Tuesday 23 April 2019

Modern man: Is Irish masculinity really in crisis?

Despite evidence suggesting that male well-being is improving, the general consensus is that men are doomed. Psychiatrist and author Brendan Kelly takes a closer look at the modern man's plight as part of a new weekly series

Heavy load: Some men feel under pressure to express their masculinity through bodily perfection
Heavy load: Some men feel under pressure to express their masculinity through bodily perfection

Brendan Kelly

Men are in crisis. That, at least, is the message that men receive from the media all day every day. We have lost our role, we struggle with change, we don't talk. Men are confused, lost, and unable to cope in a new and unfamiliar world. We are doomed.

And yet, most men are not even vaguely in crisis. The great majority of men continue to work, play and live their lives without difficulty. Most men welcomed #MeToo with open arms and were utterly horrified at the behaviours it exposed. And the vast majority of us are deeply appalled by what it is now termed "toxic masculinity", the use of power and violence by men to subordinate others, mainly women.

Professor Brendan Kelly. Photo: Frank McGrath
Professor Brendan Kelly. Photo: Frank McGrath

Even so, talk of a crisis persists. The figure of the hapless, incapable man rescued by the savvy, capable woman, is now an inevitable feature of advertising, television and movies. Not only are we men socially inept, biologically redundant and soon to be replaced by robots, but now we cannot even find our socks. Is it any wonder there is a sense of crisis?

It is worth taking some time to figure out whether this crisis is real or imagined, rooted in fact or simply fuelled by rhetoric. Facts can help. First, suicide. We know that suicide in Ireland is highly gendered, almost four times more common among men than women. But, globally, suicide has declined by 38pc since 1994. In Ireland, it has fallen by 29pc since 2011 (based on provisional figures for 2017). And the decline among men (32pc) is greater than that among women (17pc), albeit from a higher starting point.

This is not to say that suicide is no longer a problem; it clearly is. Every suicide is one too many and no one is born wanting to die by suicide. But recent figures indicate that despite the infinite tragedy and urgency of suicide, positive change is possible, and figures are moving in the right direction - especially for men.

But what about men more generally, are we becoming more troubled and depressed, or happier and more fulfilled? Every two years, the European Social Survey examines well-being across Europe. In 2008, over 25,000 men in 29 European countries rated their happiness as 7.0 out of 10, where 0 means "extremely unhappy" and 10 means "extremely happy". The average rating among more than 30,000 women was essentially the same, at 6.9. By 2016, as the economic recovery deepened, happiness in both men and women across Europe had increased significantly to 7.4 out of 10.

This is the picture across Europe as a whole, however, and trends in Ireland appear different and generally more stable. In 2008, when male happiness averaged 7.0 out of 10 across Europe, Irish men rated their happiness significantly higher, at 7.4. And in 2016, when men's happiness had risen to 7.4 across Europe, Irish men's happiness remained steady, at 7.3. This steadiness is also apparent among Irish women, who rated their happiness at 7.7 in 2008 and have remained above the European average since then, still at 7.7 in 2016.

Statistics, of course, have their limitations and describing happiness as a number is at best reductive. But trends over time are still interesting and these figures suggest, at the very least, that talk of a general crisis among men is not supported by systematic evidence. This is consistent with my clinical practice as a psychiatrist, where the gender mix appears stable.

And yet many people point to male behaviours that they feel suggest either an uncertainty about male identity or, conversely, a doubling down of certain male characteristics, as if insecure men need to actively reassure themselves about their masculinity. Some weeks ago, on an afternoon walk, I spontaneously popped into a gym in suburban Dublin and witnessed a fine example of this. The gym was packed with tattooed men feverishly practising weights as if their lives depended on it. The combination of deafening music, stale sweat, foul air and oddly energetic male despair sent me gasping for the exit. There was nothing quiet about this desperation.

Disturbing as I found this experience, however, I know that the determination of certain men to express their masculinity through bodily perfection, which is sometimes seen as a modern phenomenon, is nothing new. In 1858, American poet Walt Whitman, writing under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, published a 13-part series in the New York Atlas newspaper, titled "Manly Health and Training". "Manly health!", Whitman wrote, "is there not a kind of charm, a fascinating magic, in the words?"

Whitman took his rhetoric about perfection of the male physique to a level that would make present-day fitness trainers blush, suggesting "that there was a wonderful medicinal effect in the mere personal presence of a man who was perfectly well!"

For Whitman, "The only true and profitable way of reaching the morals of the young is through making them first healthy, clean-blooded and vigorous specimens of men." Plenty of outdoor exercise should, he felt, be underscored by, "an almost exclusive meat diet", "steady reason should assume the helm", and every man should grow a beard, "a great sanitary protection to the throat."

Whitman's own beard was a feral creation of thunderous magnificence, spilling from his face like a mighty waterfall, in stark contrast to the over-manicured facial hair that blights our hipster coffee shops today. If men's beards tell the story of manhood over the eons, then it is a story of insecurity and decline.

Despite the complexities and contradictions in this picture, however, talk of a crisis in masculinity remains a constant feature of human discourse, even if it is poorly supported by systematic evidence at the present time. Perhaps the more interesting question today is why we continually speak of a crisis in masculinity, even when male well-being is steadily improving, and all humans - men and women - now inhabit a world in which many bad things are in decline: poverty, homicide, war death, bullying, racism, homophobia and working hours. Many good things are increasing: democracy, literacy, income and lifespans. While these benefits are by no means equally distributed, and enormous social challenges remain, it is still misleading to speak of a particular crisis among men.

The last great iteration of this archetypal "male crisis" was around 2000, when Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare wrote his book On Men. Clare argued that men were facing great changes in their roles that they were finding difficult to navigate, but that there was a way forward through tolerance, dialogue and learning. Clare's conclusions remain true today, albeit that the male crisis of which we speak now appears more rhetorical than real.

But while most men are not in crisis at the moment, perhaps this talk of crisis can still be put to good use. If public discussion of male well-being encourages individual men who are truly in crisis to seek the help they need, then the over-blown rhetoric will have served a useful purpose. If the talk of crisis helps focus attention on particular communities of men who are struggling with change within themselves or in society, then that, too, will be a genuine positive to emerge from the melee.

Most of all, it is my hope that this renewed talk of a crisis in masculinity will highlight the fact that men not only struggle with issues like identity, relationships and roles, but can come through these struggles intact or even stronger - just like women can. This, perhaps, could be the greatest lesson from this most recent iteration of the "crisis" in men: if we can stop analysing everything through the flawed prism of gender, we will see that the common humanity binding men and women together is far greater than anything that divides us. Failing to understand this would, perhaps, be the greatest crisis of all.

Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Doctor Who Sat For a Year (Gill, March 2019)

Irish Independent

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