Riyadh: Saudi Arabia; Tuesday 20th February, 2018
It is around four and a half years since I wrote my last post as Crabbitat; four and a half years in which so much has happened in the world. Looking back over past posts, it is interesting to see how the world has and continues to change. There are constants of course. My job and personal relationships have slowly evolved but much of the structure of these remains exactly as it was.
And yet who would deny the changes that have rattled the world and our assumptions as to how it worked. I had not heard of the Millennial Generation, back then; had no real conception of my own generation (generation Y) as distinct or representing a set of shared values or prospects.
Back in 2013, I probably wouldn’t have defined myself as a feminist but only because it would not have occurred to me to self-identify in gendered terms. Questions of whether women should serve on the front line or have freedom over their own bodies saw me firmly in the ranks of the progressives. And I assumed commonality of voice prevailed.
Now, I find, not only that I am designated a voice of male privilege, but that the feminism I thought I recognised, which spoke of self-empowerment and individual freedom of expression, has morphed into something more belligerent and angry. Women are no longer interested in changing themselves or society but in changing men; me.
By standing still, I have found that I am being overtaken by a world I no longer recognise.
That so-called, ‘No-platforming‘ of people with interesting or controversial views could be contemplated in universities at all, is profoundly shocking to me. That this treatment could be meted out to such people as Margaret Atwood and Germaine Greer, is beyond anything I could have imagined. As a young man, I shared that common self-delusion of the young, that I would help make the world a better place. But even at my most vehement, I would never have imagined denying anyone a voice, still less a pioneer of my chosen cause, whose wisdom I would have professed to hold in high regard.
I would have wanted to defeat the tired arguments of the status quo on the merits of the argument; to defeat them utterly by doing do on their own ground, confronting them with the contradictions of their own logic and assumptions.
All that has changed. And during this time I have often been tempted to write a blog, but haven’t. I have confined my thoughts and fears and moans to my diary and got on and worked. It was not, in the end, my place to change the world. My job, was now to find a place in it and empower my family to thrive in it.
So why now?
The simple answer is, I suppose, that I am in a funk. I am approaching my 41st birthday, and conducting a quick audit of my present and future and find little there to celebrate.
True, resurrecting my blog may not be a natural fit, anymore. The world is full of white middle-class men in early middle age who find that their choices have not led to the sunny uplands of wealth and respect. And my own problems are not so great compared to many. As a white middle-class male, I am, by common consent, among the most blessed people on the planet.
And while this reasoning might often be fueled by a sense of grievance that is, at its worst, self-destructive, and counter to self-empowerment, the analysis itself has a point. I have nothing, materially speaking, to complain about. True, I do not own my own home. But this is true of many people who have not been beneficiaries of parental gratuity, and not just the Millennials. Different life choices would have led me to a different place but they were my choices on the whole; a fact for which I can be grateful.
Yet, whether my voice is welcome or not, writing is and always will be an act of supreme and benign catharsis. Correctly forming thoughts into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into coherent arguments is a process that rationalizes thinking and offers targeted relief to worries. And, increasingly, I need an outlet for my fears and hopes.
I am not really a believer in the male stereotype of bottled up, emotional repression. Such an argument anticipates that all of us are secretly desperate to offload our problems and neurotic diarrhea onto our loved ones or strangers. And for many this is true. Californians have been frequenting psychiatrists for half a Century. Religious orders have championed confession for centuries, albeit as part of a much larger process recognising confession as an expression of guilt, reconciled in repentance, penitence and ultimately rehabilitating the guilty through forgiveness and redemption.
That talking through your problems is seen as a guilt-free streamlining of this approach, is increasingly seen as normal, but this owes more to group-think than empirical evidence.
For almost all of the 7 Billion people on the planet, counselling remains a luxury. The poor have problems too big to solve with mere talk. And while I am not suggesting that limiting male expression is an inherent good, in many cases, men function perfectly with more limited forms of expression. I know this because generally speaking I am one of them.
On the whole we find outlets for worries which are perfectly acceptable for the problems we have. For some these outlets are physical, involving long runs in the park or sessions in the gym, hard work in the garden after a stressful day in the office. For others, a fortnightly trip to the football and some unpleasant language directed at opposition players is enough to allow them to function as productive societal members the rest of the time.
