Could do better
An inquiry into effective action for men and boys
By Mike Bell, with contributions from Geoffrey Breeze, Zac Fine, Joe Horton, Vincent McGovern and Martin Seager
If we look around we see men and boys facing disadvantages in many walks of life and, alongside this, some attempts to improve the situation. However, we have to admit we are not doing well. The ‘anti-male narrative’ still dominates. Gamma bias affects the media, so that the bad deeds of a few men are taken to reflect men as a whole, while male suffering remains almost invisible to the public and legislature.
A group of us has been meeting to try and understand how to create more effective action on men and boys in the UK. Here is the initial phase of our work.
- There are a wide range of individuals and organisations trying to address disadvantages facing men and boys, either at the individual level or via campaigns for social and political change. Compared with parallel women and girls movements they are very much less effective, and they are far less effective than would be expected given that, both historically and today, men are usually at the forefront of problem solving and political change.
- Men seem reluctant to help other men. For example, after they are supported by the charity Families Need Fathers in seeking access to their children, few separated fathers offer help to other fathers.
- Men work well in a group when the beneficiaries are anything other than the in-group defined as ‘men’.
- While radical-feminist ideology is influential, its power seems over-estimated, perhaps because of the lack of an effective pro-male response.
Obvious reasons for ineffectiveness
- While men do organise effectively for groups (eg family, business, football team, country), they do not naturally organise to support other men because they are men. There is no comfortable ‘male identity’ in-group, perhaps because to serve one would contradict the masculine instinct to provide for and protect females.
- Men are stoical: they tend to ‘put up with things’ unless they are very unsatisfactory.
- Society is gynocentric and more attuned to female needs than male needs.
- Some men fear being attacked as ‘misogynistic’.
- Men have evolved not to hit women. Working for men can feel a bit like attacking women – and so men stop.
- Some men are disempowered by shame. If, for example, they lose contact with their children, they may feel like they have failed as a father and a man. Shame can handicap a person’s ability to step forward, be seen and take action with courage.
- Some highly motivated men are traumatised. This can prevent them from taking action, for example, to reform family law, because it means re-visiting their trauma. Alternatively, their contributions can be aggressive and counter-productive: they vent in their letters and emails, focus on their own story in meetings and fail to do the detailed work required to be effective.
- Identity. The men’s movement is difficult to define and understand: there are lots of different aims.
- Men work hard and often cannot find time to carry out the task they agreed to do.
- Men are less motivated by an abstract aim (eg law reform) than by a practical aim (eg fix the fence)
We need a further explanation
While these reasons are probably all valid, they do not explain the extent and duration of actions and inactions by activist men which sabotage their contributions, such as:
- Agreeing to do something, not doing it, not saying they will not do it, saying they will do it when challenged, giving ‘too busy’-type reasons when challenged.
- Exaggerating the power of the so-called ‘radical feminists’ as an excuse for inaction.
- Choosing victimhood and the comfort zone of failure to stay in their ‘pain cave’.
We wondered whether these behaviours are natural. As humans evolved, the role of males changed from other primates. Other primate babies are born able to cling to mother’s fur and she is able to carry them and keep them safe without the help of the biological father. Human babies, by contrast, are born premature (due to head size) and so are vulnerable for several years. In late pregnancy, human females are also disabled relative to other primates. Once born, the lack of human body hair means that mothers need to use their arms to carry the child, thus disabling them further.
To meet these new demands, humans adapted; a type of fatherhood emerged where the adult male creates a bond with his biological child and provides for and protects the mother and children. Males evolved a collective responsibility to protect the extended family group or tribe. To do this they needed to be primarily concerned with the protection of fertile women and children, not themselves or other men. All this is well known, so we explored a deeper reason.
The hypothesis here is that the psychological adaptation in males is not just a positive natural desire (and associated reward system) to protect, but a deep seated prohibition (innate taboo?) against action to protect the men-as-a-group.
This hypothesis says that while their conscious mind wants to take action, they receive a subliminal message from the subconscious telling them that such action is wrong. While most of the ‘obvious reasons for ineffectiveness’ above explain inaction, this hypothesis may explain the counter-productive action of so many men in the men’s movement.
We were unable to conclude whether this was the case or not, but realised that the ‘why’ does not matter as much as understanding how to be effective while accepting men as they are.
Guidelines for effective action
Avoid using men as an in-group
- Use an identity group other than ’male’, eg ‘family’ or ‘children’ to side-step the evolutionary reluctance of men to protect men as an in-group (eg Both Parents Matter, not Families need Fathers). The group could also signify a higher goal such as: ‘A Fair System’ or ‘A Stable Society’, with the message: ‘the way to protect women and children is to look after the men in their lives’.
Develop the idea of ‘positive masculinity’
- Focus on positive manifestations of masculinity. Promote this to boys to counter the ‘masculinity is toxic’ message and the hyper-masculine narrative from influencers such as Andrew Tate. Challenge the wisdom of training boys to be ‘less masculine’.
- We need ‘effective warriors’ and pathways for men to ‘walk tall’ and create a virtuous circle to inspire. Cultivate aspiration to leadership and think of the next seven generations, positioning the men’s movement as one of stewardship, protecting families and the unborn from the gender war.
- Normalise the issue by using normal language – avoid ‘rights’, ‘prejudice’, ‘feminist’ etc. Speak and act as though our concern is just like any other.
- Develop ways for men and boys to feel good about themselves. Reinvent ‘the myth of manhood’. Build myth, narrative and story first, not relying on an intellectual argument alone.
- Build on success: men will more willingly follow and act if they see progress being made.
We concluded that, to a significant degree, we should not assume that a group or network of volunteer men will achieve significant change. Effective action will be best achieved by raising funds and employing non-traumatised men or women to undertake campaigning tasks in a professional manner.
The Positive Masculinity model is already in use by successful groups working to improve the health and wellbeing of men and boys. These include Lads Need Dads, A Band Of Brothers, Andy’s Man Club, Men’s Sheds and Men’s Pie Club. We turned to the neo-Jungian masculine archetypes — touted as the psychological foundation of a mature, authentic and revitalized masculinity by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in their 1990 book – ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’ — to see if they would help us define positive masculinity more clearly and provide guidelines for our aim to create more effective action for men and boys in the UK.
We will report our findings in a follow-up article.