In defence of men
Masculine virtues are universal virtues, and they should be celebrated.
I’ve been thinking recently about the arrogance of extrapolation. Of imagining that your own personal experiences are so important, so unique, that they must be extrapolated from and fashioned into a lesson, even a manual, for everyone else to follow. The memoir-as-manual — it’s the new publishing craze. We’ve had Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, which, as suggested by its Victorian-style manual-for-women title, takes as its starting the point the idea that Ms Moran’s eccentric girlhood under self-impoverished bohemian parents in Wolverhampton (commentators make the mistake of calling this a working-class upbringing) contains profound insights for the entirety of womankind. We’ve had Afua Hirsch’s Brit-ish, in which Ms Hirsch’s eye-wateringly privileged upbringing in Wimbledon, and the fact she once got funny looks when she went into a shop, is extrapolated from and turned into a missive on Britain’s allegedly dysfunctional relationship with race.
And we have Robert Webb’s How Not to be a Boy. The title itself drips with this arrogance of extrapolation. Webb, a comic writer, best known as one of the stars of Peep Show alongside David Mitchell, thinks his childhood experiences have endowed him with a special insight into the predicament of men, the toxic nature of masculinity, and the necessity for 50 per cent of the population to change their ways if they want to survive. He really says this. His aim with this memoir is no less than to ‘extend that awareness [he means the gender-awareness that he has already achieved] to the half of the population who might still be under the impression that gender conditioning didn’t happen to them because they have a Y chromosome’. It’s almost religious. The Confessions of Robert Webb. I mean, I think my life has been pretty interesting, and I have certainly learned a lot from it, but turning it into a moral guide for everyone else? The very thought makes me wince. I’m no Augustine. And neither is Webb.
Webb’s book is in many ways an upmarket version of those miserable tomes you find in the ‘Life Stories’ section of WH Smith. It’s called ‘Life Stories’ because the more honest name would give people the willies: ‘Tragedy Porn In Which Someone Definitely Gets Raped.’ You know the kind. ‘Daddy, Please, No.’ ‘Don’t Ever Tell.’ ‘Abandoned.’ ‘Wasted.’ All featuring cover images of doe-eyed toddlers hiding in the shadows. ‘Roll up, roll up, watch this kid get battered’, the strapline might as well say. Webb’s book is better written and more self-important than these perversely detailed tales of woe — he went to Cambridge, don’t you know — but it shares with them an emotional incontinence, an obsession with childhood experiences, and a sometimes shameless marshalling of other people’s stories to your story, so that most of the other people in your life end up as little more than bit-part players in your own moral psychodrama.
This really is the stuff of psychodrama. Webb bends virtually his entire life to the service of warning us of the lethal nature of distant, unchecked masculinity and how it has harmed him and you (even if you don’t know it, because you haven’t reached the same level of gender awareness as our immodest guide, you idiot). He refracts everything through the prism of Masculinity Is Bad. Everything from the tears he wept over the death of a bee (as a boy, ‘I wasn’t supposed to look after [this bee], I was supposed to stamp on it’, he says, letting us know he was superior to other blokes even when he was in shorts) to his humiliation at a sports day when the other boys deduced that he was wearing girl’s socks. (It is no doubt testament to my infection by toxic masculinity that I found myself chortling at his persecutor’s mockery: ‘Good socks, Robert! My name’s Robert and I’m a girl!’ I thought to myself, ‘Boys will be boys’, which, as Webb never tires of telling us, is a really bad thing to think.)
It all feels too neat, too gospel. Every single stage of Webb’s life becomes a moral lesson in ‘how not to be a boy’, in how dangerous it is to tell boys to ‘Man Up’ — as attested to by the chapter titles: ‘Boys Aren’t Shy’, ‘Boys Are Brave’, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, etc etc. Which leaves you feeling that he is possibly misremembering his own life, by seeing it all through his recently adopted thesis on problematic masculinity. A bit like those born-again Christians who suddenly realise that everything in their life thus far — from the getting pissed to the sexual fumbling with a girl whose name they can’t even remember — was both wicked and fodder for their newly discovered understanding of Good and Bad. Just as the cult of the misery memoir encourages people to view the entirety of their personal history through the quite recently constructed narrative of child abuse, and in some instances to invent or at least embellish experiences if doing so might help strengthen this narrative, so Webb now sees everything through his Damascene awareness on masculinity. In today’s memoirist industry, it seems the moral narrative is king and the events of one’s life its mere subjects.
