By Alan Grant
Today is International Men’s Day. Since 1999, 19 November has been set aside for raising awareness of the positive contribution that men make to society and for confronting the difficulties that we face as men in the modern world. In previous years, as well as this year, International Men’s Day has focused on highlighting problems such as the frighteningly high male suicide rate, scarily low life expectancy, and troubling rates of cancer, heart disease, and poor mental health faced by men. In general, there is a particularly pleasing balance of emboldening and melancholy elements to International Men’s Day; it’s an occasion that glories in what is great about men and masculinity and also cautions against the complacency that so often occludes the issues men face.
Each year, International Men’s Day adopts a different theme with this year’s being ‘Positive Male Role Models’ – a great idea, there’s no doubt about that, but one that, in my view, requires clarification in order to form the kernel of an important conversation about what it means to be a man in 2018. This is necessary because, like it or not, the role assigned by and purpose ascribed to being a man has never been less clear than it is today.
As uncomfortable as it may be for some men (and some of those who criticise us) to admit – the old rules of men and masculinity no longer apply. As recently as one or two generations ago, the lives of men were defined by two main forces – privilege and obligation. We were the breadwinners, often the only earners in a home, and therefore carried the responsibility for supporting our families in material terms. For men of my grandfather’s generation, and for all previous generations, this was simply what was expected of them. These men were expected to grow up quickly and always be the most adult person in the house. This meant being, among other things, unemotional, cool, calm, collected, and more than a little detached. In return for this herculean effort, they were granted the privilege of being deferred to first in all instances. Men, particularly heterosexual, white, married men were the default in society and all questions, issues, and solutions were posed to them and framed around them. This balance of obligation and privilege was what defined the masculine experience for generations.
However, this framework increasingly no longer applies and while it is certainly no bad thing that men are no longer always the assumed default in society on many issues and are now less likely to be encumbered with obligations and duties that we do not take on freely; there are, as always, unintended consequences. The relaxation of the strictly constructed path of privilege and obligation has resulted in, in my view, a generation of men who are increasingly free but increasingly lack in structure in our lives. Modern man is, increasingly, a prisoner to option paralysis caused by his emancipation from the breadwinner and head of household role. Put simply, while we’re more free to be ourselves than ever before, it comes at the cost of a diminished sense of what it means to be a man, which, for many men, is an important part of our identities.
This is why this year’s International Men’s Day theme is so important. In a world in which men have lost much of the structure that gave meaning to the lives of our predecessors, that of the privilege/obligation dichotomy, it is more important than ever to find positive male role models in whatever shape they can be found. Some men, myself included, are fortunate enough to have fathers and grandfathers, as well as bosses, friends, and others in our lives, from whom we can draw inspiration and whose achievements we can emulate but some blokes don’t have this and need to look further afield – to politicians, writers, actors, sports people, teachers, doctors, and other men who inspire that thought that goes through a man’s mind when they find a role model – “man, I’d like to be more like him”. We need to help them with this as much as we can.
Role models have always been important to what it means to be a man. We look to our elders and superiors for inspiration and guidance. It was important when we had the structure of privilege and obligation and will become even more important as the markers of our place in society continue to change and become less defined. For this reason, it is pleasing to see the organisers of International Men’s Day taking the initiative on this important subject. Why not celebrate by telling the male role models in your life how important they are to you? Go on – you’ll make their day.