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Men: Men and the challenge of expression


Roy McCloughry is a British writer, researcher and broadcaster. He trained as an economist, and is a director of Third Way magazine and Lion Publishing. He has written ten books on economic, social and political issues, and has conducted over thirty interviews with leading political and cultural leaders, including two Prime Ministers. His most recent book on masculinity, Hearing Men's Voices: Men in Search of their Soul, was published in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton. He is married to Helen and they have three daughters.


Over the last thirty years it has become increasingly difficult for men to avoid the implications of their masculinity. In a male-dominated society it is easy for masculinity to be invisible to men. After all they regard it as natural, normal and neutral. It was only when women held up a mirror to them, in the sixties, and said, `This is what you are really like', that men had to face up to who they were and what they had become.

So over the last couple of decades there has been a growing debate on men and masculinity. Some have looked at this image and have shrugged their shoulders and said, `So what?'. Others have protested that they are not guilty of whatever it is men are supposed to have done to women. Others have beaten their breasts and repented on behalf of the whole gender. Others have tried to find new models of manhood.

If the word `crisis' means `turning point' then men are in crisis. Although women say that men are still in control of society--and statistically that may be true--men know that the moral justification for that has disappeared. In the world of work there is now almost nothing that men can do that women cannot. This has had a real impact on men's lives since men have traditionally invested a great deal of their identity in the world of work. In a previous generation, being the provider, procreator and protector summed up the role of the man. For men to work in the public sphere and women in the private sphere of the home may in retrospect look oppressive, but it had the virtue of providing distinctiveness between men and women which has now disappeared. `Since women can now do anything men can do', some men ask, `what does it mean to be a man?' This question is difficult to ask for men who feel insecure but do not want to be seen to be setting women back fifty years.

This would not be so difficult if the labour market were still generating jobs for men. But that is no longer true. In Germany for instance, between 1991 and 1995, twice as many men as women lost their jobs. Women gained 210,000 jobs while men lost 400,000. In the EU, 20% more women are graduating than men. Many of the jobs in new technology are going to women and many part-time jobs also. This is therefore a period of adjustment which is painful for many men. They feel that whereas women have added the public to the private, men are still left with the public since they do not want to go into childcare. With the number of jobs staying roughly the same, the share of jobs going to men is decreasing.

Traditional models of masculinity do not make it easy for men to share their pain. Men are three or four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Men, it seems, still find it difficult to share pain with others, or admit that they need help. If women faced the challenge of oppression, men now face the challenge of expression. The difference is that women expressed solidarity with one another, while men, with some exceptions, are isolated from one another. There has been no men's movement in the sense that there was a women's movement. Men's groups have been set up with very different aims and, where there has been a natural forming of friendships, they have gone a long way to preventing this isolation. But I have been struck repeatedly in my work with men over the last eleven years, how few say they have someone to whom they could go in a serious crisis. Of course, as society becomes more and more pressured, stress can build up like water behind a dam, until it cracks.

We now live in a culture of intimacy in which sharing what is on one's heart is a sign of openness; and that openness is equated with emotional health. But many men find it difficult to express their feelings and see such a requirement as a `women thing'--and to do with the increased `feminisation of society'. For them, coping with difficulty and being strong in the face of adversity is an important part of masculinity. They should not be criticised for this, as if there were only one way to live as a man. We need to talk of masculinities in the plural, rather than masculinity in the singular. Nevertheless, when such men say that their interior life is a foreign country, something is wrong. It is not that they do not have feelings but that they do not have the language to express them. This is particularly true of the generation of men who went through the war, for whom relationships based on verbally expressed intimacy--especially between father and son--can be difficult.

In this kind of culture, friendship of all kinds becomes important. Yet many men are scared of friendships with other men because they may be seen as gay. Many men would prefer to have `mates' with whom they go to the match. They are very good at relationships with other men which revolve around doing something together, such as sport. They are notoriously bad at `being' together without an agenda or task. Friendships based on doing something together are often seen as inferior; this reflects the dominance of the culture of intimacy. But there is room for all kinds of friendship. If chatting as we go round a golf course brings us closer together, why impose any other way of working on men? We are all different.

But one thing that is necessary if friendship is to take root is to break up the myth that the macho man is a real man. In fact, the macho man is half a person since he rejects that half of his character which he regards as `feminine'. So many men have been told that they have to get in touch with their feminine side. By this is presumably meant their gentle, loving and nurturing side. But men are called to be men, not fake women. Men love as men do, not as women do. Meekness, despised by macho men, is actually the gentleness of the strong. Men don't have a feminine side. They are whole men who are free to express every part of their personality. Research shows that men who are nurturers not only make better parents, but are better performers at work and have better emotional health.

It is easy to stop at the emotional health of men without talking about their spiritual needs. To what extent is there a distinctive male spirituality? Some of the attempts to recover a lost masculinity have been spiritual in the broadest sense of the word. A small movement of men has evolved, to rediscover the lost wildness of post-industrial man. Although it is quite right to talk of the need for men to recover wildness, it is not something we can discover in ourselves. It is the wildness of God. As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, the divine lion in the Narnia stories, `he's not a tame lion, you know...'. God's wildness is to be found in his holiness, his ability to be utterly `I am who I am'.

The crucifixion poses us with the question, `What would you die for?'. Few of us can answer. We are not so passionate about anything that we care enough to put ourselves in harm's way. We are careful to `go with the flow' and do not stand against our compromised society because we are not committed enough to do so. Yet as a Christian, I believe the recovery of male spirituality will come not from therapeutic introspection but from unconditional commitment to God.

This results in both love and justice. Jesus not only turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple, he knelt and washed his disciples' feet. Because he was secure as a son, he was set free to be a servant. We need men who are secure. We live in a society where identity is fluid and changes with the fashions and the brands. Men who are deeply spiritual and wise are needed as friends, mentors, fathers and faithful husbands. It is the quality of masculinity rather than the model of masculinity which the world is looking for.

Last update: 2001-03-11 17:39:17 (EEST).
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