A couple of weeks ago, the New Statesman ran a special edition guest edited by Grayson Perry, with the strapline The Great White Male Issue.
In the centrepiece essay, Perry himself spelled out what he meant by the Great White Male – the white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle aged, who:
“dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.”
In an accompanying panel feature, 17 prominent writers and intellectuals each offered a paragraph or two under the following heading and standfirst:
A manifesto for the new man: how the Great White Male can stay relevant
The days of the Great White Male are numbered. So how should men live now?
Despite a few incisive and interesting observations, I found the feature a deeply depressing and dispiriting read. What leaped out at me was the paucity of imagination and ideas offered up. If a manifesto is a programme of proposals for change, it is very hard to find anything in here which could be considered a policy.
[Aside: There is one whopper of a pothole which disrupts the piece and presents a hazard for me here too, so let me point it out and fence it off with a hazard sign. The New Statesman's pundits do not agree on whether Great White Male describes real individuals with personal foibles and failings, vulnerabilities and problems, or whether it is a theoretical archetype or even a metaphor. I do not believe Mary Beard really expects any middle aged white men to end up living in cages at the zoo any time soon, for example. So just for clarity, in this post when I talk about the Great White Male (GWM) I am discussing the archetype, the theoretical construct who is assumed to be the most likely leader of any institution, to whom society as a whole looks for leadership and who presumes himself to be deserving of respect and authority. I am not talking about any specific individuals, and I am certainly not asserting that all straight, white, middle-aged men have power, authority or good fortune. I am, however, asserting that the shared social construction of white male power has serious and profound impacts on real lives of real people in the real world.]
In his contribution, Kwami Kwei-Armah asks an interesting question.
“I often wonder, however, if there is a collective realisation of the fear evoked? And if so, is there a white, male equivalent to, say, me crossing the street at night at the sight of an elderly, white female approaching, or pitching my voice five octaves higher to signal, “You are safe with me”? Is there?”
I think there is, and examples of it abound on the very same page. The equivalent is an affected, exaggerated self-abasement which positions the Great White Male as aware of his own privilege, conscious of his failings, not entirely like the ‘typical’ GWM, as if this somehow negates his power or exempts him from criticism. We see it here with Stephen Fry’s description of “white, British, middle-class males, fit only to be kicked over like wormy toadstools” and we see it too in Perry’s own essay, when he exempts himself on the basis of his working class roots and transvestism. Fry and Matthew Parris both pull the same trick, highlighting their own homosexuality or (in Fry’s case) Jewish ancestry as if to say “no, not me, I’m not one of them.” What they fail to note is that virtually every GWM can pull a similar card from his cufflinked sleeve when it suits.
There are at least two distinct agendas for change with respect for the GWM and again, the New Statesman feature fails to clarify which it is they are addressing. The first objective could be to change the world around the GWM, to render his privileges obsolete. The second is for GWM himself to change, to relinquish his privilege and oppressive tendencies, either voluntarily or by some form of compulsion.
For the gender radical, either or both of these objectives can be pursued. However not all transformation is radical. Within the contributions, there are offerings from four men who have stood at the very pinnacle of power in the UK, in politics, religion, news media and the arts. Of all the contributors, these are surely closest to living breathing personifications of the Great White Male. I refer to Alastair Campbell, Rowan Williams, Andrew Marr and Lord Melvyn Bragg.
In their comments, the first three of these prescribe very specific, personal, individualistic beseechments for personal transformation. Get in touch with your emotions and look after your mental health. Step up to your responsibilities. Be kind.
In other words, they are not talking about how to transform, curtail or overthrow the power of the Great White Male, but prescribing how the power can be used more benevolently or with less blowback on the wellbeing of the GWM himself. In other words, they advise fiddling at the fringes in ways that will not in any way disrupt or diminish the power of the GWM, but if anything entrench and enrich that power.
The fourth, Lord Bragg, simply kicks the initial premise into touch, noting (probably accurately) that whether we like it or not, the GWM is going nowhere for now.
The obvious pantomime villain in the New Statesman piece is Tony Parsons, who basically says “being a Great White Male is excellent. We rule the world because we are the best. Now piss off.” (I paraphrase, but not much.) In many ways I find this upfront arrogance less troublesome, less dangerous than the arch, affected compassionate conservatism of (in particular) Williams and Marr.
The current structures of our society dehumanise and brutalise men and boys in numerous ways. Some men emerge strong, confident and tough, others simply dehumanised, brutalised and beaten – most of us wrestle with some combination of both. Across the spectrum of male-focused gender politics, there are traditionalists, who willingly accept both sides of the coin and believe they are as things should be. There is also a large bulk of the men’s rights movement which fights tooth and nail to defend every last vestige of male privilege while simultaneously seeking protection from every negative consequence that flows from it (and of course denying the privilege exists in the first place.) It might seem startling once unpacked and hung out in the light, but the New Statesman’s vox magna presented a veritable array of such suggestions, and virtually all came from Great White Males themselves.
In my view, only a couple of the suggestions really grasped the type of radicalism that is needed in a manifesto for change. Both came from women. I loved the simplicity of Bonnie Greer’s gentle beseechment:
“One of the characteristics of the Great White Male is the assumption of complete attention. This manifests itself in various ways but the most common is the loud voice that rises above all others. And its opposite, too – the soft voice, with its assumption of reason, calm and control: “I am the one in charge. I am the one who knows.” This creates, over time, that peculiar characteristic – a resistance to change, and along with it protection of the status quo.
Given that this condition is acquired, not inherent, it can be eradicated in the following way: make the potential Great White Male understand that he is not the sine qua non of human existence; that he can, in fact, take a back seat. And no one will either notice or mind.”
But of all the comments, it was Laurie Penny who really nailed it.
“The real threat on the horizon for the Great White Male isn’t extinction: it’s evolution. And evolution is no bad thing. It’s what happens when you meet new people and adjust to new environments. The creatures who will have to live in this society in generations to come are entitled to divest themselves of maladaptive qualities such as intolerance, stuffiness and a fondness for sexist jokes and embarrassing, finger-pointy disco dancing, while preserving more positive traits, such as barbecuing skills and the easy confidence that comes with not being the victim of decades of oppression… Feminism and anti-racism aren’t just political movements: they are adaptive strategies.”
Both these comments acknowledge the most important fact about the Great White Male identity. It does not exist in splendid isolation, separate from other genders, ethnicities, sexualities or whatever, but as part of a dynamic interaction. No man is an island, Great White Man least of all. He can only exist because of the corollaries – the subjected female or the oppressed person of colour.
All the bad jokes and lazy characterizations that pepper this feature are a distraction from the profound truth that the evolution of the Great White Male – indeed the liberation of the Great White Male from the dehumanising, stultifying, often deadly constraints of patriarchy – is inextricably bound up in the pursuit of justice for all.