The evolution of the Great White Male

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.

When is it acceptable to ask ‘But what about teh menz?’

It would be safe to say my post on Emma Watson and HeForShe generated some pretty strong reactions.

We’re no strangers to strong disagreements here at HetPat, and I assume that most of what I write will lead to angry reactions from one quarter or other. And while I’m never shy of arguing my position in the comments boxes, I do honestly pay attention to thoughtful criticism and I give especially careful consideration to disagreement from people whose opinions and views I usually share and value. That was the case this week.

Probably the most common criticism of the post was that it amounted to an extended #whatabouttehmenz screed and I wanted to give that point some serious attention.

I acknowledge, accept and agree that feminists should have as much space as they want and need to discuss the needs and lives of women, identify problems and formulate solutions or plans of action. Some problems are gender-specific and require gender-specific analysis. Where women are discussing their own lives and situations it is inappropriate for men to march into the space and attempt to divert the conversation onto their issues instead. The same applies, obviously, when men are discussing their own issues. [Read more...]

The five little words that betrayed Emma Watson

There is so much to admire in Emma Watson’s sublime speech to the UN on Saturday. There was the poise and elegance with which it was delivered, the subtle charisma and assured performance, but it was the content that has made her the talk of social media and the darling of the world’s young progressive left.

The roster of Hollywood actors and naff pop stars that makes up the (remarkably lengthy) list of UN Goodwill Ambassadors are usually considered something of a joke. Once you have learned that Ronan Keating once put his name to a parliamentary inquiry into global food security, satire and snark can be declared redundant. And yet Watson’s speech was different. There was an inescapable sense that not only had she written her speech herself, every word came from deep within her.

In particular she made a compelling argument that, in the words of bell hooks, feminism is for everyone, or as the theoretical dictum would have it, patriarchy hurts men too. The points have been made often before but seldom with such simple sincerity:

I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from illness, unable to ask for help for fear it will make them less of a man …. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are.”

So while I didn’t entirely agree with every word she said, there was more than enough there to win my support. Without a moment’s hesitation, I went to the HeForShe website to add my name to the campaign. I got as far as the button to sign the pledge when I glanced over the wording, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t sign. The pledge is only 35 words long. For 30 of them I was agreeing enthusiastically and then…. well, let me talk you through it. [Read more...]

The flesh is weak: On the Erection Equals Consent rape myth

Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.

CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’

It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth. [Read more...]

Traditional circumcision ceremonies: Averting our eyes from the bloodshed

I don’t often do the cross-posting thing, but I have a piece up on the Guardian today that I feel rather strongly about and thought should share with you here

The death and deformity caused by male circumcision in Africa can’t be ignored 

The more I read about the rituals and the extent of suffering involved, the more appalled I am that it continues with so much official blessing and so many wilfully averted gazes.

A point I didn’t really have space to address in the article is that the pain involved, the suffering involved, the risks involved –  of injury, permanent scarring and even death – are, I think, intimately tied up with the business of proving oneself a man. Those pushing these ceremonies are very reluctant to adopt safer, more humane alternatives as this undermines the entire purpose, which is more about the suffering and health risks than anything else. It’s a very extreme and rigid test of masculinity. I find it very revealing that in the participating cultures, men who opt for medical circumcision under clinical conditions are shamed as cowards.  [Read more...]

Throwing domestic violence victims to the wolves

 

The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.

Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.

[Read more...]

How I learned to stop worrying and love their #ListeningToMenFace

Poehler Fey

There was a moment when I was browsing the #ListeningToMenFace tweets over the weekend when I wondered whether it might be considered genuinely harmful.

If you’re a twit-refusenik or somehow missed it, this was a hashtag under which women, mostly but not entirely from feminist corners, posted photos, animated gifs of the faces they make when men talk to them. Some were posed selfies, most were celebrity grabs.

After laughing my way through the first few dozen entries I saw, the sheer weight of numbers began to wear me down. Had it become, I asked myself, something of a misandrist parade? An opportunity for women not just to strike back against the prevailing winds of patriarchal social mores but to gratuitously elevate a one finger salute to half the population of the planet?

I scratched my chin, cocked my head in a moment’s contemplation, then came to the following conclusion: “Ally…. get a grip and stop being such a butthurt bucket of toss.”

