A gender in crisis


Sept 2012 – A 26 year old Anglo-American Hollywood actor beats and strangles his landlady to death, kills her cat, fights with neighbours, then allegedly jumps to his death

Dec 2012 – A 23 year old talented African-American footballer shoots dead the mother of his 3 month old daughter in their home, then drives to his team headquarters where he shoots himself in front of his coach and team manager

Dec 2012 – a 38 year old Zimbabwean living in the US shoots dead his wife and mother of his 3 children after an argument, before failing a suicide attempt with the same gun, then handing himself over to the police

Dec 2012 – a 20 year old Anglo-American shoots dead his mother before driving off to the primary school at which she taught and shooting dead 20 children, 6 teachers, then himself

Dec 2012 – 6 Indian men aged 17-33 including 2 brothers, beat, gang rape and sodomise a 23 year old physiotherapy student and beat her male companion, in a moving bus in New Delhi; the girl later dies of her injuries


So I could lament about what a mad bad place America is, yet not all of these events involved Americans or took place in the Land of the Free and the Fiscal Cliff. I could add my voice to the plea for tightened gun control except that not all these events involved guns. I could despair about the relentless violence against women and children usually at the hands of men they know, and that I will certainly do…in another blog.

I could also join the cry of the tragedy of the young black male, but not all these events involved young black men. Instead what these events, and scores others that make it only as far as the local news, or perhaps, the neighbourhood talk have got me thinking long and hard about again is the precarious position in which young men, the world over, lie in their own societies. Take away the drug misuse, malfunctional relationships, mental illness, family crises, and what we have here, are some pretty atrocious acts being carried out by the gender that traditionally protects and guards exactly its victims. And I think here-in lies the source of this tragedy.

It seems as if that quite rapidly in just a generation or 2, a significant proportion of the male population seems to have lost sight of where they stand and what role they hold in a functional society. Up until the last century, man’s role was clearly to protect, defend and provide. One way to meet these roles was to go to war, and indeed there were a steady stream of battles available to him to display his prowess. When war was done, it was perfectly acceptable for him and for woman to have him come home, put his feet up and be looked after until he was off to war again. It mattered not so much if he suffered the mental and physical scars of years of brutality and that he wasn’t quite providing for the family – his woman had after all been able to hold the fort in his absence. No, any shortcomings could be forgiven as he had done a noble thing and fulfilled clearly defined roles.

But the world starts changing, the wars dry up; though different ones spring up, they do not come with the accolades associated with the battle for freedom. The family structure changes dramatically such that in some societies more than half of households are run by a single woman; in a rapidly growing proportion of the other half, women are the main breadwinners. But actually, women have always run the home, but, at least the man was there and even though the male and female offspring may not have interacted with him much, a father was around and provided; now – there is no man…period. The world opens up, technology advances, economies shift and a myriad of after effects deluge upon us.

Now we all get to see how the other side lives. For many from the East, we get to go live where the other side lives. But the other side is not as friendly to the man of colour as they are to the woman of colour. Let me throw in a couple other aspects that I see in my own society. There is the African male’s general inability to adjust from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond that has to swish his tail in a different direction to be a big fish again. There is the fact that his woman is valued more by this society than he is, and with her voice now being heard, may take the opportunity to tell him so, perhaps when he is not coping so well with his ‘new found status’. Throw in social isolation. And perhaps between the 2 of them, education (and I don’t mean just the MD, MSc and PhD, but real knowledge) and exposure being a challenge, expectations do a u-turn, and for the man who is of weak heart and mind, well, that man can do bad things.

Similar problems arise even for he who does not emigrate. Access to world beyond his village, town or city is at his fingertips, and the disparity he sees between his status and his neighbours’ both local and global are no longer acceptable. Many are not equipped with what it takes to change that status, nor do they live in a society that allows status to change so easily. Take the case of the Indian gang rapists. They lived in one of the many sprawling communities that shoot up outside every metropolis on the sub-continent, as there is a relentless march from rural villages to get a piece of that which glitters in urban cities.  They don’t quite get as far as the city though, but instead end up in a no man’s land where the old ways clash with the new, riches now clearly visible, remain out of reach, and nothing they were ever taught, or not taught as the case may be, prepared them for this state of play. At the same time, many Indian women, with their new found freedoms take it all pretty much in their stride, just like the woman that was raped; she too came from one of these villages, but she made it to the city. For the man who is of weak heart and mind, well…we know how horrifically and tragically the story ended.

One can argue that these sort of social shifts are just more of what has taken place since the dawn of man. But I wonder if the speed and nature in which it has happened in the last 2 centuries, has been at a pace and in a manner never experienced before. One can also argue that men have actually always been the ‘fairer’ sex. I remember on my psychiatry attachment in medical school way back when, one of the first things we were taught was that young men aged 20 s’thing to 40 s’thing had the highest suicide rate of all social groups; and this was citing work going back at least 20 years previously – i.e. the ‘70s. The proof was seemingly there: attending tutorials at the local psychiatric unit over a 4-month period, lo and behold, the significant proportion of patients was young men between the ages of late teens to 40s.