But these actions are displacement. The real benefit of male bonding is in the way it allows men to contextualize their lives through their friendships. It is often not necessary and may in fact, be counter-productive for such friendships to discuss real issues. A close friend of mine once outlined an intimate marital difficulty to me, on an evening out. My male brain went to work rationally solving his problem through analysis of the problem and the array of potential remedies. The only reasonable option open to him, it rapidly became apparent, was separation. He and his partner are now happily married and have two wee children.
My friend, would have hated emotional support of the sort I have been encouraged to offer. He’d have felt patronised and coddled. Instead, he recently advised, he appreciated the practical advise because he already knew he’d disregard it. Rather, he simply wanted to sound out whether the problem was down to something he’d done wrong.
Most problems do not require such levels of self-possession. I have long-standing and dear friends with whom I rarely stray from the narrow intellectual confines of Scottish football, and yet, for whom I would make enormous sacrifices and from whom I have gained immeasurable enrichment. Such friendships are sometimes critiqued as shallow or unhealthy inhibitors of real expression but I think that this misses the point.
It is often enough simply to know that someone else has similar worries, is there if you really need them and experiences the world in similar ways. If this is masculinity, it is not necessarily toxic. On the contrary, like all emotional valves, it is integral to the functioning of the machine.
Moreover, on the rare occasions when I, or other men I know, do emote, such expressions are generally not appreciated or valued by our loved ones. Every single woman in my family has reacted with horror and censure at any hint that our lives might be discussed with friends. What they invariably want is for us to discuss the intimate details of my friends’ lives.
That “Toxic Masculinity” exists, I have no doubt, but it should neither be confused with masculinity per se nor assumed to be the creation of men alone. Clarke Gable and Al Pacino, have portrayed toxic masculinity throughout their careers. Yet both were much-loved by the female audiences of their time precisely for these male behaviours and their simple, reflexive portrayal of them on-screen. It remains to be seen whether this will change. I have my doubts. Women are hard-wired as men are. To imagine that all gender is fluid is to ignore that for the majority of men and women, a solid, grounded relationship resulting in children remains a natural aspiration; a practical and jovial male component a natural palliative to the worries and self-auditing of women.
No woman I know, would appreciate it if I began burdening them with my neuroses or complaints. On the rare occasions that I let these get the better of me; let my face slip, I have immediately regretted it.
Blogging as catharsis
So, why are my traditional male outlets insufficient for me now?
Well, put simply, they are no longer open to me. I work in a country in which alcohol is not sold. My friends are all far away. My family, all women with the exception of my nephew, is, by-and-large, pre-occupied with their own lives and worries. I am viewed, because I have made this my role, as the loving, together, man of the family. My role is set and, if put into a single word, that word would be ‘dependability.’
And there is something else as well. The problems I now find myself encountering, are different from those I have encountered before. I do not have ready answers. My body, my family and the world around us is rapidly changing. And I find that I have no means of exploring and discussing the world, as I find it.
Which is a shame, because I have things, problems, which I need to try to understand. Like most men, I naturally try to understand problems through a process of reverse engineering. I take a problem, disassemble it, and put it back together in order to understand it fully. This applies both to practical and abstract problems. Empathy it is not. But it is not unrelated to it. By fully understanding each of the components of a problem I can gain a greater understanding of its whole, and not just as I initially encounter it.
But while un-clogging a vacuum cleaner is a relatively straightforward problem to address in this way, the problems I now encounter require the understanding, guidance, and wisdom of others, or at the very least, for me to break down and look at my problems from a more nuanced perspective.
And not just trivial problems either, but the stuff of life.
My mother is killing herself, a prisoner to whiskey and denial. As she moves slowly from the world into the false escape of alcoholism, she is taking with her the hard work of my late father. The sole inheritor of two properties, she steadfastly refuses to make financial decisions that would potentially benefit her children and grandchildren and it is likely, given the decisions she is making (or is negligent in not making), that after the legacy has been subdivided between the tax man and equity release, I will be left with a restoration bill that will eat up more than the sum of what is left.
But don’t imagine this is merely a financial complaint. She daily saps the emotional energy of her children and grand children through a selfishness that cannot be fully understood except through the lens of those affected. The self-delusion, the hiding of drink, the defensive aggression when confronted and layered concealing of all this from her friends and loved ones, is all the more awful because I can influence it only marginally, from 3,000 miles away.
