In Defence of Manning Up

Last Sunday was International Men’s Day, an event which has objectives including, in the organisers’ words, “a focus on men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models.”

When you consider that 76% of suicides in the UK are male, the worth of such an occasion becomes clear.

And of course, it generates social media discourse. Here’s a tweet that caught my eye, from YouTuber and at least partially reformed SJW, Laci Green:

Laci comes across as genuine and considerate, but her opinion–entirely well-intentioned though it no doubt is–didn’t sit entirely comfortably with me.

It put me in mind of comments made by author Matt Haig. Matt tweets a lot, and I disagree with pretty much everything he espouses when he’s talking politics, but let’s leave his celeb-leftism aside. He also talks about his own struggles with mental health, and has strong opinions about how we should approach such issues, and that’s fair enough. Here’s an idea of where he’s coming from:

Like Laci, he’s dismissive of the notion that men going through hard times should be tough and deal with problems stoically. As he puts it succinctly, and somewhat provocatively (I’ve been provoked at least), “never man up”.

Let me be clear, I’m not dismissing this approach. I think it has its uses.

Sometimes.

Sometimes it’s good to let it all out. Sometimes it’s good to talk. Sometimes it’s good to be emotional and honest.

But let me stress that word again: sometimes. And for some people.

Because here’s another thing. There’s integrity in not revealing every thought, internal twitch, and emotional shift. There’s honesty and contentment in knowing that some things need only be known by you and you alone. And there’s a profound sense of empowerment to be found in, yes, dealing with it. Because when you’ve done that just once, you know that the personal capability exists to do it again.

And the funny thing is, that if you know you have the capability to deal with emotional distress, then you’re less likely to feel emotional distress. I can think of few more valuable characteristics to instill than resilience.

But again, I don’t mean to write off what Matt has to say on these issues. What works for him is what works for him, and will no doubt be effective for others too.

Where I would have stronger criticism though, is toward his line that “toxic masculine values poison inwards as well as outwards”. In fact, I think this idea that masculine values are linked with toxicity is a very damaging one. Some people are more masculine, others are more feminine, and both are fine. Isn’t the liberal ideal supposed to be that we let people be who they are, and express themselves as they wish?

And is it really helpful to call people dickheads because they tell people to man up? After all, we say man up for a reason. Manning up is shorthand, meaning to draw on all your inner resources, stand tall, and refuse to be beaten by circumstance. Doesn’t that sound good? In moments of difficulty, wouldn’t that be a great well from which to be able to draw?

It’s seems to me that pushing this toxic masculinity idea on to boys and young men–saying, essentially, that their inherent nature is malign–is somewhat callous. And it’s also untrue. What have traditionally been portrayed as masculine characteristics–bravery, independence, competitiveness–are clearly of great social value (and of course, are in absolutely no way limited to men, and nor do all men display them).

The other thing I’d stress is the necessity to treat anyone who needs support as an individual. It’s stating the obvious, but while some people need a shoulder to cry on, others need a kick up the arse. And probably, a lot of people need both, delivered at timely moments. A shoulder offered in sympathy, but never sentimentality. A foot to the backside which registers, but is not cruel.

Compassion is good, but only when it’s measured and rationed, and can be readily substituted for a strong word and a push in the right direction.

Here are the thoughts of Sir Alex Ferguson, an extraordinary leader who coached men and boys at Manchester United for 26 years, making it the most successful club in England. A man renowned for his acute ability to foster discipline, grit, and cohesion, and who could overclock players to the absolute peak of their capabilities.

No one likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when
I could. For a player—for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing “Well done.” Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.

At the same time, in the dressing room, you need to point out mistakes when players don’t meet expectations. That is when reprimands are important.
I would do it right after the game. I wouldn’t wait until Monday. I’d do it, and it was finished. I was on to the next match. There is no point in 
criticising a player forever.

That might seem a little off topic, but I think his philosophy is applicable to many situations.

Encouragement, in straightforward terms. Criticism, where appropriate. And an ability to wrap up and package what has been worked through, and then look forward. It’s incredibly constructive, and the sense I get from Ferguson’s words is of momentum, balance, and focusing on the road ahead.

Here’s one more quote from Sir Alex. Perhaps it seems even more off topic, but it communicates something relevant–that if you press out imperfections, you might also remove something valuable.

One of my players has been sent off several times. He will do something if he gets the chance – even in training. Can I take it out of him? No. Would I want to take it out of him? No. If you take the aggression out of him, he is not himself. So you have to accept that there is a certain flaw that is counterbalanced by all the great things he can do.

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