Men in public life was always going to become a major subject of conversation in the first part of 2020, with the trial of Harvey Weinstein in New York and that of Alex Salmond in Edinburgh.
Until recent decades, Scotland has been a male-dominated society to the extent that it was often never talked about or even recognised as such. Men defined politics, business, the professions, institutional life and our culture – including, critically, the stories we told to make sense of who we were.
Today, Scotland is less male-dominated but still has a host of problems around men and masculinities, what men do, their actions and behaviours, and the consequences which flow from them.
Men disproportionately hurt others. Most violent crime in Scotland is committed by men (90%); nearly all domestic violence which takes place is perpetrated by men; most court appearances are by men between the ages of 16-24 years old (90%); and, as a result of these and other statistics, 95% of the prison population in Scotland are men.
Men also hurt themselves. Scotland has a rising suicide rate which disproportionately affects men; its rising and scandalous rate of drug deaths disproportionately affects men; most school exclusions are of boys (81%); and there is a conspicuous absence of appropriate role models for young men and boys.
The above points are not comprehensive, but illustrate the multi-faceted set of problems connected to Scottish men and masculinity. And alongside that is the associated silence, denial and evasion to facing up to these issues, and a lack of recognition that there is a gendered dimension compounding the nature of the problems we face.
If this sounds too harsh or general, let us think about how men in Scotland generally respond to these stark and challenging facts. The first and perhaps most widespread is that of silence and ignoring such problems, and treating this as almost normal. Another more nuanced way is to concede that we have lots of challenges with violence, crime and recidivism, but to expressly not talk about the issue of gender and what some (not all) men do. This has been the approach of large parts of supposedly liberal, progressive Scotland for as long as some of us can remember.
Then there are the men who delude themselves that everything is fine with the fundamentals of our society and that nothing is amiss which a bit of fine tuning and enlightened legislation won't be able to put right.
Thirdly, there is a group who see themselves as 'the good guys' and think the problem is other men, rather than anything to do with themselves, or that the challenges are more to do with system and culture issues such as the ideas and privileges of masculinity per se.
Finally, there is the small group of assertive men who resist any progressive change and see feminism, equality and a 'woke' Left as a threat to them and their privilege, and a similarly-sized group of men who believe that this is a critical issue for men, women and society.
This might surprise some people – and it seems an obvious point to state – but most men do not spend one second thinking about masculinity. Even more than this, most men do not reflect on themselves and their past, present and future experiences as 'men', in the way that many women do as women. Many men just see themselves in an unreflective way as part of a wider, amorphous humanity, or perhaps as part of the population that just so happens to be more or less in charge of things. This, I would suggest, is to do with power and privilege, and the unconscious manner in which centuries of dominance and male hierarchy have expressed and maintained themselves.
I am talking from experience about what men think and feel. I ran a men's group in Glasgow for five years; this was a group of men who met regularly to offer each other support, to listen and challenge. This was one of the most positive, difficult, learning, exhilarating and cathartic experiences I have ever encountered.
The men's group brought me into a set of deep, explorative exchanges and relationships which confronted some of the most profound questions about what it is to be a man and human: about growing up, being a father, commitment, love, honesty and status, security and work, and how we judge what it is to be a good man.
Many insights flowed from those five years but one was that men literally take ages to open up and really trust other men. All our patterns of socialisation, for all the wider references to emotional literacy, tell us not to open up too much, that this could be seen as a sign of weakness or used against you at a later date. And it was not until after this journey that I realised that men do not tend to come together except when they have a cover of an activity such as going to a football match or a concert. It was not an accident that, in our entire five years, the group never once – although I cannot quite believe it – digressed into a major conversation either about football or politics.