And lo, one of the most problematic figures in Webb’s life is his father. It’s always the father. The drunken, fist-clenching father. He stalks every misery memoir. He looms large in every therapy session of middle-class people trying to iron out their personal hang-ups. He’s the shadow on the front of those bloody books, rarely seen but always there, fucking everything up. ‘Please, Daddy, No.’ It’s such a cliche. Webb overshares about his father because that is what you must do these days if you want to get published. Not writing about your dad out of respect for his privacy and for your own autonomy — for the idea that maybe, just maybe, your hang-ups are your own creation rather than your father’s — is not an option any more. Do you want a book deal or not? Webb tells us about how his father used to thrash him, about his extramarital affairs and boozing, about his emotional stiffness and the fact that Webb once felt the urge to ‘climb across the table and try to kill him’.
Okay. Fine. Show me a man who hasn’t had a difficult relationship with his father and I’ll show you a liar or an extremely lucky person. Webb writes about how, when he was a teenager, his then estranged father only ever gave him a handshake, never a hug. And? If my dad ever hugged me, I’d phone the police. He was brought up in 1950s and 1960s Ireland, where men didn’t hug, not because they were ‘gender-conditioned’ to be emotional cripples, but because they didn’t hug. Who cares about this stuff? Also, isn’t part of becoming an adult that you rise above childhood influences, leave ‘childish things’ behind, and assume responsibility for the direction of your life? The therapy industry discourages this, of course, through institutionalising a secular version of ‘the sins of the father’ in which we are all mere byproducts of our parents’ misbehaviour, especially our father’s misbehaviour. Dads get so much flak in this era in which adults refuse to take command of their own lives. Webb’s book smacks of this fatalistic worldview.
Look, it’s fine if Webb wants to write about all the (very relatively) rough stuff of his childhood. Each to their own. And as Frank McCourt said in his wonderful Angela’s Ashes — the only misery memoir I truly love — ‘The happy childhood is hardly worth telling’. But what sticks in the craw about How Not To Be a Boy is the arrogance of extrapolation. The fact that this miserable stuff, which isn’t actually very miserable, is pored over to the end of providing all men with moral instruction. Cod-philosophy on the nature of male behaviour peppers this self-indulgent tome. ‘Gender assumptions’ leak into parents’ behaviour, meaning parents expect boys to be ‘more independent, more aggressive, more outward-facing’, says Webb. What are ‘masculine qualities’ anyway, he ponders. ‘Bravery? Honesty? Stoicism?’ ‘Masculinity is something to recover from’, he insists. He says this doesn’t mean that ‘being male is some innately fallen state’, but it does come with ‘a load of extra baggage that is worth noticing’. Free yourself of your baggage, men! Achieve awareness! Ditch the ‘strong’ act and open up about your screw-ups and feelings. That is the message of this book — and the message of just about everything else that is written on masculinity these days.
There are two things to say about this. The first, sticking with the arrogance of extrapolation, is that Webb seems not to allow for the possibility that his narrow experiences — everyone’s experiences are fairly narrow, of course — do not make him the ideal person to instruct men on how they should think and behave. This is a grammar-school-educated boy who spent much of his childhood on a golf resort in Woodhall Spa, where his grandparents ran the kitchen, before heading off to Cambridge, Footlights, theatre, the BBC, and so on. I’m going to stick my head above the parapet and say Webb’s has been a nice and privileged life. And one that doesn’t have much necessity for the ‘masculine’ values — they are actually quite universal values — of physical strength, confidence, self-reliance, and maybe even the valuation of vigour over emotional awareness. However, imagine you grew up in different conditions. Imagine you grew up on a working-class estate, say, or as the son of an immigrant community that was getting it in the neck from mainstream society. Isn’t it possible that in that situation you would require, and in fact aspire to, quite different values? Including the values of self-defence, self-assertion, even cockiness?
One of the worst traits of the contemporary commentariat is their failure to appreciate the differentiation in values across society, and their conviction that their values are superior to everyone else’s. I have news for them: there are many people out there, millions of people, who see their values as better than yours, and who indeed see your values as crazy or at least incredibly unuseful. People who think that emotional awareness is a ridiculous value and utterly unhelpful in the negotiation of daily life, daily work, and daily struggle. But these people don’t have book deals and don’t have Joanna Lumley and JK Rowling singing their praises — as Webb’s book does — and so we can sneer at them. They become ignorable, even morally inferior. That grates with some of us because we know that in the communities we grew up in, the ‘toxic masculine’ values that it has become fashionable to disdain are viewed incredibly positively, and actually are incredibly positive: they provide you with the armour for the unforgiving trials of life in a society in which nothing is given and everything must be fought for.
