Hate seems to be everywhere in public life. This week, Scottish justice minister, Humza Yousaf, floated making misogyny illegal, while in the previous week, the Scottish government launched a high-profile campaign against hate crime.
Look around the world for numerous, state-sponsored examples – the Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, with his rape comment after the killing of Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill, Brazilian presidential frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, and his comments of rape being used as a political weapon, and Donald Trump. Trump's comments on the Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford case have taken his presidency to a new low. After initially saying that Ford was 'a very fine woman,' he soon descended into the gutter at a rally, mocking sexual abuse. He has now dismissed his behaviour as 'a hoax' dreamed up by the Democrats.
The horrible nature of Trump's comments entailed a ruthless calculation about weaponising sexual assault allegations to fire up the Republican base and senators: a politics he relishes and is sadly well-equipped for. It is a wake-up call for America, showing the backlash of some to the #MeToo movement and the watershed change it was meant to bring in respecting victims and survivors.
More than politics is at work in this and other cases. It is about the dynamics of power, gender and the changing roles of men and women – and how different men and women understand and interpret this. A key dimension is toxic masculinity: angry, abusive men, embodying misogyny, and excusing violence and abuse – all of which Trump is a leading advocate of. Toxic masculinity comes in many forms as the writer and rapper Loki points out: 'Not all toxic masculinity is the same, so it requires a context-specific approach to tackle. Male prisons and Trump's White House are both toxic but in different ways.'
The psychologist and ACES advocate, Suzanne Zeedyk, takes the view: 'Do I think toxic masculinity exists? Without a doubt. Am I worried about its impact on our society? Absolutely. Our culture has traditionally associated and defined masculinity as being disconnected from tender emotions. Such disconnection is bad for human biology.'
The UK and Scotland are not immune from this. Boris Johnson has shown such attitudes in spades, including recently when he compared Theresa May's Brexit offer to a 'suicide vest,' and before that compared Muslim women wearing burkas to 'letterboxes' and 'bank-robbers.'
In Scotland, there has long been concern about certain manifestations of masculinity and the damage it can do to women, children, and men themselves. We happen to live in a society blighted by poverty, inequality and broken lives, with the worst life expectancy of Western Europe – something which is worse in men – and the worst drug deaths in all
of Europe – 934 in the last year.
Sometimes the way many talk about Scottish men has too obvious a tartan trope – invoking damaged childhoods, abusive, alcoholic fathers, and presenting a pathologised, even clichéd story, of men in Scotland – which is far removed from its variety and different experiences. This is seen in celebrity autobiographies, such as Alan Cumming's, or in many of the films of Peter Mullan, where a dysfunctional, angst-ridden father and problematic childhood is the basis for wanting to change and be a different man.
These accounts should not be dismissed; they are powerful and cathartic. But they are only one strand and play into a whole host of powerful Scottish caricatures about drink, emotion and violence. They only show a small part of the picture. And they also tend to present a rather one-dimensional portrayal of the forms of damaging behaviour, whereas in everyday life it comes in many colours and forms, some of which give the pretence of being charming or charismatic.
We can see many current examples of such problems in Scotland. Take the Alex Salmond controversy. It has unveiled a whole strand of opinion prepared to – as in the Brett Kavanaugh case – undermine the accusers, claiming that it has all been created by the mainstream media, and even stating their belief in the complete innocence of Salmond because he is 'a good man.' A critical point in this episode will come in the New Year when this case comes before the Court of Session – and how, in particular, a swathe of pro-independence opinion reacts.
What runs through toxic masculinity in all its forms is the male as the one in power or with a public voice; acting as a bully, often (but not only) against women; taking no responsibility or accountability for their behaviour or actions, and with no balance. Men who behave like this are allowed to say anything to win and make their point against opponents, but any criticism causes them and their supporters to significantly over-react.
