Toxic Masculinity must be defeated. Silence is not an option for any of us

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 10th 2018

Hate seems to be everywhere in public life. This week Scottish Justice minister Humza Yousaf floated making misogyny a specific hate crime illegal, while in the previous week, the Scottish Government launched a high profile campaign against hate crime.

Look around the world for numerous, state-sponsored examples – US President Donald Trump, the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte with his rape comment after the killing of an Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill that ‘the mayor should have been first’, and Brazilian Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro and his language of rape references as a political weapon.

Trump’s comments on the Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford case have taken even his debased Presidency to a new low. After initially saying after the Senate hearings that Ford was ‘a very fine woman’, not long after he went into the gutter at a rally mocking sexual abuse and gang rape – then in the last few days, dismissing the whole thing as ‘a hoax’ dreamed up by the Democrats.

The horrible nature of Trump’s comments entailed a ruthless calculation about weaponising sexual assault allegations to fire up the Republican base and Senators: a politics he relishes and is sadly well-equipped for. It is a wake-up call for America, showing the backlash of some to the #MeToo movement – and the watershed change it was meant to bring in respecting victims and survivors.

More than politics is at work in this and other cases. It is about the dynamics of power, gender and the changing roles of men and women – and how different men and women understand and interpret this. A key dimension is toxic masculinity – angry, aggressive, abusive men embodying misogyny, excusing and belittling violence and abuse – all of which Trump is a leading advocate of.

Toxic masculinity comes in many forms as the writer Darren McGarvey, author of ‘Poverty Safari’, points out: ‘Not all toxic masculinity is the same, so it requires a context specific approach to tackle. Male prisons and Trump’s White House are both toxic but in different ways.’

The psychologist and ACES advocate Suzanne Zeedyk takes the view: ‘Do I think toxic masculinity exists? Without a doubt. Am I worried about its impact on our society? Absolutely. Our culture has traditionally associated and defined masculinity as being disconnected from tender emotions. Such disconnection is bad for human biology.’ The pro-independence commentator, ‘Southsidegrrl’, thinks that toxic masculinity hurts all of us: ‘It’s a gender stereotype that imprisons men, who are trained or expected to demonstrate aggression physically and sexually, and to not show emotions or tenderness. The solution is to break down the prison of gender.’

The UK and Scotland are not immune from this. Boris Johnson has shown such attitudes in spades, including recently when he compared Theresa May’s Brexit offer to a ‘suicide vest’, and before that compared Muslim women wearing the hijab to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bankrobbers’.

In Scotland, there has long been concern about certain manifestations of masculinity, and the damage it can do to women, children, and men themselves. We happen to live in a society blighted by poverty, inequality and broken lives: with the worst life expectancy of Western Europe, something which is worse in men, and the worst drug deaths in all of Europe – 934 in the last year.

Sometimes the way too many talk about Scottish men has too obvious a tartan trope – invoking damaged childhoods, abusive, alcoholic fathers, and presenting a pathologised, even, clichéd story of men in Scotland, which is far removed from its variety and different experiences. This is seen in the misery lit of celebrity autobiographies such as Alan Cumming or many of the films of Peter Mullen, where a dysfunctional, angst-ridden father and problematic childhood is the basis for wanting to change and be a different man.

These accounts should not be dismissed; they are powerful and cathartic. But they are only one strand and play into a whole host of powerful Scottish caricatures about drink, emotion and violence. They only tell a small part of the picture. And they also tend to present a rather one-dimensional portrayal of the forms of damaging behaviour, whereas in everyday life it comes in many colours and forms, some of which give the pretence of being charming or charismatic.

We can see many current examples of such problems in Scotland. Take the Alex Salmond controversy. It has unveiled a whole strand of opinion prepared to – as in the Brett Kavanaugh case – dish the accusers, claiming it has all been created by the mainstream media, and even stating their belief in the complete innocence in Salmond because he is ‘a good man’. A critical point in this episode will come in the new year when this case comes before the Court of Session – and how in particular, a swathe of pro-independence opinion reacts.

Then there is the case of the pro-independence blogger, Wings over Scotland, aka Stuart Campbell. He has been recently causing maximum disruption to Scottish Labour by taking its former leader Kezia Dugdale to court after she accused him in her ‘Daily Record’ column of ‘homophobic tweets’. This has delighted many of his most ardent followers, but what is as interesting is the take-no-prisoner approach of Wings, resorting to abuse and name-calling, using the ‘c—‘ word and, for example, calling numerous politicians including Green MSP Ross Greer, ‘scum’. All this is excusable to his followers because he takes on the mainstream, pro-unionist media.