The world order is evolving in more ways than one and in not being able to keep up, we are hurtling towards a social disaster. When living in the North of England at the just over 10 years ago, I came across another example of this new world order. Historically this region was part of the coal mining industry. But in the early 1980’s mining ground to a halt, leaving towns destitute, poverty rising and their male members unemployed…and seemingly unemployable. For several generations, they had followed each other into the industry; when it collapsed, there was nothing else for the menfolk to do. There was no concept that you could be anything else but a miner. By the ‘90s you had a generation of young men who were directionless: their purpose and role in society was non-existent and no one had thought to prepare them for this eventuality. Alongside a lack of formal education, the welfare state and poverty and you have fertile ground for men (and of course women too) to start behaving badly.

In my mind and without a doubt, the contributory factors to the male situation are multifactorial, and of course it would take a multitude of real and self-styled social anthropologists to debate and even begin to make sense of the whole issue. I humbly do not in anyway purport to have presented the full argument. But I think we would agree that Houston we do indeed have a problem here. The UK and US often give the impression that, the crisis of young males is solely within the Black community, but actually to confine this ‘chat’ to one social group does society at large a great disservice by leaving no room to cast the net of fruitful debate and productive solutions far and wide.

Of course my examples of men behaving badly above could be argued to be just a part of the media’s predilection for the salacious and the malicious; regardless, these events are not fictitious. Indeed not all men, and not just men, are violent; women certainly do behave badly too (another subject, another blog).  At the very least our global society is faced with the malady of chronic underachievement by a significant proportion of young men. Only 3 weeks ago the UK Universities Minister David Willetts called for universities to effectively use affirmative action to increase enrolment of working class young white men into universities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jan/03/universities-working-class-white-boys). In 2012 only 30% of male school leavers applied to university compared to 40% of girls leaving school. The decline has been steady for years. Male underachievement is at a peak.

The above article rightly points to ‘the culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system, which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning’. I add to this ‘a decades-old trend of Godlessness in schools and society’, and ‘a decades-old trend of a shift in family structure’. I am no fervent religious advocate by any means, but in recent years as I have started to reaffirm my Christian faith, my eyes have opened to the missed opportunity in using the Christian principles to at the very least, compensate for the change in family structure. I am also privy to the many opportunities that the Church has missed to provide a relevant refuge for young men and indeed young people in turmoil. And when I refer to a shift in family structure, I in no way purport that the traditional nuclear family is the only way to raise children. Ultimately though, boys need a relevant role model for them, and a woman alone cannot provide that. But society needs to adapt to the changing family structure a bit quicker than we are now – cue the Church – because this trend won’t reverse anytime soon. We must find ways of teaching and supporting adults on how in spite of the dissolution of a relationship, effective ‘two-parenting’ can still flourish to nourish the male child especially. Some couples work hard and succeed at this, and they are a starting point for this lesson.

Even though I write this from my comfortable ‘2-parent middle class, privately educated African-chick-with-a-healthy-dose-of Caribbean-in the diaspora, raised in the good ole days’ seat, I am in no way sitting pretty. I have a son who will become a young man. His father and I scrutinize every decision we make and how it affects him and we like to think we decide wisely, for his benefit. But as he grows and his person develops, I, from my point of view as a mother, am ever more conscious as to how I am raising this young man to be. In joining the crowd and excusing some of his rowdiness, ‘lip’ and the like by saying, ‘oh he’s a boy’ am I giving him the message that because of his gender, some slackness is OK? Am I teaching him that really he can’t help being less than his best because he is a boy? By letting some misdemeanor by without a consequence, am I teaching him that he has no responsibility for his actions? By resorting to comparing him to his female cousin-sister when our agendas clash, am I giving him an inferiority complex already? How do I allow him to develop his maleness but not at the expense of his femaleness? The questioning goes on and on, and whilst it may to some seem as overly anxious and symptomatic of the overly read westernized middle class working mother, there is no denying one thing. Ultimately as male and female guardians of boys in this era, its imperative that we are conscious of the challenges they will face as they leave our protective arms. Some of us have even experienced the fallout of clashing with these challenges. This is all the impetus we need to collectively lay the foundations for our boys rise to the occasion. There is a saying that goes something like this – ‘in order to get something different, you need to do something different’; and there is evidence of this collective ‘do something different approach certainly in my neck of Greater London anyway. Many 30 and 40 s’things of African and Caribbean descent, no longer rely on the state system to educate their sons and by hook or crook opt for grammar or independent education. And it is not just the Dianne Abbotts of this world doing this (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/diane-abbott-i-sent-my-son-to-private-230293).  And maybe David Willetts should not have been so heavily criticized for his ‘affirmative action for white boys’ rally call. Above all though, it does not just boil down to the decisions we make about what programmes our boys are enrolled in, but with the programming we install in them, first of all, at home.


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