Toxic masculinity is a form of regression, and even retreat, from the modern world, putting up a protective barrier of rage and indignation, and hurling abuse at others. It is a form of adult-child behaviour – and not behaviour appropriate for grown men. It often attempts to get round its continual abusive language by adopting the cloak of permanent opposition and victimhood: think Trump railing against 'fake news,' or Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – two very privileged men – charging that 'the establishment' is blocking Brexit. This approach avoids having to accept the power and responsibility that comes with their male privilege, and allows them to use this to maintain their position, while deflecting any criticism.
How do we begin to challenge such a grotesque situation, one where abusive comments, behaviour and a language of hate is tolerated? It is obvious that across the West – in Scotland, the UK, the US and elsewhere – a bitterly divided politics allows an anything-goes approach by the most passionate, vociferous supporters – whether it is US Republicans, Corbynistas, pro- or anti-independence supporters, Islamophobes, etc.
But if our politics and public life has to change, so does our society and what we think are appropriate male and female roles, and how we relate to each other. All across the West, huge societal changes have happened in the economy which have displaced millions of traditional men, reduced their social importance and privilege, and the status that gave them in society. There is loss, confusion, and even anger, which needs to be listened to and understood, otherwise it will become utilised by the populist, xenophobic hatemongers of the Right.
Scotland is, in these respects, not that different. Indeed, some of our changes over the last couple of decades have been even more far-reaching and transformative: from an economy, public life and politics that was nearly entirely male-dominated, to one much more feminised. John Carnochan, who set up the pioneering Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), first in Glasgow and Strathclyde, and who was then given a national role, thinks that what it means to be a man, and a good man, has become more complicated: 'For many there is an absence of male role-models and no right of passage from boy to man, therefore they have to shape their own values and behaviours, and sometimes their constructs are corrosive and self destructive.'
James Docherty, who works for the VRU, worries about the judgementality in 'toxic masculinity,' and thinks there is a major problem: 'Masculinity is not toxic, the trauma and stress of suppressing feelings and emotion is. We live in a culture where men have been in emotional retreat since childhood. And when they reach adulthood we blame them for it, the very word "toxic masculinity" infers there is something wrong with men, that you are flawed, or defective as a human being.'
Breaking out of this dysfunctional spiral isn't going to be easy. Some have found a receptive audience for hatred and for articulating demeaning, destructive attitudes, which harm others and show no respect for people who have opposing views. In this, the US and the Trump presidency is a warning from the future: a warning of how things could regress and get even worse, and a warning to us here of what might happen if we choose to remain silent and collude with the haters.
Two final thoughts. The first from Suzanne Zeedyk. We have to aid a culture about bringing up our children that allows for emotional intelligence and insight. This means having a wider understanding and debate about education, its culture and role in society, than that currently experienced. Zeedyk aspires, as someone who works with educationalists and young people every day, to a society where 'we create a culture where all
emotions of all
children are valid and affirmed and comforted. Then we will have boys and girls, men and women, who can cope with the full range of human emotions.'
This is an uplifting clarion call, but we need even more. One of the drivers of angry, abusive men is that they can feel their power slip away and can't comprehend a way of expressing it, other than belittling and savaging others. They are, across the West, engaged in a last-ditch battle to save male privilege and patriarchy. The inspiring feminist and pro-democracy campaigner, Mona Eltahawy, has stated that the defeat of patriarchy involves 'destroying the straitjacket definition of masculinity that it imposes in men,' and that it is the role of feminists to 'defy, disobey [and] disrupt' it.
This might seem too revolutionary for some, but we have lived through a counter-revolution in recent decades that has turned the world upside down, and the turbulence is only going to magnify. The language of violence we see from too many men, from those in positions of power to those who feel marginalised and left behind by wider societal change, has to be taken on and defeated. To do otherwise will – in Scotland, the UK and elsewhere – diminish and hurt all of us.
We have to start talking about what it is to be a good man, bringing up our children, and standing up to the abusers of all types. Do we really want the present to be remembered as the age of hate, and a culture shaped and harmed by the hatemongers? Silence is not an option for any of us.