What is the Problem with Scottish Men?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, June 11th 2011

The story of Scottish men is a familiar one as well known as that of Scotland itself.

There is the story of local heroes, Bravehearts, conquerors and warriors, along with a few explorers and inventors through our history. In the present day this panoply of possibilities has reduced to one about confusion, negativity and about men who have mostly lost their way.

Men dominate most of the public life of Scotland: politics, business, media, the public conversations and public spaces. However, there is a deep paradox here in that men are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Men are silent as men and don’t generally talk about the issues they face as men.

That was one of the reasons I made ‘The Story of Scottish Men’ for BBC Radio Scotland – as a small contribution to trying to kick start a long overdue debate.

What’s the problem here anyway I hear some sceptical men and women say? ‘Stop whining and just get on with life’. To men I would say look around at the condition of Scots men: health, well-being, violence. The story of male life expectancy not just in poor areas but in middle class ones too. This is not a happy land for many men. It is a society disfigured by what some men do to other men, and to women and children.

I would say to women who dismiss this as self-indulgent, that for men to accept responsibility, to challenge other men’s behaviour and actions, and support change, isn’t some easy or soft option. It is the right thing to do. But that entails men addressing their actions and thinking as men.

Over ten years I ago I ran a Glasgow men’s group – an experience which lasted for five years. I advertised, organised and facilitated it, and it was a fascinating insight into a broad swathe of Scottish men, and a major moment in my life that was revealing, full of learning and at times difficult.

The men in it were mixed in age, from their 20s to 50s, in a variety of jobs and backgrounds, some working class, some middle class, some professional and others non-professional. If you had asked me before I ventured down this road how I would have perceived it I would have given you the standard Scots male response. I would have seen such a group as containing a bunch of insufferable, self-obsessed, politically correct ‘soft men’ who told women what they wanted to hear.

It was nothing like this at all, but it says a lot for those stereotypes that even I felt them, when I knew I wanted to do something personally as a man, and to aid and support other men who wanted to do something.

Instead of talking about the usual male subjects  – football and politics or other abstractions – we talked about ourselves, our lives, relationships, families and emotions.

Michael, 45, who was in the group, has now lived for the last nine years in Australia and was then, as now, a health education professional. He felt the group offered a very different kind of space to that of most men getting together, ‘You were consciously trying to talk about your feelings. Other groups of men you would get together with would be because of football.’

Sometimes for some men the language or the way to express how you feel can be a major issue. What you also find is how long it can take men to really trust and open up with each other. All our conditioning teaches us the opposite.

Eddie, 48, from the working class part of Helensburgh, who was also in the group, commented that women showed a ‘surprise, but an interested surprise’ about the fact he was in a men’s group. Whereas ‘men kind of dismiss it’. As he aptly reflected, ‘When I mentioned the group to a woman, it was always the start of an interesting conversation. With a man, it was never the start of a conversation, but the end’.

Michael felt that the group challenged his self-identity as ‘fairly in touch with my feelings’. Eddie felt it gave a safety to get into things you just could not elsewhere – ‘exploring whether you were homophobic or uncomfortable about things about men’s sexuality.’

Eddie reflects that there is a problem about ‘the West of Scotland male’. He believes ‘the biggest problem we have is certain sections of society blaming all our problems on the West of Scotland male.’ He thinks this is ‘always about putting what is wrong down to poor, working class people and men. This is right through society, the middle class and intelligentsia.’ This he thinks is a form of ‘deception’ and prevents middle class men from looking at their own problem behaviour and actions such as careerism, absenteeism from the home and emotional disconnection from families.

Michael from the distance of Brisbane notes the positives and negatives about Scottish men. ‘There’s no lack of external posturing, noise and chanting. There’s an obvious lack of self-comfort’. However, compared to Australia the positives need to be emphasised, the Scots sense of ‘depth’, which shows that Scots men are ‘highly sensitive’ and have ‘emotional insight’ even if they struggle to put this into words.

What do we do to breakout of the straightjacket of the archetypes of Scottish men? To stop thinking of ‘the Big Man’ and ‘Rab C.’? While not seeing some of the alternatives as much of an answer. The anti-sexist ‘new man’ of the 1980s has been and gone. Others briefly saw the David Beckham like metrosexual groomed man as offering a future: a trophy man for the trophy wife.

What we need are Scottish heroes. Everyday Scottish men doing exceptional things in their everyday lives. Less Braveheart and more heart and soul.

This entails starting young – with early years intervention, but that isn’t a panacea all by itself. Projects like Sandy Campbell’s ‘Working Rite’, an apprenticeship scheme about how boys become men is part of the answer. ‘It is about’, says Campbell, ‘accepting that men speak in code’. His project never uses the word ‘mentoring’’, but instead uses the language of ‘everyone remembers their first boss’.

Supporting how boys become men, the importance of rites of passage into adulthood, and recognising the language and codes of men. These are fundamentals if we are to address the strange landscape of Scottish men, one where we have a problem as a society, culturally and in how we explain and do something about it.

A start has to be in recognising that Scottish men come in all shapes and sizes, and challenge the negative caricaturing of men which has gone on in a society which has moved away from the traditional male role models most of us grow up with.

More than that, the band of brothers that is Scottish men have to find a way to address the toxic, damaging and debilitating behaviours of too many men in our midst. And accept that we have a responsibility as men to challenge, cajole, and say, that too much of the behaviour that we have tolerated for too long, is just not acceptable in a modern society.

I want to live in a country and nation in which its men and women walk tall, care for each other, and don’t hurt themselves and others. And which recognises the power of love and empathy and how these are missing ingredients in large parts of Scottish society.

Well, if we agree on that we have got some urgent action we had better get on with. And to do that we need to begin breaking the many silences of Scottish men.

Gerry Hassan is the presenter of ‘The Story of Scottish Men’ on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday June 13th and Tuesday June 14th.