For this international Men’s Day, I was asked to take part in a discussion about my friend Jerry Hyde’s new film ‘Meetings With Remarkable Men’.
Jerry is a rock star psychologist who’s dedicated his life to running men’s groups, where men come together, every two weeks, some for as long as twenty years, to talk about their lives with other men.
The film, made with female director Mai Hua, is an intimate portrait of some of the men from these groups. They talk about the most personal details of their lives, their emotional landscapes, their relationships with their fathers and mothers, their fear of women, and for some, their experiences of abuse and pain.
I’ve led men’s groups and men’s retreats myself now for three years or so, and have seen much the same first hand, the bravery and brotherhood that emerges spontaneously when men share the truth of their experience.
But there is a missing piece in the public dialogue, and I’m grateful that Jerry invited me to bring it to the screening.
In the Q&A afterwards, BBC producer Charlie Taylor opened with a landmine question. “Given the actions of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and the other high profile male sex abusers, is now really the time to feel sympathy for men?”. Well, not all men, obviously. But can we feel sympathy for any men?
Since the 1960s, for those that have been paying attention, the evidence that men are struggling has continued to mount. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, three times the rate of women, and men are increasingly falling behind women in all levels of education, from school to universities.
In a world where people skills and ‘soft skills’ are ever more relevant compared to physical strength, women seem more equipped to cope. As an example, the average woman has around four times the Facebook connections of the average man.
So instead of a dualistic system where men as a group hold the positions of power over women as a group, we now have a tripartite system with some super successful men at the top (particularly in the tech industry), a female dominated centre, and a growing cohort of men at the bottom, society’s rejects.
Those men in particular are susceptible to extreme ideologies, from incel to ethno-nationalist, and if we can’t find sympathy for them, we’re storing up huge problems for the future.
A recent documentary series by the left-wing Guardian newspaper was another sign of a shift, where female journalist Iman Amrani took a compassionate look at men’s experiences and tried to understand why masculinity was in crisis.
Jerry opened his film with a quote from the feminist, bell hooks: “Learning to wear a mask is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity a boy learns.”
There is a truth in that, and the voices of the men in Jerry’s film and elsewhere need to be heard, but it’s not the whole story, and the missing piece is hugely important.
Because in a culture that is increasingly focused on men’s emotional vulnerability, there is the danger that men are simply seen as ‘faulty women’, or suffering from ‘testosterone poisoning’, that affects their emotional state.
Catch 22 for men
And there is the danger of a narrative Catch 22 situation that man men experience, in intimate relationships and in the culture at large. Where when they speak up about their experiences, they’re shut down for ‘mansplaining’, taking up too much space, or even attacked for being fragile.
It is this Catch 22 that I see a lot among a younger generation of men, that they are increasingly encouraged to open up and share their feelings, but have had experiences of being rejected and humiliated when their perspective doesn’t fit with what is ‘allowed’.
The reaction to the recent Gillette advert was a case in point. Lots of men hated it, finding it condescending, simplistic and hectoring. The response I saw frequently, from some progressive friends on social media was to laugh at the men’s response, sharing content attacking them for being ‘fragile’. Ironically reinforcing exactly the same stereotypical message of ‘man up’ that in any other context they would reject.
On Rebel Wisdom we’ve talked frequently about how the current gender dynamics look like a “dysfunctional relationship” played out on the wider cultural stage. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the toxicity is driven by the extremes, men and women who have had traumatic experiences with the opposite sex, and are now imposing that view on the rest of society.
As most of us are now aware, much of the male toxicity is confined to the ‘manosphere’, online holdouts. The problem is that the narrative in the mainstream media often leaves no room for the common sense observation that there are negative behaviours on both sides, that ‘women can be people too’. And so this leads to a radicalising effect, where in some of these online conversations, the realisation that women ‘can behave badly’ turns into a narrative that women ‘will always’ behave badly.
By contrast, some of the most extreme accusations on the other side are boosted and validated by the mainstream media itself. For example, any attempts to differentiate between the actions of a predator like Harvey Weinstein and a bad sexual experience like Aziz Ansari’s, were explicitly rejected with a message of ‘zero tolerance’ for any and all bad behaviour. Matt Damon was famously vilified and forced to apologise when he said that we should pay attention to the “spectrum of behaviour” when it came to sexual misconduct.
This way of thinking about the world — on both sides — catastrophising, black and white thinking and dividing the world into ‘good’ and bad’ people is a characteristic of warped thinking, correlated with anxiety and depression, that therapies like CBT are designed to help us overcome.
The only way through this dynamic is for all of us to own the ways we act out in the world, both men and women. In the men’s work that Jerry is doing, and Rebel Wisdom is doing, we’re creating spaces for men to do that, to own and accept ourselves and to hold each other accountable.
Shortly after #metoo, the understandable narrative was that this was the time for women to speak and for men to listen. A necessary step. But by definition, not a functioning relationship, which needs give and take, listening and speaking.