So yes, we can add the #ListeningToMenFace to the ever lengthening list of Fucks I Could Not Give. The key flash of realisation for me was that if so many women could identify with the joke and feel motivated enough to join in, there was a real and genuine itch there which needed to be scratched. And truth be told, looking at the photos, the videos and the gifs, a pretty hefty hunk of them looked rather familiar. Not only can I conclude that a lot of different women have shown me their #ListeningToMenFace over the years, I can add that on most occasions it was probably entirely deserved.

We live in a society where relationships between men and women – whether intimate, emotional, social or economic – are governed by myriad expectations, assumptions, habituations and complex etiquette. This means that, to some degree, most of us talk slightly differently to people of a different gender. Many of us might like to to think that we are immune to such habits. Most of us would be wrong, I think, but even if it were true, we all still interpret the other person’s words and behaviour through a lens that is coloured by their gender.

If we ever build a society free of restrictive gender norms, we might find ourselves in a position where the notion of a #ListeningToMenFace or indeed a #ListeningToWomenFace has no purchase or meaning, no humorous or satirical kick. As it is, I get why #ListeningToMenFace is funny. I also get why a #ListeningToWomenFace tag can be funny too, and if anyone expects me to argue it is different when men do these things about women because power relations blah blah, then sorry – a bit of gentle, impertinent ribbing of women by men is similarly lodged in the fattening file of Fucks I Could Not Give.

And of course it didn’t take long for the first such tweets to appear. The one truly saddening and worrying thing about this minor kerfuffle is that this evening when I looked, the top image under #ListeningToMenFace was this endearing photo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (above), the top image under #ListeningToWomenFace was the serial killer Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. A bit of gentle ribbing was answered by a reminder of brutal misogynistic violence. As the meme would have it, this is why we can’t have nice things.

I will not, however, allow that kind of unpleasantness to spoil anyone’s fun. As an original contribution to the #ListeningToMenFace game, I must pay tribute to my favourite fictional woman of recent years – Chloe O’Brian from 24. Without wishing to downplay her vital role in preventing umpteen biological weapons attacks and nuclear explosions, or to ignore her technical brilliance, but for all that her true genius is in pulling a #ListeningToMenFace. I mean, look.

chloe_listening

 

And it wouldn’t be right to leave you without my own #ListeningToWomenFace. I did contemplate a gif from Scanners of that dude’s head exploding, but while I have had a few days like that lately, it really wouldn’t be accurate. The truth of my #ListeningToWomenFace is probably something like this:

ghostbuster

 

 

#ViolenceIsViolence: Watching the reactions

I am not a fan of advertisements or public service broadcasts which purport to be scientific experiments. I’m not convinced that 8/10 cats really do prefer your Kangachunks over other products, nor that some actress really does feel like the appearance of wrinkles has been reduced after six weeks of using inventyserum oxide. I’m particularly cynical about hidden camera exercises which catch the reactions of oblivious passers-by and which can only be produced by editing down endless miles of footage into a few seconds of final cut.

So while I’m a great admirer and supporter of the work of domestic violence charity the Mankind Initiative, my heart didn’t exactly leap when I first saw their new online ad to support a campaign they call #ViolenceIsViolence.

I will now hold up my hand and say I was wrong. The video has been viewed six million times in little over a week, sparked widespread debate across mainstream media in Britain and across the world. Many online discussions have focussed on double standards and asked readers to speculate on the question, what would you do? Almost instantly it has become one of the most effective pieces of campaigning for men’s issues I’ve ever seen.And the reactions have been telling. By that, I do not mean the reactions shown in the film, they speak for themselves. I mean the reactions from across the spectrum of gender politics and domestic violence campaigners.

First, the good news. I have seen many supportive comments from individual women and feminist groups, including local Women’s Aid charities, who have been happy to express unequivocal support for the message that #ViolenceIsViolence and violence is wrong.

I’m more baffled by the reaction of American blogger and manosphere-watcher David Futrelle, who picked up on a Spanish academic’s blog to ask the question: Is the Mankind Initiative’s #ViolenceIsViolence video a fraud?

Using the type of forensic analysis which in the good old days t’internet used to establish that the moon landings were fake or that Woody Woodpecker shot JFK, David demonstrates that the two minute campaigning video must have been (wait for it) EDITED! He then goes on to demand that the Mankind Initiative and the company who made the video release the original, raw footage so that he, or whoever, can go through analysing it frame by frame to verify its authenticity.

