Thursday 17 January 2019

Telling men to be ashamed of masculinity is what's really toxic

All mockery aside, Bono is right to say that men must be free to express themselves without being accused of every male ill, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The Edge and Bono sharing the microphone during a song on stage at Croke Park, Dublin, in June 1987, during U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour
The Edge and Bono sharing the microphone during a song on stage at Croke Park, Dublin, in June 1987, during U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour

Eilis O'Hanlon

Bono doesn't live on the same planet as the rest of us, but then he doesn't have to. He's a rock star. That doesn't mean everything the U2 front man says should be dismissed out of hand.

Take last week's interview in Rolling Stone magazine, in which Bono declared that rock music had become too "girly" for his tastes, and that, with the exception of hip hop, there was no place in the recording industry for young men to express their anger at the world.

Has he never heard of punk? That's what some readers immediately wondered. What about metal?

This urge to shoot down an idea before exploring it is increasingly common. Increasingly easy, too. Instant responses have replaced considered ones. Life's now apparently too short for nuance.

Bono, of course, was talking more about mainstream music, which, though he'd probably hate to admit it, is the musical space that he himself occupies. He meant the stuff that most people are listening to. The songs that get played on the radio. In that respect, he's surely right. Swaggering sexuality is out. Snarling aggression is frowned upon. Being in touch with one's feelings is in. Never mind the quality. Feel "the feels".

Music, along with so much else of popular culture, has become feminised. For good or bad? That's a matter for the individual ear and eye, because popular music has always been as much about the visual impact as the notes.

What's fascinating is the speed with which Bono was shot down for, so the accusation went, promoting male privilege.

Rather than listening to what he had to say, then mulling it over, the attackers burst in, all guns blazing.

"Bono is sad that men have no outlet for their anger now that they let women make music," ran one response on social media.

No, he wasn't. That's a total distortion of what he said.

"Bono seriously needs to rethink his attitude to women," preached the next accuser.

No, he doesn't. There's no evidence that Bono treats women with anything other than respect.

"Your middle-aged white guy privilege is showing," declared another, as if chucking around meaningless slogans like snowballs is suffice to win an argument.

The 57-year-old was even accused of saying that only men can, or should be allowed to, express rage through their music, and of ignoring women's contribution to rock, which was beyond absurd.

Saying that "young male anger" struggles to find an outlet in modern music is not the same as saying that female anger either does not exist or does not matter.

These are different things. One does not exclude the other.

This silly overreaction to one man's opinion might have been expected from the politically correct Huffington Post website, as it predictably mocked Bono's "fragile masculinity"; but even the conservative Daily Telegraph in the UK was getting the boot in, by accusing Bono of not noticing that men still dominate the industry, as if that invalidated what he said either.

There is an undoubted pleasure in seeing the man hailed by Piers Morgan in the aftermath as the world's "virtue signaller in chief" taken down a peg or two, and being chided for using gendered language such as "girly".

Hasn't he heard that gender is a social construct, and that admitting any differences whatsoever between male and female is practically hate speech nowadays?

This schadenfreude at Bono's discomfort was only increased when he was also accused of racism for equating rap music with male aggression. Such are the pitfalls waiting to swallow the contemporary ultra-progressive.

There's always someone in the wings waiting to pull rank by out-PCing the PC brigade.

One might even justifiably accuse the cocky Dubliner of hypocrisy for suggesting that rock music should be about flaring anger when his own lyrics tend these days towards banal generalities such as "love is bigger than anything in its way" (you don't say?), and he himself has spent decades hobnobbing with billionaires in the global elite whose contribution to world peace has been, well, let's just call it "mixed" and leave it at that.

But there was still something disturbing about the speed with which Bono was shot down. This is why it's hard for men to talk about the things which matter to them. As soon as they do, they're accused of heartlessly elevating their own fetishes above women. Of luxuriating in patriarchal privilege.

It's rare now to see the word "masculinity" written down without it being preceded by that loaded qualifier "toxic".

Google "masculinity" and most of the results which come up have negative connotations. That's half the planet being repeatedly told that their very identity is problematic, if not downright poisonous.

A recent New York Times op-ed piece even declared, in response to the slew of allegations around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, that "male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal".

In other words, male sexuality is problematic because it exists at all. The article quoted the words of US feminist Andrea Dworkin that "men will have to give up their precious erections" in order to achieve equality between the sexes. Dworkin was once considered a fringe voice; an extremist even. That her advocacy of what amounts to castration, whether symbolic or actual, has now gone mainstream ought to be worrying.