What runs through toxic masculinity in all its forms is the male as the one in power or with a public voice; acting as a bully, often (but not only) against women; taking no responsibility or accountability for their behaviour or actions, and with no balance. Men who behave like this are allowed to say anything to win and make their point against opponents, but any criticism causes them and their supporters to significantly over-react and cry foul.

Toxic masculinity is a form of regression, and even retreat from the modern world, putting up a protective barrier of rage and indignation, and hurling abuse at others. It is a form of adult-child behaviour – and not behaviour appropriate for grown men. It often attempts to get round its continual abusive language, by adopting the cloak of permanent opposition and victimhood: think Trump railing against ‘fake news’, or Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, two very privileged men, charging that ‘the establishment’ is blocking Brexit. This approach avoids having to accept the power and responsibility that comes with their male privilege, and allows them to use this to maintain their position, while deflecting any criticism.

How do we begin to challenge such a grotesque situation, one where abusive comments and behaviour, and a language of hate is tolerated? It is obvious that across the West, in Scotland, the UK, the US and elsewhere, a bitterly divided politics allows an anything goes approach by the most passionate, vociferous supporters – whether it is US Republicans, Corbynistas, pro or anti-independence supporters, or Islamophobes and many more shades of opinion.

But if our politics and public life has to change, so does our society and what we think are appropriate male and female roles, types and how we relate to each other. All across the West, huge societal changes have happened in the economy which have displaced millions of traditional men, reduced their social importance and privilege, and the status that gave them in society. There is loss, confusion, and even anger which needs to be listened to and understood, otherwise it will become utilised by the populist, xenophobic hate mongers of the right.

Scotland is in these respects not that different. Indeed, some of our changes over the last couple of decades have been even more far-reaching and transformative: from an economy, public life and politics that was nearly entirely male dominated, to one much more feminised. John Carnochan, who set up the pioneering Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), first in Glasgow and Strathclyde, then given a national role, thinks that what it means to be a man, and a good man, has become more complicated: ‘For many there is an absence of male role models and no right of passage from boy to man, therefore they have to shape their own values and behaviours and sometimes there constructs are corrosive and self destructive.’

James Docherty who currently works for the VRU, worries about the judgementalness in ‘toxic masculinity’, but thinks there is a major problem: ‘Masculinity is not toxic, the trauma and stress of suppressing feelings and emotion is. We live in a culture where men have been in emotional retreat since childhood. And when they reach adulthood we blame them for it, the very word “toxic masculinity” infers there is something wrong with men, you are flawed, or defective as a human being.’

Breaking out of this dysfunctional spiral isn’t going to be easy. Some have found a receptive audience for hatred and for articulating demeaning, destructive attitudes, which harm others, and show no respect for people who have opposing views. In this, the US and the Trump Presidency is a warning from the future: a warning of how things could regress and get even worse, and a warning to us here of what might happen if we choose to remain silence and collude with the haters.

Two final thoughts. The first from Suzanne Zeeydk. We have to aid a culture about bringing up our children that allows for emotional intelligence and insight; that means having a wider understanding and debate about education, its culture and role in society than currently. Zeedyk aspires, as someone who works with educationalists and young people everyday, to a society where ‘we create a culture where ALL emotions of ALL children are valid and affirmed and comforted. Then we will have boys and girls, men and women, who can cope with the full range of human emotions.’

That is an uplifting clarion call but we need even more. One of the drivers of angry, abusive men is that they can feel their power slip away, and cannot comprehend a way of expressing it, other than belittling and savaging others. They are, across the West, engaged in a last ditch battle to save male privilege and patriarchy. The inspiring feminist and pro-democracy campaigner Mona Eltahawy, has stated that the defeat of patriarchy involves ‘destroying the straitjacket definition of masculinity that it imposes in men’ and that it is the role of feminists to ‘defy, disobey [and] disrupt’ it.

That might seem too revolutionary for some, but we have lived through a counter-revolution in recent decades that has turned the world upside down – and the turbulence is only going to magnify. The language of violence we see from too many men, from those in positions of power to those who feel marginalised and left behind by wider societal change, has to be taken on and defeated. To do otherwise will – in Scotland, the UK and elsewhere – diminish and hurt all of us. We have to start talking about what it is to be a good man, bringing up our children, and standing up to the abusers of all types and shades. Do we really want the present to be remembered as the age of hate and a culture shaped and harmed by the hatemongers? Silence is not an option for any of us.