What Would a ‘Good Man’ in Scotland Look Like?
The Scotsman, July 16th 2010
Scottish society historically and in contemporary times has long been shaped by men and masculine values.
This is a society where for long it made sense to be a certain kind of man – tough, resilient, hard and seemingly powerful – whether it was working in a factory or shipyards or on a farm.
Today, we have to acknowledge that we have serious problems with Scottish men – which can be charted statistically, but even more culturally and socially.
Scottish men have poor health, life expectancy, and record levels of drinking, inflicting crime and violence on themselves and others. This isn’t just about poverty and unemployment; it also affects middle class men.
If you are an affluent professional living in Morningside or Glasgow’s West End you are still much more likely to embrace some of the above deadly cocktail: Scotland’s heady brew of toxic tartan masculinity. To put it bluntly being a man in Scotland can be bad for your health!
At the same time much of our public debate has now degenerated into a whole host of negative images which pathologises Scottish men and aids the whole ‘men behaving badly’ feeling which has percolated through society.
Men come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and types in Scotland. Some would say it is impossible to talk about the generality of ‘the Scottish man’. There is the beefy Scots hunk who eats porridge every morning and lifts girders.
There is the Jock Stein ‘big man’, powerful, closed emotionally and not to be questioned. Then there is the modern, cosmopolitan so-called ‘metrosexual’ epitomised by David Tennant and Paolo Nutini in the straight version, and Colin and Justin in the gay one. And of course, lest we forget there is the powerful iconography of the fictional character of Rab C. Nesbitt.
Rab C. is a fascinating example because he taps into familiar stereotypes and clichés of the West of Scotland male. He is now often reduced to being seen as an idle, lumpen, ignorant character. Yet this set of images and our interpretation of them is part of the problem.
Eddie Rice, who participated for five years in a men’s group in Glasgow, comments that ‘what this West of Scotland man thing is about is blaming poor working class men. This is shot right through society, the middle class and media.’ He believes this contains a profound sense of ‘deception’ and contributes to preventing a wider, honest discussion about the nature of men in Scotland.
There is a safety in believing any problem – whether it be health, violence or drinking – is solely or mainly about working class men. For a start, many more middle class men have power and influence in society, and it is much more comfortable to see any problems as about another group, and not about you. This is despite the fact that middle class men display lots of the same characteristics, of being competitive, territorial or having issues about showing feelings.
The first step in all of this is to acknowledge that we have problems both in terms of what some men do and in public perceptions. There are some positive signs of movement with Ewan Gillon, a chartered psychologist, recently addressing the British Psychological Society on the subject of ‘The Making of Scottish Men’ seeing ‘the traditional Scottish male stereotype’ and the lack of alternatives as part of the problem.
The economic and social changes of the last few decades have remade what it is to be a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’, and in a society such as Scotland which used to have a narrow, prescribed way of being a male it has proven difficult for many men to adapt and change.
This was a land once where men were both everywhere in public, seemingly powerful, and profoundly absent and missing from the home. Missing from the lives of their partners and children either literally or being present but at the same time removed and remote.
The Glasgow 2020 project I ran for the think tank Demos found a deep sense of pessimism about the future in many men which was informed by a feeling of loss and looking to the past for identity and meaning. This was as true of middle class, professional men as working class and unemployed men.
The answer to this isn’t about ‘male sensitive’, public awareness campaigns and services. This would be the answer of the last decade when public spending poured forth. Instead and more simply the answer has to come from men themselves.
Paradoxically, men are everywhere and nowhere, loud, noisy and also at the same time silent. It is the ‘Top Gear’ syndrome where men are out there, being lads, stupid and celebrating aggressive behaviour. While despite BBC Radio Five Live starting a new series, ‘Man’s Hour’ this Sunday, such programmes are few and far between and unthinkable in Scotland.
All across our country there is a deafening male silence – of men not recognising the consequences of their actions as men – in work, the family and public spaces. This requires challenging. It needs research into men. It needs a burgeoning men’s studies to compliment women’s studies.
Why for example when across the UK there is a plethora of men’s studies books from writers such as Jonathan Rutherford and Lynne Segal, has there been a complete dearth of such studies in Scotland? It is not as if we don’t have a rich tapestry of subject material, what with the problems, the stereotypes and need to search for answers.
We also need to go much further than research and reflection, and ask some serious questions of our society. How can we recognise the gender apartheid that exists in much of our lives, in work, play and pubs? How do we deal with the reality that large parts of Scotland are still either exclusive male worlds or female worlds?
Fundamentally, we need to ask what does it take to be a ‘good man’ in Scotland today? How can we create and pass on stories of what good men do, find heroes and role models which go beyond celebrity superficiality and traditional stoicism?
Part of this has to begin with men taking personal responsibility for their own health and lives emotionally and physically. And from this challenging both the actions of the many men who harm themselves and others, alongside the negative caricaturing of men which diminishes all of us. Instead, we need to reflect on the complexities and confusions of Scottish men, break this silence and develop a series of good news stories about what it is to be a different kind of Scots man.