Matt Damon got the same response when he dared to say that, when it came to sexual misconduct, there is a spectrum of behaviour ranging from the trivial to the serious, and that, at the extreme end, "the preponderance of men…. don't do this kind of thing".

The actor also admitted, when asked whether he would work with someone accused of sexual misbehaviour, that he would decide on a "case by case basis", which sounds perfectly reasonable but was used to suggest that Damon was trivialising the experience of women.

This is the problem of anyone trying to move a conversation beyond approved jingles.

Damon spoke clumsily, he didn't express himself particularly well; but he's a Hollywood actor, not Isaiah Berlin. Nonetheless, while it's going too far to say that he was right, he wasn't entirely wrong either.

Most women's experiences of most of the men in their lives are not unrelentingly bleak. There are always misunderstandings, complications, upsets, anxieties. That's life. But relationships cannot be reduced to cartoon binaries.

There was an even more disturbing episode during the summer, when Frankie Gaffney, author of the novel Dublin Seven, which has been memorably described as "Love/Hate meets Ulysses", wrote about his experience of meeting hostility on account of the fact that he is "straight, white, and male", which are not, as he pointed out, identities which he finds particularly helpful or comfortable at the best of times.

He saw "toxic masculinity" as another form of gender stereotyping, which seemed to run counter to all the notions of equality which he thought he shared in common with those using the term.

The response from Irish feminists was ferocious. Scores of them signed an open letter to "a good number of the left-wing men we work and organise with" to declare themselves "seriously disappointed" that these comrades had dared to agree that he might have a point.

Frankie Gaffney not only needed to check his privilege, the co-signatories decreed; they went so far as to accuse men who recognised any truth in what he was saying of believing that straight, white men were the "most oppressed group".

That couldn't have been further from the truth. They were not dismissing the experience of women, or claiming precedence in some hierarchy of victimhood.

They were merely talking about their own experiences. This alone turned them into targets.

Men are now meant to apologise for being men, and those who don't must face the consequences.

Part of it, as expressed through this year's iconic #MeToo movement, and in the serial fall of high-profile media figures like dominoes after accusations of sexual misconduct, is a necessary recalibration of affairs after millennia when a certain brand of masculinity had things too much its own way, to the detriment of women and other men who did not conform to that stereotype.

Bono himself acknowledged, when lamenting how music had become too "girly", that "there are some good things about that". The same goes for #MeToo. That movement needs to continue and grow. More stones need to be turned over to see what lies beneath. More stories need to be told.

There's always a risk that things may swing for a while too far in the opposite direction, but eventually some healthier synthesis will be achieved. The danger is what gets lost in the meantime, not least an appreciation that masculinity is not entirely negative. It can produce violence and destruction, but also art, beauty, progress.

How many babies are we willing to throw out with that bath water?

That's what Bono was talking about. "What is rock and roll?" he said. "Rage is at the heart of it." Rage can be beautiful too.

That shining discontent at the world expresses itself in brilliantly poetic form in the comedy of men like Bill Hicks, too. Increasingly those spaces for the healthy expression of anger are being closed off. Men are told that they shouldn't be angry. That their anger is dangerous. Comedians are mob-shamed into toning it down. Musicians are expected to think like therapists and social workers, not the rebels which, however ludicrous it sometimes seems, they dream themselves into becoming.

This crackdown on maleness is meant to be celebrated because the so-called millennials at the heart of the movement are challenging what it means to be a man, and that in turn opens up more spaces for individuality.

But there's an unmistakable contradiction here.

Men are being urged to be themselves, but only if those selves are acceptable to others. They're being encouraged to embrace their vulnerability, to acknowledge their feelings, all in the name of a new authenticity, rather than conforming to inherited ideas about being a man. Yet the world can only cope with so much authenticity. Only certain feelings are allowed, and rage certainly isn't one of them.

In saying that men should be forced to talk about their feelings, what's really meant is that they should be forced to talk about their feelings in the same way that women do. In other words, become more like women, or, if they can't do that, at least have the decency to shut up and let women, or men more in touch with their femininity, do the talking for the rest.

But what if men don't want to talk about their feelings in that way? What if it ultimately makes them more miserable? What if they want to talk about them in a different way?

What if, more radically still, repression of their feelings is what actually makes them tick?

"When I was 16," Bono explained, "I had a lot of anger in me." His response was not to suppress it, but instead release it through music. That's healthy.

Telling men that they should zip it because they've got it made, and therefore have nothing to complain about, is what's really toxic. Being apologetic never made for good rock music, and it doesn't make for a good society either.

Sunday Independent

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