There is one setting I always enjoy working in.
It’s a place where honesty is key. Where people are able to smell ‘bull shit’ from a 1000 yards and a place where I always leave with more questions than answers.
Some of you may suggest this describes many places, for me it describes working in our prison system. As a former police officer who spent two thirds of his police career working to fill prisons, I’m now committed to working (with others) to empty them. Whilst prison is needed for the some, the same cannot be said for the majority.
Working with men and women in our prisons provides me with the opportunity to work with human beings who often, have a very fixed mind-set, especially one that forces them to define their identity through their offending or background. For some moving on from this place, is often very difficult
Recently, I delivered a series of workshops in four Scottish Prisons, with a particular focus on fatherhood. In a nation of fatherlessness there is a clear need to engage men around this topic.
The men (and some boys) who attended the workshops were dads, new dads, dads to be, present dads and not present dads. The latter I use to describe the men who either had contact (despite their current situation) with their children or not.
We know that many men in prison bring with them, a ‘masculine biography’ which has followed them since childhood. Much of this biography is rooted in violence, as victims, perpetrators and witnesses.
Violence, is the tool of masculinity for many men in these settings. Anything, other than adherence to the prison code is a sign of weakness. It’s clear, the alternative often has devastating consequences in these establishments.
Recent debates on masculinity have centred on the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’, a term that I personally, don’t like.
Why? Because the term itself paints a ‘Pseudo’ norm of masculinity. Whilst there are issues, I admit, it is harmful to keep starting conversations which commence with this notion of toxicity. I would argue that in our efforts to fix this problem we are in many ways maintaining the problem.
I’ve mentioned before the concept of Robert Cialdini’s ‘Big Mistake’ (see http://thepsychreport.com/business-org/how-can-governments-and-businesses-avoid-the-big-mistake/ ) I believe that conversations on masculinity that start from the toxic stance is an example of the big mistake. Starting from a more positive stance, helps men develop healthy notions of masculinity that are shared by the majority.
It’s clear from social science that a majority of men dislike sexist words or behaviours but do not realise that other men feel the same. Similarly, a majority of men would respect another man who intervenes to stop such behaviour but do not think that other men would.
If we don’t speak more positively about men’s feelings and continue to maintain the toxic focus, we will never allow men to learn about the men they work with, go to the pub with or share a cell with. The toxic focus maintains the pseudo norm. Furthermore, it prevents men from intervening and challenging other men when faced with sexist behaviour.
So, what’s the answer? Whilst I agree we still need to speak about the toxic culture that some men follow, we need to find ways to persuade men to follow their own values.
For me, discussion is the tool for this. Many of us do not need to be told the truth (lectured), we just need to be reassured that how we feel, is the truth. Men will never be able to achieve this, if we simply lecture them.
Discussions focused solely on toxic masculinity run a risk of resurrecting the ‘ghosts from the nursery’ that haunt a majority of men in prison. Discussions which focus on their own values are the starting point. Supporting them to develop a notion of personal brand, brings to the surface the wishes and desires they have to be the best fathers or partners they can be.
Again, in a world where fatherlessness is too common surely, we need these conversations to take place.
Throughout all of these workshops the men (and boys) shared their values. They did so loud and proud, communicating to their peers, values of care, love, a desire to be present, to provide, be loyal, motivated, honest, friendship and thoughtfulness.
A more positive starting point supported the men to share who they are, rather than who they think they are, or who society thinks they are.
In my view, introducing the notion of toxic masculinity and male stereotypes as a challenge to the healthy norm is the way to introduce the negative. It supports discussion on many of the issues that we know impact negatively on boys and men.
Across the world boys are flaming out, academically, in relationships and sexually with the opposite sex.
How we discuss masculinity will help our boys to become the men they want and deserve to be. Turning the story into something more positive will invite men to participate in the discussion on some real damaging issues that impact on us all.