Why would anyone want to do this? Does David Futrelle or anyone else really deny that society generally reacts differently to female on male violence than to the reverse? Among my own original, ill-aimed gripes at the video, was a sense that the point it was making was so glaringly obvious it verged on the banal. Do you need to be convinced of how differently people consider female on male violence? Try reading a newspaper. Try reading social media whenever there is a factual or fictional case on the TV. The Mankind Initiative’s video provided a short, sharp, easily understood illustration of a long-established fact. Was the video a fraud? No David, it was an ad.

So far so silly. Far more troubling was the reaction of the leading national domestic violence charity, Women’s Aid and their chief executive.

Polly Neate initially published an article on the Daily Telegraph, then followed it up with an appearance on BBC Women’s Hour. Neate did make one good and important point, which is that intervening in public incidents of domestic violence can be dangerous and counter-productive for all involved, a point which I agree should have somehow been acknowledged in the video. The rest of the article was shocking, notably her implication that the success of this video might put women at risk. In particular, she took issue with the statistic which appears on the last frame of the film, that 40% of victims of domestic violence are men.

Mankind’s video ends by showing a statistic that 40 per cent of domestic violence is suffered by men. This figure, while it does come from the Office for National Statistics, can be misleading. It’s important to remember that domestic violence, the type of abuse where you are living in utter fear of your partner, isn’t a one-off incident: it’s about ongoing and repeated violence. Women make up 89 per cent of those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence.

It’s also really important to recognise that in the remaining 11 per cent, men are more at risk when they are in same sex relationships. Quite simply, proportionately very few perpetrators of domestic violence where there is ongoing abuse are female. Despite this, female perpetrators are three times more likely to be arrested than men. As men commit 96 per cent of all violent crime, it is difficult to understand why these statistics are so hard to accept.

 

There are so many problems with this it would be tedious to list them all. Every single statistic above is questionable, dated or downright false, so I will restrict myself to one key point. If you go to the Women’s Aid page of statistics, the very first fact stated there is that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. This statistic comes from the exact same ONS data set from where we get 40% of victims being male. If by domestic violence we mean ‘ongoing and repeated violence… those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence’ then more than two thirds of female victims of DV simply disappear – they don’t exist. The figure of 89% comes from Walby and Allen‘s analysis of the 2001 British Crime Survey. If we were to use the ‘four or more’ condition to define domestic violence, from that same study, only 32% of victimised women qualify, meaning that the number of women who are a victim suddenly drops from one in four to around one in 13. Women’s Aid cannot have it both ways.

In practice, Women’s Aid do not restrict their services to women who have been subject to acts of physical violence four or more times by the same perpetrator. On the ground, quite rightly and importantly, they help women (and in some cases men) who have been subjected to all kinds of physical, emotional and psychological abuse, including those who have been victims of a single incident. It is highly dishonest to pretend that the only victims worthy of consideration are those suffering repeated, severe violence.

Much worse is to come, however. Neate continues:

It is totally understandable that organisations want to highlight the issue they are campaigning on, to increase their profile and encourage people to support their cause, but campaigns such as these influence important decisions that affect survivors. We have been told by local Women’s Aid federation organisations that they are funded locally on the basis they have to provide services to male victims, and they are rarely used despite putting time and money into promoting this.

 

The first thing to note here is that there is not a shred of objective evidence that any women have suffered or been denied services because funding has been diverted to provide services for male victims. When challenged by Mankind Initiative’s Mark Brooks on Women’s Hour, Neate failed to provide any details, reverting to ‘well it’s what we’ve been told.’ Secondly, if it is true that some local Women’s Aid organisations are finding there is low take-up for services aimed at men, it could be because an organisation called ‘Women’s Aid’ with a history of denial with regard to male victims and some profoundly problematic attitudes going all the way to the very top might not be the most appropriate organisation to be providing services to men. Just a thought.

Most significantly, however, we must compare and contrast the attitudes of the two charities on this front. Every time I have heard Mark Brooks speak on the media or in public, he has gone to great pains to stress that he believes there should be more funding for female and male victims, and that it would be obscene to argue that women should be deprived of any services in order to provide them to men instead. He wants to join with all domestic violence charities and campaigns to demand more and better services for all victims, irrespective of gender. Women’s Aid will not return this courtesy.

