What does it take to be a good man in Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 6th 2014

This is the day after the first gladiatorial debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling – two respectable, rather conventional, men of similar age only divided by the constitutional question.

A large part of the independence debate like significant elements of Scottish public life is defined and shaped by gender and in particular, the behaviour, actions and views of some men.

For decades Scottish politics, at Westminster level, was a male-only zone; as recently as 1979 only one woman Scottish MP was elected. Similarly many of the positions of power in corporate life and boardrooms are male dominated, and by men of a certain narrow disposition in terms of social background, attitudes and interests.

During that period, the public and voluntary sectors in Scotland have more dramatically changed and in so doing in many places look more diverse and representative of society. Indeed, across Scotland in the last 20-30 years there has been an untold story of the increasing feminisation in work, society and of the attitudes and expectations of many men and women.

This can only be judged as a positive development: one which has opened doors and offered more men and women wider choice and a liberation from the stifling gender roles of previous generations. However, in too many places, change hasn’t gone far enough, or has created new problems (with more women in Scotland in low paid jobs and poverty than men).

As striking is the gender divide across public health, education, crime and violence. Men die younger than women across Scotland which is even more pronounced in deprived areas; 90% of school children with behaviour problems are boys; 90% of court appearances are males between 16-24 years; 84% of suicide victims are men aged 16-24 years; and 90% of all violent crime is committed by men.

How do we understand this state of affairs? Some men have power while others act in problematic and irresponsible ways. Many others feel a sense of powerlessness, loss and alienation and this experience can manifest itself through the generations – from the men who were permanently on incapacity benefit in the 1980s and 1990s, to the young boys struggling to make the transition to adulthood today.

The main ways we explain this contributes to the problem. There is the descent into caricature. This can be seen in the Rab C. Nesbitt infantilised, impotent working class man whose life is chaotic and only given order by the pub, his mates and long suffering wife Mary Doll.

The other even more ubiquitous response is just silence. Across Scotland men are everywhere: some running institutions, positioning and posturing, or just talking and making noise in public and private. And at the same time there is a collective silence on reflecting on gender roles and men’s place in society as men.

It is not an accident that there has not been one single book in Scotland explicitly on Scottish men and masculinity. The novels of the likes of James Kelman and William McIlvanney are implicitly about men and their increasing struggles to find meaning in life, and the numerous confusions they now face. Yet, even in this rich, rewarding world, the story is never unambiguously about men, but instead about men as an expression of humanity, which is very different.

Scottish culture has been defined by masculinist values and by men down through the ages, and one truism is that dominant cultures don’t usually feel the need to examine themselves and engage in introspection. They just are there.

Last week the first ever book on Scottish men came out: ‘On Being a Man: Four Scottish Men in Conversation” (the third in the series Open Scotland, which I brought together). It is an in-depth, reflective set of conversations addressing some of the big questions which don’t get much of a public airing. What does it mean to be a Scottish man? How are work, society and male roles changing? What does it mean to be a father and why are so many fathers still missing from the lives of their children? How do we talk about bringing up boys and girls? And what do we do about the widespread prevalence of sexism and violence?

‘On Being a Man’ brings together four men including John Carnochan, previously head of Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit and Sandy Campbell, who leads Working Rite, an apprenticeship project across Scotland and the north of England. Running through it is the thread that men need to take more responsibility and to challenge the behaviour and actions of other men who often don’t see what they are saying and doing as a problem.

Our society is filled with numerous examples. Take domestic violence. The absence of Celtic v. Rangers ‘Old Firm’ derbies these last two years has seen domestic violence levels plummet in Glasgow. Academic research has underlined the link between these two facts which the two clubs then publically questioned. When I pointed out the above to two public liberal men who happened to be Celtic fans, their reaction was telling and shocking: they poured scorn on the academic research, questioned whether the ‘Old Firm’ derbies had a link to domestic violence, and made me feel small for even raising it. Sad to say this is a typical male conversation in Scotland: avoiding taking seriously issues that are a bit too close to home.

Then there are the men who think they are educated and enlightened and have gone through equality awareness training in public and voluntary sector bodies. There are too many men who talk the PC language when women are present in work, and the moment the women leave the room, they revert to base sexism and sexualisation of women (including their own daughters). Such men have learned how to talk the appropriate way when they have to, but deep down they remain unreconstructed and angry about the state of the world.

These problems can also be seen in the behaviour of some men in the independence referendum. One woman quoted in the book says, ‘I am sick to death of lefty men who talk a good game but rarely back it up with actions’.

The independence referendum has seen lots of positive actions and occurrences, but it has also seen a host of men behaving badly in public and private and getting away with it. There have been egocentric men thinking that they can sound off on any subject under the sun in public; feminist-supporting men declaring they are ‘feminists’ and then acting in the most sexist and misogynist manner; and men silencing other men, women and even their partners, and then thinking they are enlightened, even ‘renaissance’ men’ (note to some of the above: calling yourself a ‘feminist’ when you are a man is a contentious subject for many women).

Without trying to be personal about any one individual, many of the above actions have all been undertaken by a range of public figures in the referendum. To take one obvious example and name the person: why would any man in public life share a public platform now or in the near-future with Tommy Sheridan? It isn’t a mistake that Yes Scotland and most of the big pro-independence groups have a ‘no Tommy Sheridan’ public platform policy.

To some people, the partisans of the independence referendum, none of the above really matters. It is all ephemeral compared to the central fight. But it does matter because part of left male culture has argued throughout history that none of this is relevant compared to the big issues. And that any discussion should be left until after the revolution, or in this case, referendum vote.

The woman who took exception to ‘lefty men’ who ‘talked a good game’ also observed that, ‘Men must call each other out on sexism and misogyny’. She is surely right that too many men choose to stay silent, keep their heads down, and acquiesce in such problem behaviour.

As important as this, Scotland really needs to begin a long overdue debate about men and masculinities. There needs to be an awareness that many men have been left behind or become lost in the huge social changes of the last 20-30 years. Related to this, there needs to be the beginnings of a discussion which asks: what does it take to be a good man in Scotland?

This is a complex area with lots of contradictions and many men feel nervous of speaking up. Some men think they might get shot down by other men or women for getting it wrong, or it being pointed out that in a culture of gender inequality, no man is perfect or completely immune from the legacy and reach of sexism.

Yet, with all these important caveats remaining silent about the problem with some Scottish men should not be an option. Sexism, misogyny, prejudice, the widespread language of violence, and the reality of it, have to be taken on, and that cannot be left just to women, but has to include men finding voice to take on such attitudes.

Scotland has changed dramatically and for the better in so many ways these last 20-30 years. The proscriptive gender roles of what it was to be a man and women have broken down. It is much easier to be a different kind of man or woman, or to be an ‘out’ gay man or lesbian than it used to be. Yet, we still have far to travel, and to do that isn’t it time the good men of Scotland stood up and called out inappropriate behaviour?