The problem we have with some men in public life

Gerry Hassan

The Scoisman, August 25th 2012

Politics and public life have for centuries been male dominated and while there have been huge changes in the last few decades too many men still seem to live in a different age.

In the last week with the Julian Assange extradition case, we have witnessed George Galloway and Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, venture into territory no one should go into.

Then there was Ian Davidson’s combative behaviour towards Isabel Fraser, followed up by Michael Kelly in these pages while George Foulkes on twitter laid into ‘biased opinionated toffee nosed media hacks’, declaring ‘let’s have more’ of the Davidson treatment.

What do we have to say here? That all is fair in love and politics? If you can’t stand the heat get out of public life. It won’t and shouldn’t do. The casual language of violence of too many in public life and in particular in Scotland is too often appeased or left unchallenged.

Women in our public life get more flack than men. Think of Wendy Alexander, Nicola Sturgeon or Johann Lamont. It doesn’t matter what you think of each of these people as politicians. What is reprehensible is that everything is seen as fair comment and criticism with them, their clothes, appearances, tone of voice, in a way which just isn’t with men.

There are at least two related issues: misogyny and the blindness of men to male power. Misogyny still exists deeply in our culture, viewing women as sex objects, available and inferior to men.

The other problem is how many men see themselves. This is not a widely known fact, but most men don’t go around thinking of themselves as men in the way women do as women. Instead, many men just go around seeing themselves as part of humanity. Thus when men exclude women from jobs, promotions or discussions, and put together an all-male work team or discussion, they often don’t actually realise that half of humanity is missing.

There is a Scottish dimension to this. Our society for all its egalitarian rhetoric has been very macho, confrontational and aggressive. While we have had a culture of ‘feisty women’ in rent strikes and community activism, our dominant public culture has been profoundly masculine and dismissive of women.

It is only thirty years ago that Scotland had a mere one women MP (Judith Hart) out of 71 Westminster representatives. While we now have 45 women MSPs, many of our attitudes have barely changed.

One example of many was a recent survey of Glasgow primary seven children 80% of who said a man had cause to slap his partner because she did not have the dinner ready in time. What decade are some people living in and bringing up their children, for such attitudes to persist?

There is no good in us ignoring such uncomfortable truths about modern day Scotland. Indeed, the recent behaviour of Galloway and Davidson could be seen as doing us a favour by bringing out into the open, prejudice and the anger some men have towards women.

We have to talk about male power and privilege, and how this is a problem across society and classes, from the establishment and boys’ only clubs and social networks, from the New Town to the former mining villages of Ayrshire.

We have to reflect on the all-male discussions which sadly too many of our public conversations and events are. We have to challenge the too frequent all-male panels of BBC Scotland’s ‘Newsnight Scotland’ and STV’s ‘Scotland Tonight’, and the rarity of female voices on many of our news and current affairs programmes.

Lesley Riddoch’s recent list of public women who can comment in the media was a timely and welcome initiative, and we need more of this sort of thing. Men have to be challenged by men and women on the politics and culture of exclusion and male only discussions.

A recent ‘Newsnight Scotland’ discussion had three 60 plus men, all talented in their own respects, but together offering a generational and gender gridlock. When I commented on this on twitter, Brian Ashcroft, an intelligent, thoughtful man (and married to Wendy Alexander) responded, ‘Confront your own prejudices for once’.

Many men don’t get this. One prominent liberal minded male journalist I recently interviewed for a forthcoming piece of work called Scotland ‘a liberated place for women’. When I challenged him and asked him what he meant by this, he responded that ‘perhaps he was lucky being married to a doctor’.

This will not do. One of the problems is the knuckledusters in public life and the ‘wee hard men’ we know so well in our public culture. A bigger problem is the men beyond these stereotypes, who quietly collude and appease these attitudes, one group of which is middle class ‘soft’ men who see themselves as ‘enlightened’ but are actually part of the problem.

This is a much bigger subject than gender. It is about what kind of Scotland and society we live in and want to inhabit in the future. Part of our constitutional debate encourages on parts of the pro-union and pro-independence camps, a denial of the validity of the other side which is harming our public life. At times it boils over into aggression, intimidation and personal attack. It isn’t helping or aiding anyone and only turns voters off.

This comes from the narrowness of much of our public life, and how power is exercised, understood and held to account. In a society so disfigured by inequality, poverty and thwarted opportunities, how do we get a more diverse set of voices involved in the public debate?

How do we in a modern age talk about gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class, and portray them? Even more than this how do we expand the conversation about Scotland’s future to include alternative, radical ideas, which just might challenge how we see ourselves and our nation?

Lesley Riddoch’s list of women voices was a valuable start and contribution, but we need to complement this with a list of dissenting, heretical voices who are prepared to shake things up a bit and say the unsayable.

Part of this involves taking the first step of taking on the exclusion, prejudice and myopia of many of the men in our midst. We have to change if we are to thrive as a society, face up to and make the choices we have to on a range of issues, and do so for the right reasons. But to do that we really do have to have an honest, mature and difficult conversation about the problem we have with some men.