Then there is my own partner, who remains unwilling to commit financially to a joint future, and given my mother’s behavior, I can’t say that I blame her. Her fear, I think, is that our savings will be lost if shared. Her position, while not based on evidence, is I believe, understandable. My fear is that I am losing her and am far from sure that it is in her interests to stay.
And then there is my job; a middle manager in a part of the world where I earn enough to support my family financially, but where my life has been in effectively in stasis for 9 years and where my future career and skills continue to stagnate. The money I send home enters a black hole. I know not and have no say in what is done with it. And it is increasingly apparent that my suggestions are not welcomed or valued. In effect, I am simply giving money away.
The rise of the Millennials
And while real life will not relent, neither will the world pause from its constant axis. The whole world sometimes seems to be changing around me. Even without the much heralded coming of AI, a junior colleague daily asserts his youthful certainties as an affront to traditional work ethic or professional conduct. His self-assurance is part youthful arrogance and part individual self-entitlement. Yet, while his is the language of rights and freedom; his self-image that of the lone-progressive in a wilderness of reactionary deadwood, the truth is that, more than individual heroism, he embodies the ordinariness of his generation and its certainties. And like the baby-boomers, his generation have a self-certainty that they will change the world, without necessarily possessing the common vision to make that change in the interests of all.
And, like Baby-boomers, Millennials are apt to forget the universal dicta of Alexis de Tocqueville, that self-sacrifice and self-restraint are the guarantors of freedom.
None of which alters the fact that, for better or ill, Millennials perceive themselves to be different and therefore, by definition, they are. They will then, wrestle the world from their elders. And when they do, they will remake it in their own image, removing what they don’t like of the old world and replacing it with the new.
In itself, this is natural. If trees fall in a storm, the space they leave is filled with renewal. But unlike the baby-boomers, Millennials are often fuelled by grievance rather than optimism. While Bob Dylan gave voice to a generation who believed they would make the world better, Lady Gaga, gives voice to a generation see their ‘positive freedom’ expressed in altogether more introverted, self-orientated ways; ways that have been thwarted, restricted and denied by previous generations.
Gender fluidity is not ‘flower-power’ because it is not concerned with free-love but with self-love.
There is, in short, for young men and women like my colleague, no sense of making the world a better place, merely their own lives. He, and the small coterie of other Millennials I have encountered, sometimes appear to carry grievance and victim-hood like badges of honour, appear not to value intergenerational discourse at all or place any store by the accepted wisdom of understanding the view points of others.
It is, of course, unfair to make my colleague a talisman for an entire generation, but he appears to see no value in learning from past examples. It is year zero and we are simply in his way. If he’d only do some work instead of waiting for us to leave the stage, he might actually be right.
But there is another reason why I am typing this. I am lonely. Not the aching loneliness of boredom or isolation. It is more that, for all that I have friends and family, without physical proximity our relationships become, in the long gaps between meeting, stilted and superficial. The problems and worries and ideas and certainties I hold have no outlet. Friends, while happy to see or hear from me, are busy with their own lives, unable and unwilling to devote time to exploring the world in the peculiar, argumentative and interrogative way that I do.
Perhaps this is evidence of arrested development on my part; proof that while others have learned to accommodate their failures and put ideas to one side in favour of practicalities, I have failed intellectually to leave the student campus; still long for the cut and thrust of debate.
Yet, it is not so much that I require to be heard. In many ways, I would be happy just to have a dialogue; a warm paternal arm around my shoulder in a cozy pub. What I long is not to speak, but to converse; to discuss the issues of the day in a communal forum of differing perspectives. I want to test my thoughts on others and improve them. But like the eternal child, I am left pleading that no one will come out to play.
In this context, a diary, while helpful can be every bit as much of an echo chamber as Facebook or Fox.
Perhaps, so too, will be this blog; an outlet of displacement and an exercise in chewing over problems alone. Perhaps…
Perhaps it deserves to be so: just one more 40 something voice of privilege spouting self-pity to the ether. But I hope not. I am not self-pitious generally. I am, after all, a man, benefitting from the positive self-empowering effects of testosterone and bonhomie. I encounter problems and automatically see solutions, only encountering genuine earth-shattering frustrations when people prefer to live in the problem rather than addressing it.
But, in the final analysis, if Crabbitat helps me understand the world a wee bit better, it really doesn’t matter if the world pays no attention.
There is then, much for me to think about; much for me to work out. And, should you find yourself reading this, then welcome. Feel free to contribute. I will welcome the company.