The internet, increased automation, and permission to express emotion, has in one generation, changed life radically for us says Richard Fitzpatrick
BEING a man ain’t easy — that was the suggestion to a panel discussion at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea Book Festival this weekend. And by contrast, perhaps, women have had more certainty for the last 40 years.
With the advent of feminism, they’ve been striding towards equality. But some men have felt “unmanned”. They’ve been left “confused” and “angry” by the loss of their dominance.
The ‘Being a Man’ symposium, which explored themes of race, war and the tribal nature of sport, asked where this unmooring had left modern man.
Much of it has become office-based and intangible. It used to be that men worked with their hands. Men grew things, made things. Now, they buy them. Men used to fix things; now, those things are replaced or someone else is called to repair them.
“The economy we’ve constructed for ourselves didn’t just happen. It’s a construct,” says panellist Damian Barr, author of Maggie & Me, a memoir about growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
“We’ve automated things, so routine, dangerous jobs are done by robots or we’ve hived them off to countries who are poorer than us, so we don’t have to think about it. We’ve created a situation where there are idle hands. It’s a question for men and women.
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“There are many more women participating in the workforce and that is a really positive thing. They’re not taking men’s jobs. They’re not squatting in the boardroom having hen nights.
“They are being productive, powerful members of our economy. That is challenging for men, but I don’t think feminism is the biggest challenge for men in the workplace. Automation is, and greedy overlords are a challenge to greedy men and women equally.”
The internet, and how it has facilitated addictions, such as gambling and pornography, has also radically changed life for men, according to one of the speakers.
“The thing about the internet, which is a recent development, is that there are so many different, possible sexual stimuli there that can cause arousal and link that arousal to a range of often horrible things, whether it be children or fetishes, or things like that,” said the panel’s chair, Dr Ian Robertson, professor of psychology, Trinity College Dublin.
“People can become a prisoner of their sexual arousal and gambling is very similar, because if you repeat a thing often enough, it develops its own momentum. It gets wired into the brain.
“It becomes a habit that’s very difficult to break. The internet has greatly increased the capacity for that kind of stuff to happen.
“It used to be that men had to go down the road and go to the top shelf, embarrassed in their newsagent, and buy a magazine, and there would be limits in most shops about what could be in these magazines. Now, there are no such limits. The two biggest realms of activity on the internet are sex and gambling. With all of these things, the more exposure, the greater the chance some of these abnormal and habitual behaviours will be set up.”
Fatherhood has also changed in a generation.
Same-sex marriages have become more socially accepted, although men’s parenting skills are still questioned.
Colm O’Gorman, one of the panellists and the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, is the gay father of two children. He cites a comment made recently during the marriage-equality debate.
“I heard a bishop on an RTÉ radio programme incredulously asking how could a man talk to a 16-year-old girl about her development and her femininity, by which I took it that he meant things like sexuality and relationships.
“That kind of silly, vacuous stuff, about fatherhood and men and fathers and their relationship with their daughters, just enrages me. It’s the most belittling and insulting thing that could be said about men, regardless of whether a father happens to be a father who is gay or who is married to a woman and is parenting their children together.”
O’Gorman says men have, however, made big strides in one area — in expressing their feelings. He says that it was only in the final months before his father died, from a long illness in 1995, that his father told him how much he loved him.
“When I saw the impact that had on him and I imagined what that might have been like for me — the idea of not being able to tell the people I love, ‘I love them,’ of not being allowed to hug and cherish and tell my kids how much I adore them — to me seems crippling, and it was for him.
“That was the case for a lot of the last generation of Irish men — they were terribly constrained. It’s a wonderful time, on that level, to be alive and to be a man,” O’Gorman said.
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