Features Australia

Boys and the biff

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

Readers might be surprised to learn that Dr Peter Miller and his team of eager researchers at Deakin University are working around the clock to discover why men get into fights in bars. Their paper entitled ‘Alcohol, masculinity, honour and male barroom aggression in an Australian sample’ should not be dismissed as just another taxpayer-funded exercise in proving the bleeding obvious.

I’m sure that most of us could hazard some guesses as to why fights are more likely to break out between young drunk men in bars than, say, elderly Asian women at a Tuesday afternoon mahjong social. Dutch courage is as old as antiquity. Recall Ariel’s words to Prospero in The Tempest: ‘they were red hot with drinking; so full of valour they smote the air…’.

Let’s not forget that a bar on a Saturday night is a biological ecosystem where both sexes employ strategies which promote their chances of mating. In this environmental niche, the ‘ugly’, ‘knuckle-dragging’ character traits that researchers use to define masculinity flourish because these crude proxies for reproductive fitness are reliably rewarded with sex for the men who put on the best display.

The consumption of alcohol acts to reduce inhibitions so that the mating ‘game’ is easier to play. Indeed, it might be more ‘enlightened’ for young men to meet their prospective ladies at Bible study, Zumba, or philosophy club, but our culture is unlikely to change drastically any time soon, re-education and lock-out laws notwithstanding.


But it is the researchers’ deconstruction of ‘masculinity’, shared by many in the social sciences, that deserves closer scrutiny. In keeping with a fashionable view of manhood, they propose that the core elements leading to violence include aggression, impulsivity, narcissism, risk-taking, being a ‘playboy’, seeking power over women and a dislike or fear of homosexuals. Engaging in team sports or being a tradesman are red flags for aggression too, apparently. If we are playing the crude generalisation game, corresponding character traits that define the ‘feminine’ could include bitchiness, moodiness, solipsism, coquettishness, novelty-seeking, manipulativeness and dislike or fear of ‘nice guys’. However this assessment is as manifestly unfair and stigmatising as the caricature of masculinity advanced in contemporary ‘science’.

Each of these demonised facets of masculinity has a positive counterpart. For example – strength, decisiveness, confidence, daring, charisma, leadership and romanticism are masculine virtues, but they merit little to no discussion because they don’t conform to the narrative that we are somehow damaged by dint of just being men. In a feat of subversive genius, the term masculinity, even without the prefixes ‘toxic’, or ‘traditional’, has been turned into a pejorative; but only insofar as it pertains to men. In keeping with the trend of trying to over-write our programming, women are being encouraged to fight, compete and behave like men and to adopt their most masculine characteristics. What’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander it seems.

Earlier this year the debate about masculinity was renewed when American Psychological Association, whose membership is overwhelmingly female, published their first ever guidelines for practice with men and boys.

Considering that their corresponding guidelines for woman and girls were released a full decade earlier, a cynical view might be that the ‘male’ version was an afterthought to atone for years of neglect by the profession. After all, the physical and psychological health of men and boys has taken a back seat to that of the ‘weaker sex’ despite decades of worsening health outcomes. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide and are 70 per cent likelier to be homicide victims. Boys are falling behind in terms of educational attainment and are disproportionately medicated for ADHD. Skyrocketing rates of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and workplace injuries have been largely ignored by a professional organisation so hamstrung by PC that it even expressed guilt about releasing its own publication. In an accompanying summary, Stephanie Pappas of the APA stated that the guidelines ‘… may seem unnecessary. For decades, psychology focused on men (particularly white men) to the exclusion of others’.

This assertion may have been true a century ago, but is patently absurd today. The APA’s assessment of what ails men reads as condescension and misandry dressed up as concern.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in the New York Times, the central flawed assumption of the APA view is that sex phenotypes, and masculinity specifically, are purely social constructs (they are silent on the role of testosterone) imposed upon the blank slate of the psyche by cultural forces. For this reason it is the job of ‘society’ – teachers, psychologists and politicians – to train men to be more ‘in touch with their feelings’ and to be less masculine. Never have Western men been more emotionally incontinent and yet suicide rates are still climbing. Traditional virtues of stoicism, competitiveness and dominance are now considered to be the core pathologies – even if they helped us to win wars, build cultures, create prosperity, conquer the elements and protect the weak.

I agree that men are not just slaves to testosterone and nor should they be. Social conditioning in childhood can have powerful effects in promoting positive masculine attributes, and it is the role of the father that is the key to healthy male development. Amidst pages of waffle dealing with ‘intersectionality’, ‘privilege’ and ‘sexism’, the APA report does stress the importance of fatherhood. One wonders if this is too little too late. Best-selling author Dr Warren Farrell has outlined in his book The Boy Crisis the importance of rough and tumble play with a stronger paternal opponent who can set physical boundaries. This primal and deceptively simple interaction is vital in helping boys to develop healthy relationships, respect authority, delay gratification and avoid addictions. Once an individual has internalised these attributes, drunken bar fights will necessarily diminish. We must allow men to remain unapologetically masculine in a world where many are made to feel marginalised and damaged. Psychology has yet to learn this lesson.

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