the idea of men in crisis has been the notion of men as the problematic sex.

LYNNE SEGAL The sorts of issues which are raised as issues today have always been around; that is, the problems of sexual violence and violence against women, violence by men against other men as well. Paedophilia, too, is no new thing at all. But I suppose many of the issues were issues raised by feminists. Feminists looked at them in order to try and eliminate the ways in which power operated, which were condoning men’s sexual aggression towards women or some few men’s sexual violence against children. Once that had come out as a really public issue, then the interesting thing that happens is it shifts again to be seen not so much in terms of men’s power or the ways in which (as feminists said) our understandings of masculinity tend to tolerate men’s sexual coerciveness towards women, but rather as there being individual evil types of men. And I think that is certainly the way in which paedophilia and other issues attaching to the problem of men are dealt with, which I find most unhelpful. I find it particularly unhelpful that we’re not able to talk rationally and calmly, for instance, about paedophilia and why it might be that men would abuse children.

KENAN MALIK And here we have one of the paradoxes of the current debate about masculinity. On the one hand, men face considerable pressure to be less traditionally masculine, more emotional and nurturing and to play a greater role in the home and as fathers. On the other hand, there is a growing distrust of men and what they are capable of, a distrust that makes many people worried about allowing men to get too involved. Underlying much of the current discussion about paedophilia, for instance, is a sense that every man is a potential abuser. If you’re a man, how comfortable do you feel these days comforting somebody else’s young child when they’ve fallen over in the playground?

Indra Adnan doesn’t think we should be suspicious of all men. But there, is she suggests, a fundamental difference in the ways that men and women approach the world. For Indra Adnan, founder and director of New Integrity, a political and business consultancy, this difference expresses itself not only in the behaviour of individuals but also at the level of international relations. In a forthcoming book she distinguishes between the use of what she calls hard power and soft power.

INDRA ADNAN Hard power is the use of force or the use of coercion. It’s characterised by military means, maybe violence, dominance, and feels that they can somehow shock into change by using exhortation or discipline or offering strict rules. Soft power, by contrast, wants to find a connection with the object that it wishes to change, empathise with it, and to be willing to change alongside. Soft power does embrace conflict transformation, a belief in diplomacy, in dialogue and patient change. Soft power is more like the response that a woman might have when it sees something in pain.

KENAN MALIK Are you seriously suggesting that Condoleezza Rice, say, is softer than Colin Powell was or that Tony Blair is harder than Margaret Thatcher was?

INDRA ADNAN No, I’m seriously not suggesting that. Both of the women you mention are women who have fought their way to the top in a distinctly overwhelmingly male culture. These are women who have taught themselves to be male more effectively actually than those male counterparts that you’ve mentioned.

KENAN MALIK But you want to have it both ways. You want to say there is this fundamental distinction between men and women and male values and female values. When you actually look at what real women do in the real world, then you say, 'Ah they’re not behaving like real women, they’re actually behaving like real men'. You’re trying to have it both ways, aren’t you?

INDRA ADNAN I think that was a very male question. For me, real women are the ones that are working in social services, in medicine, on the frontline of peace organisations, mothers. These are the real women that I’ve learned my lessons from, not the sole, rare women who’ve made it into political life. The people that I see around me, the people that I have worked with who have the patience, the vision, the intuition, the care to do that are mostly women, and it is mostly women who are absent from the political scene.

KENAN MALIK Of course, men also work in social services, or as nurses for example. Do they not possess the ability to show empathy and concern? And if they do, are they surrogate women? In any case, do you not also need so-called male values – such as toughness and objectivity – to be a good social worker?

And if those appear to be male questions, here’s another. How plausible is the idea that soft power can run the world? Hug a hoodie, perhaps. But cuddle a terrorist? Do we really think that Osama bin Laden would call off the suicide bombers if only the world’s leaders would show him love, empathy and connectivity? Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield thinks that we should be grateful that there still are some real men in the world with proper manly traits.

HARVEY MANSFIELD Well, some have said that our problem is too much manliness, say, in foreign policy. Or, more particularly, some people have accused President Bush of being too manly. I think the answer to that is that foreign policy is a manly arena and if you don’t have it you will lose to those who have more of it. One can start off with the event of 9/11 when you could say that the Islamic hijackers were as manly as the New York policemen and firemen who reacted so heroically. So manly can make you ruthless and terrifying as well as respectable and calming. So the best defence against the wrong kind of manliness is the right kind. The right kind of manliness is the servant of the good society, and manliness itself I think in something like foreign policy is inevitable.

KENAN MALIK And here’s the curious thing. Harvey Mansfield and Indra Adnan have very different views of the world. But on one thing they’re
agreed: that men are from Mars and women from Venus – and so are their respective values. But do we really need interplanetary craft to negotiate the right kind of values for our age?

LYNNE SEGAL I think the deprecation of any notion of masculinity is certainly a bad thing. The idea that being assertive and confident and able to be active initiators is something which is bad is, of course, absurd. It’s something which women as well as men want to do. What feminism was always struggling for was a society where both men and women could make more choices.

KENAN MALIK Lynne Segal may disagree with Harvey Mansfield on what it is to be a man, but she too prizes many of the values that he promotes. Self-reliance, the willingness to take risks, the strength to pursue a cause – all are crucial in today’s world, not as manly traits but as human ones. They are certainly qualities that I would like my daughter to have. The psychiatrist Sebastian Kraemer.

SEBASTIAN KRAEMER Since feminism, the centre of gravity of human nature has shifted. This isn’t a question of should we become more feminine. It’s a question of do we have to be like traditional males always have been? And the answer is obviously not and we obviously are not. This is not a deliberate choice. It’s just happened over the last fifty years. But actually the differences are not as great as they appear. For instance, heroism is hardly something that is only attributed to men. Muscle power, yes. The ability to play brilliant chess, probably. Football, probably. But actually a lot of the things that were privileged to men like power, strength, courage and so on are clearly attributes which are equally available to and demonstrated by women. So what we’re talking about is a much richer mix of human qualities, which we can celebrate.

KENAN MALIK The crisis of masculinity has been created by shifting gender roles. It has also been created by a growing confusion about values. We live in a post-ideological age in which traditional political and moral lines have become blurred and people have become uneasy about strong views and robust claims. Hence the deprecation of so-called male values. Traditional gender roles are certainly not worth preserving. But many so-called male values are. We need men as well as women to push prams and change nappies, to nurture, to empathise. But we also need both to be assertive, decisive and confident.