I spent Friday Being a Man, at the widely-trailed festival at the Southbank. True to the wonk in Wonklifebalance, this was the Policy making day, where representatives of charities, services and campaigns in the man zone came together with young men themselves to discuss issues relating to fatherhood, education, prison, gang culture and feminism. For £12 it was a good bang for the buck.
First instincts might say this was a valuable learning experience, but as Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s Dad) eloquently summarised, campaigning for gender equality and change is often a matter of ‘un-learning’. Un-learning, or leaving behind, the dominant narratives of men as potent guardians of resources and permissions, and women as vessels of received knowledge without independent opinions, means, or role in the world. Re-learning around tolerance and social justice is the key, with education the engine for change.
Jon Snow chaired a session on fatherhood which covered a wide range of experiences: men opening up to emotion through having children; sexuality and father-child relationships; change in high income countries and the developing world; the irrelevance of paternity leave to young excluded fathers; a call to arms for men to be engaged in care worldwide (phew!). As I have what the ex-offenders in a subsequent session might term ‘form’ in this area, this discussion was of particular interest. When asked about prospects in 30 years’ time Ziauddin Yousafzai was optimistic, as the ‘global village’ means that even in the most remote and traditional societies there can be change, and there is an awareness of alternative cultures. Michael Kaufman beat the drum for men being involved 50:50 in caring for children, as a desirable and necessary response to the feminist revolution. But I couldn’t help thinking that if feminism has taught us anything, it is that progress is not always directly linear – more happening in waves over time, with the possibility of backward as well as forward movement. If women’s progress in the public sphere in the last few decades is anything to go on, one might expect that in thirty years’ time men will do a quarter of care work (as UK women currently occupy about a quarter of parliament) and that accompanying a growing primacy of fatherhood in men’s lives, will be countervailing trends in body politics and objectification, and movements in support of male breadwinners.
Panels on men behind bars and gang culture were particularly successful because each included young men with experience of crime and time. Ex-prisoners who had gone through programmes using the arts to explore issues of masculinity and identity talked movingly about how these had aided going straight and breaking free of hypermasculinity prevalent in prison hierarchies. The possibility of prison as a transformative experience was also addressed – how monotony and powerlessness lead to anxiety and closing down of emotions – how creativity and involvement with women can provoke change. As an audience member pointed out, the experiences of Mandela and Ghandi indicate that prisoners who develop a critical and political perspective can survive inside and achieve outside. The ex-prisoners agreed that critical engagement with their situation inside, and how outside was going to be for them as men, led to personal transformation, a political act.
Perhaps my favourite definition of being a man came from a former gang member, extricated from gang culture with assistance of Kids Company, the charity led by the indefatigable Camila Batmanghelidjh. In a surprisingly philosophical discussion of ‘gang culture’ an ex-member said that being a man in a gang was a matter of ‘ego and credentials’ – just as it might be in many conventional groups, such as City professionals who are involved in parallel models of legitimate trading. ‘Ego and credentials’ are also often judged differently when the person demonstrating them is a woman.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, and the men who benefitted from her organisation’s work to change their lives, highlighted the absence of care in these young people’s backgrounds and the capacity of gangs to provide a family with different norms from conventional society. To break free from the brutal aspects of gang existence, required finding potency from behaviour other than violence, and an understanding of what care really means. However, although implicit in much of what was said I would have liked greater discussion of the identity of caring with femininity and ‘women’s work’. The fact that care is not economically valued, and is often invisible labour, is an important element in why traditional male power has overlooked its significance, and downgraded the centrality of emotional understanding in everyday life.
Southbank’s director, Jude Kelly, commented on the power of having prisoners, gang members and young fathers themselves involved in the day – change has to be about hearing and understanding ‘people who we are not’. I am not a man, but I found much food for thought here.
Alternative reflections on Being a Man
I arrived at the Southbank Centre on Friday all ready to take part in the Being A Man festival – except it wasn’t there. I went to the Royal Festival Hall, entering under a promotional poster for the event and passed by the ticket office where a blackboard with the event’s insignia reassured that it would be taking place at some point that day. The space beyond opened into a large foyer space, chairs in serried rows facing a blank projector screen, and off to one side, a range of man-friendly charities were – quite literally – setting out their stalls. It was almost 9.30 – start time on my ticket. There was no-one at the ticket office and the rows of chairs were empty. After a little further exploration I asked the nice woman from the Samaritans if she knew what was going on. ‘We’re just setting up’ she said ‘the event must be going on downstairs’. I went downstairs into further emptiness and decided that I should, in the spirit of the day, do what any man would do. So I aimed for the doors and a better phone signal and began to load the venue details into the web on my Blackberry to find out where I should be. After a few minutes of waving phone about and the tedium of a ‘Loading’ message stuck at 10%, I realised this was a highly inefficient means of information retrieval and headed back upstairs to find a person.
Back at the information desk a lovely female East European receptionist looked at my ticket and confirmed that it didn’t say anywhere on it where in the Southbank centre the event was taking place. Meanwhile, the previously blank projector screen had come alive with an image of Jude Kelly introducing the festival – but from where?? The receptionist took up her walkie-talkie and asked a man at the other end whereabouts the first event was taking place. He seemed unfamiliar with the principles of communication and after a couple of non sequiturs she gave up. ‘It’s here somewhere’ she smiled. I did as any woman would do and headed for the door to find another human to ask. A security bloke at the entrance was vaguely attempting communication with a gaggle of people pressing their ‘Being a Man tickets’ to the glass doors, which he was endeavouring to unlock so that they could hear each other. ‘Oh, it’s in the Queen Elizabeth’ he said, helpfully pointing the way. I joined the gang of muttering latecomers and we rushed to the other Southbank venue, where a woman pointed out to the ticket collectors that the tickets did not say where to go and this might be an idea for the future. Turn up, tune in, indicated the eyebrow – onward to the event!
At 4, full of a day’s man-related info we were encouraged to go to random workshop tables to discuss the themes of the day. My table was hosted by a facilitator who wanted us to loosen up physically before we shared with the group. Cue a dozen strangers manfully shaking out (some doing great expellation roars) before we talked about constructs of masculinity. We got on to rites of passage and it was all getting a bit Iron John… A participant recounted how he thought of masculinity in terms of pioneering uncharted territory, and how he ‘fucking hated’ satnav, because it told you where you were going and he wanted to find his own way. His female partner loved it. ‘With a map I can find my own route’ ‘I don’t care if I get lost, I do it my way’ he said. As a woman with no idea of the lie of the land, I felt that this was a good time to ask a person a question. It seemed like a good way to find the route from here …