And the second thing to say about Webb’s moralising on masculinity is that he falls into the very trap he seems to want to avoid. The part of his book I agreed with most is where he ridicules those who say that masculinity and femininity are fixed, inherited traits. That we are biologically conditioned to be ‘blokes’ or ‘girls’. He lays into the likes of John Gray (author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) and other tomes with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and Why Women Talk and Men Walk. He could have extended this critique to certain members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, whose sexual essentialism some of us who are of a more humanist, Renaissance-inspired bent find increasingly irritating. As if men are born with masculine values programmed into their brains, and women are born to adore pink and prefer needlework over brain surgery. To some of us, this smacks of the very idea of Fate, of a pre-written destiny, that both Renaissance thinking and Enlightenment thinking were an effort to escape from. This evolutionary biologism, with all its hocus pocus about men being drawn to red lipstick because they are evolutionarily programmed to desire red fruit etczzzz, strikes us as a grave insult to the post-medieval conviction that individuals are commanders of their fortunes, potential destroyers of ‘Fate’, determiners of their destinies. That we can, in the words of the Renaissance thinker Giannozzo Manetti, in his 1452 book On the Dignity and Excellence of Man — the dignity and excellence of man! Yes! — shape our own fate ‘by the many operations of intelligence and will’.
And yet, Webb replaces such biological determinism with social determinism. He rightly shoots down the idea that we are creatures of biology, only to replace it with the idea that we are creatures of social brainwashing. Or ‘gender conditioning’, as he calls it. This points to one of the main problems with 21st-century commentary and even philosophical thought: the fact that we seem to be caught between two forms of determinism. On one side, the determinism of biology, from ‘Men are from Mars’ through to the Intellectual Dark Web, which holds that we have male and female brains and that’s largely the end of it. And on the other side, the ‘blank slate’ thesis of the new left, which appears more open-minded, and less deterministic, but which in fact is just as insistent that we are forged by forces largely beyond our control. By society’s ‘conditioning’, by our bad fathers, by abuse, by the media, especially the tabloid media, and so on. The old great battle between the ideas of Fate and Will, between the notion that our life’s path is made for us and the far more humanist belief that we can, even in the most difficult circumstances, devise our life’s path as we see fit, has been replaced by a new, rather tawdry conflict of determinisms. Bio-determinism vs cultural determinism.
In this sense, Webb’s book points, if unwittingly, to one of the major intellectual problems of our times: the diminution of active, thoughtful, resourceful and responsible communities, and by extension of the individuals within them. Instead, we are all apparently products, whether of nature or of nurture. In both scenarios, self-determinism is downplayed. And so Webb cannot allow for the possibility that men — many, many men — consciously adopt the strategies of strength and bravery and confidence not because they have been ‘conditioned’ to do so, but because they see these as useful and more importantly good values. Such values speak, profoundly, to the still extant urge among individuals, even in these therapeutic, misanthropic times, to take command of their lives, and responsibility for their families and communities. And here’s the thing: these aren’t ‘masculine’ values. Many women, alongside men, value self-determination, and bristle at the notion that biology or the media or their fathers have written their Fate for them. They desire, they long, to be in control of their fates.
And such a longing is, too often these days, written off as ‘toxic masculinity’. At root, today’s attack on men is really an attack on the aspiration to self-governance, which is an aspiration shared by individuals of every gender, race and class. The cult of fragility and self-abasement might be attractive and even socially beneficial to a small strata of the literary middle classes, like Webb, but it is generally viewed as repulsive by the population at large. It might be useful to the new elite to advertise their wounds and weakness — it wins them media praise and book deals, after all — but such indulgent victimology has no positive role to play in society at large. And so people resist it, whether by being men or by being strong women — that is, by being individuals who, through ‘the operations of intelligence and will’, might command their lives and impact on their communities.
Let us stand up, then, for men. Even for masculinity. And for women who aspire to be as autonomous as men have traditionally been. For these people, the majority, do not have the luxury of wallowing in weakness. I have always had a soft spot for Camille Paglia’s observation in a Playboy article in 1995: ‘The women’s movement is rooted in the belief that we don’t need men. All it will take is one natural disaster to prove how wrong that is. Then, the only thing holding this culture together will be masculine men of the working class.’ The new middle-class clerisy, whose number includes Webb, would do well to remember this: your literary luxury to demean the virtues of masculinity is predicated on the fact that you live in a society in which masculine men, particularly working-class ones, will defend your life and your family in the face of a disaster that will hopefully never come. You are free to insult these people precisely because these people have developed the ‘masculine’ strength to defend the society you live in.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Find him on Instagram: @burntoakboy