The past week has again highlighted the inexplicable absence of an intelligent discussion conducted by men about ourselves. It’s followed a familiar pattern: a leading female commentator – Diane Abbott on this occasion – diagnoses male ailments and prescribes her cures. What comes back from the patient? Silence. Can there be any group that is subject to so much debate and accusation, and is so apparently powerful – yet remains so utterly speechless?
It reminds me of a stereotypical scene: a woman challenging a man on some personal or domestic issue; him sitting before her silently, absorbing, stonewalling and eventually walking away. It’s a dissatisfying experience for both. She complains to her friends. He has no one to talk to. Somewhere here are clues to this bewildering male silence on the public stage about our own condition.
Men’s absence from the debate has dramatic consequences, making it overwhelmingly negative. In recent weeks the focus has been on abuse of teenage girls, porn, male unemployment and misogyny. But next month it could be “deadbeat dads”, domestic violence and harassment in the workplace.
A debate about men defined by women inevitably dwells on what’s wrong with men – on a continuing “crisis”. That’s understandable. There are many worrying issues that a male discussion of masculinity would and should confront. We are, after all, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, lovers, colleagues and friends of women. But which man wants to join a debate loaded with negativity, littered with slogans like “all men are rapists”?
A debate with genuine male participation and leadership would include the above issues, but within a broader, aspirational and authentically male agenda. The centrepiece would be today’s extraordinary transformation of masculinity. A huge transition is taking place in all our lives, as we redefine our relationships with women, with our children, with work, with our sexuality. History may judge it to be a faster and more profound change even than the developments in women’s lives.
Men, like women, are belatedly escaping what we now recognise to be the confines of our gender. Many of us are enjoying a massively increased engagement with children. There is a stunning growth in male capacity to hold down successful jobs and play an integral role in our homes and personal lives. We are changing our relationships with women and with each other. Male homosexuality is widely expressed and affirmed. And men play a vital role in supporting, personally and politically, the advancement of women’s rights.
But all this fails to generate male leadership or collective discussion. Each of us is operating in our personal world of change, with little sense of what it’s like for the other guys. The women’s movement produced articulate women to narrate their agenda. Where are the men?
An important factor is that otherwise powerful, educated men – the ones you might expect to speak up – tend to have been raised in, and live in, households where they defer to female decision-making and narrative. The reasons are complicated. Women’s centrality in the private arena is a complex expression of both male power and male impotence, of patriarchy and infantilisation. But a consequence of boys and men living in private matriarchies is that even the most senior male chief executive often lacks confidence in areas that might be defined as personal, private or family.
This may always have been the case. But feminism* has reinforced rather than challenged – or even acknowledged – matriarchy. It is an environment in which male spokesmen for change are unlikely to be nurtured. When they do articulate their views or concerns, they are often ridiculed or ignored by women. Misandry can be as nasty as misogyny and is as widespread (just check the internet). Smart men play safe and stay out of it. We’re so conditioned, we don’t even talk to each other.
However, as long as these men – who typically support the women’s movement – remain passive, the only male voices we hear are those of reactionary patriarchs, who reinforce the idea that men are dinosaurs.
Why are we ridiculed when we talk about ourselves? Perhaps because men are assumed to be inherently powerful, with nothing to complain about. It’s a mistake. We urgently require an updated theory of gender that acknowledges there are, and always have been, discrete areas of female power and male powerlessness, not simply female powerlessness. Patriarchy did not rule alone. There was also matriarchy – and there still is.
A revolution is taking place in masculinity, but much of it is below the radar and denied, even when well-documented. This transformation is about much more than “helping” women and addressing their complaints. If we want to hear about it, then we need democratic personal, private and domestic spaces where men feel comfortable to speak. That might generate a more open, less condemning public space. Until then, women will continue to find themselves shouting into the silence about issues that we need to confront together.
*It is not “feminism” that reinforces but the ideological feminists who underneath are little more than sexists (both female and male). See the Male Matters commentary “For Feminist Writers: Distinguish Between Feminism and Feminists!”