A backdrop to our group discussions was the supposed confusion amongst some men about the role and purpose of being a man, of the old archetypes that had fallen or declined including the idea of being a warrior, or working in heavy industry, and the notion of the 'male breadwinner'. Today, those older images are even more weakened, yet there is still confusion and uncertainty around us. The advance of the #MeToo movement has brought unacceptable male behaviour centre-stage – and is much needed – but some traditional men still appear to be unsure about appropriate codes of behaviour with women. We need to be clear though that some of this is dissembling and an avoidance of responsibility.
The convergence of events in Scotland this year – Derek Mackay's resignation from public life, David Steel's denials about Cyril Smith's abuse of children – mean this is a live issue and will not go away. We are going to have a public discussion about what it is to be a man in Scotland which includes appropriate ways for men to express themselves and act, and what their/our responsibility is in challenging other men who act inappropriately in words and deeds.
This latter point was always an undertow running through the men's group. We thought and talked about the most constructive, helpful and honest ways to challenge each other, ideally in a positive manner. We recognised that often this could be difficult, involve major disagreement and even denial. And many times we went through discussions involving all of these characteristics and others; through this we recognised that men needed to feel as safe as possible doing this and that silence was not an adequate response.
The American educator, Jackson Katz, has written about men and masculinities and contributed enormously to changing attitudes, for example, co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention model and having an impact on the work of the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland. In his book, The Macho Paradox
, Katz describes what he calls 'the bystander issue', by which most men choose to not get involved in challenging other men when they do or say something problematic.
'I'm convinced the reason why a lot of men don't intervene, don't speak up to challenge and interrupt other men is not because they lack the skills to do so, but they lack the permission to do so,' Katz reflects. 'They realise that if they do challenge and interrupt other men, their manhood will be called into question. There's a price to pay, often, for a young man to challenge or interrupt another man's enactment of power and privilege. And that's one of the reasons why so few guys do it.'
We have to learn and take inspiration from men who dare to break from silence and collusion. One such figure is that of Ronan Farrow, the journalist and writer, who dared to break through the layers of silence, fear and collusion around Harvey Weinstein, and broke part of the story in the American media. Farrow thinks that the reason that large parts of the media would not pursue the Weinstein story was 'just baseline casual misogyny. And misogyny is a very damning word, but actually it looks quite banal a lot of the time: it's not believing that it's an issue that matters'. Often, this even presents itself with a supposedly liberal and well-meaning face, he observes: 'It's people who think of themselves as being reasonable and compassionate, and very often liberal, acquiescing and becoming examples of moral cowardice – because that's their cost benefit analysis'.
Writers such as Sue Palmer and Carol Craig have consistently pointed out that seismic change is needed in Scottish society in relation to gender, men and women. Craig has written powerfully of some of the problem areas in our past which have not helped us – including the role and legacy of religion and in particular Calvinism. We have come from a dark place – a society defined by punitive male authority and all-encompassing patriarchy – and we are still, for all the change we have gone through, living in its shadow.
Talking about men and masculinity is not some optional extra which stands apart from the real issues of what traditionally defines politics and public life. Rather, it involves addressing something which runs through nearly everything in society: power, elites, how societies are run, capitalism, poverty and inequality, and global divisions, injustices and conflict.
For example, the trans debate has now become a major issue across Scotland and the UK, and in a very heated way dividing people who would in other circumstances see each other as allies. Underlying one of the key areas of disagreement is the fear some feminists have of what they perceive as men self-identifying as women and demanding the right to enter women-only spaces. Part of this is grounded in fears of predatory male behaviour and problematic masculinity, but this tends to get lost in the heat of the current debate.
Nearly all of the trans debate, as presented in public at least, is about trans women, with little thought or comment spent on the experiences of trans men. This reflects perhaps inevitable complexities, but it would be helpful if the role of masculinity and the privileges and social assumptions which flow from it were addressed in this controversy.
In the next few weeks, the Alex Salmond trial will reach its verdict. That will be a watershed moment on many fronts. One of them will be the issue of men, of the use and abuse of male power, of problem male behaviour, how men challenge other men – and, of course, how men treat women. The time for collusion, denial and silence has long gone.