I cannot conceive of any other charity that would actively attack the campaigning and fundraising work of another. We do not see lung cancer charities running attack pieces against effective breast cancer campaigns. We don’t see Water Aid asking people not to give to Aids charities.

Domestic violence services of all types have struggled against devastating funding cuts over the past four years. People in need have been deprived of interventions that could offer vital, even life-saving support. If that trend is to be reversed, it will only happen by everyone who cares about the issue joining as one and demanding help for those in need. It cannot help to have one charity turn on another in an ignominious display of one-downmanship.

Slap-happy columnists and the dangers of generalisation

I hate to say I told you so, but when I wrote last week that our culture has a problem conceptualising female violence, one or two of those commenting below seemed less than convinced. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly, but with impeccable timing, up popped the Observer columnist Barbara Ellen to provide the perfect illustration.

In discussing the Jay-Z / Solange incident, she made several bizarre and troubling claims. It began with a now-familiar slice of victim-blaming,  pondering what Jay-Z must have done to ‘provoke’ Solange. It got worse when she elided group generalisations with the specifics of an individual incident: “The differences in physical size and/or strength between the sexes mean that most men are simply not physically scared of most women.” 

This is probably true, but has no bearing on whether any one man is physically scared (never mind physically hurt) by any one woman. Ellen’s entire column showed zero understanding of the real dynamics of interpersonal violence, and particularly the complexities of how men react to violence, and female violence in particular.  The real stunner, however, came in a paragraph that was so wrong as to verge on the downright wicked. I am utterly stunned that the editors allowed it through:

What’s more, women tend to be aware of this, if only subliminally. Some females might have periods in their life when they get “slap-happy”, primarily when socialising, maybe when attention seeking, usually when drunk (guilty!). When they stop this behaviour, it’s usually because they’re ashamed, embarrassed or have belatedly realised they’re disgusting dogs who can’t hold their drink. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely to have anything to do with men being frightened of them. On the contrary, it’s wired into the female DNA that in the main they’re under threat rather than the threat. 

When I wrote about our difficulties in conceptualising female violence, this is precisely what I was talking about. Ellen cannot conceive of female on male assaults as violent crime, just as embarrassing drunkenness. What do these women do when they are going through their “slap-happy” phase?

Consider Coral Millerchip, perhaps, who last summer attacked Jovinder Singh, a frail, 80-year-old man, dying with Alzheimers, knocking him to the ground and then spitting on him. He was so traumatised that he lived out his remaining few months of life in fear, unable to venture outside alone.

Or maybe she is imagining the high-jinks of the Hackney woman who last week greeted the gardener on her housing block by pouring sulphuric acid drain cleaner over his head. Or the Devon nightclubber who assaulted two men, one of whom she leaned in to whisper in his ear then sank her teeth into his cheek. Apparently she is ashamed and embarrassed now, which sounds familiar. Another woman who is ashamed, embarrassed and forgetful this week is the Ipswich woman who removed her shoe and used it to beat three men around the head.

These are just a few snapshots of the 75,000 women arrested for violent crimes in this country each year, picked out from the first few pages of Google News.  Their crimes are not a joke, a rarity or an irrelevance.

Notwithstanding the usual debates about rates of intimate partner violence, It is certainly true that for every woman committing a violent act, there will be several men. Male violence, in both prevalence and severity, remains the most pressing criminological trend in our society. To acknowledge that does not require us to simply ignore or dismiss female violence, whether targeted at men, women or children.

In one respect Barbara Ellen is correct. Context does matter to this debate. It is not necessarily ‘the same’ when a man hits a woman as when a woman hits a man. It is not the same when a large, physically fit music superstar is being attacked with a burly bodyguard to protect him as when a frail, disabled man like Eddie Kidd is being battered behind closed doors by the woman he loves.  It is not the same when Charles Saatchi grabs Nigella Lawson around the throat in a public restaurant as when a couple of destitute street-drinkers brawl over their last swigs of lager. The truth is that no two violent relationships are the same, no two violent incidents are the same, no two victims are the same, no two  perpetrators are the same. It is impossible to say sure how dangerous a person is based on their identity or gender, how scary, or indeed how scared such a person might be when placed in a violent situation.

Generalising about how someone might react to being violently attacked, generalising about someone else’s capacity for violence is a fool’s errand. If we are serious about reducing violence in society, we will not get there by starting with a position that some types of violence are somehow more acceptable than others.

 

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests'; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:

 

But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.