Columns

Our crisis of manhood

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, March 04, 2014    

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BEYOND the inadequacy of our political leadership and historic lack of economic growth, native wisdom and research suggest a relationship between deviance in our culture and a misplaced sense of what manhood means. It makes sense then, that whether we are talking about unrestrained reproduction, a mushrooming industry of beggars, murders and mayhem, the solution lies not in cursing the symptoms, or in meaningless symbolism, but in critically examining, destroying, or refashioning the structure that produces them.

My search for a broader perspective on how we define manhood turned up an article online, titled 'What it means to be a Jamaican man'. It humorously portrays manhood as strength and virility; promiscuity or philandering, including having as many children as possible with multiple partners; an obsessive love of some form of sport; an almost irrational affinity to one's high school; extreme homophobia; and an aversion to work or spending time at home.

"I just don't find this funny at all, at all," said one reader in the comments following. "Especially, since my father fits all those requirements, except that he didn't go to high school and I don't know of him loving any sport. It's not easy living with somebody like this, or looking in the mirror and recognising that you resemble somebody like this."

While I am entirely cognisant of the fact that there are many perfectly well-evolved and high-functioning Jamaican males -- including you reading this and already stewing at the affront to you and all upstanding men -- my overall sense of how the culture views manhood isn't too far removed from the article, tongue in cheek though it may appear. In addition, I take to heart the suggestion of one Jamaican male who argues that the "erect penis is the only valid and enduring symbol of Jamaican masculinity. Dancehall plays a role; the male sex organ is likened to a weapon to kill and maim his female prey."

Like it or not, sex and extreme aggression, taken together or separately, feature prominently in how we define manhood.

Against the background of our increasingly bizarre criminal environment, real and intelligent exploration of the subject is surprisingly absent from the discourse. Instead, there is an almost studied determination to ignore the root causes of our problems and curse the symptoms instead.

Regardless of how Minister of National Security Peter Bunting and Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington position the issue, the sense that we are spiralling out of control is potent -- because we are. The unprecedented joint statement from Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, Prime Minister Portia Simpson and Opposition Leader Andrew Holness reflects this.

I am loath to look at the way my dog looks at the fire hydrant, but we all know it will have zero effect on violent crime. The men who rape little girls, behead pregnant women and gouge out other men's eyes do not have sensitivity around the Lenten season.

Men perpetrate 90 per cent of the world's homicides. A 2007 US research by the Department of Justice found that 75.6 per cent of all offenders were male, and only 20.1 per cent were female. In the remaining cases, the gender of the offenders could not be ascertained. Overall, men commit violent crimes more than three times as often as women.

Similarly disaggregated by gender, our situation probably looks the same or worse, plus our violent crime rates are among the highest in the world. This means that our men are committing crimes in excess of most other societies. And, it means that whatever the reason men are more prone to violent behaviour than women, it is aggravated in our culture. To arrive at any real solutions, we must identify those negative cultural markers and address them.

James Garbarino PhD, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago, who studies the causes of violent behaviour in children, argues that an over-exaggerated, macho definition of masculinity correlates with higher levels of deviant behaviour. Many of the young men he interviewed in the jails, he reports, place an unhealthy premium on this version of manhood.

Those observations are eclipsed and explicated by Professor Errol Miller in his brilliant work Men at Risk (1991), in which he traces historical changes that have left men increasingly marginalised and unable to function within the parameters of what constitutes manhood in a patriarchal society. While patriarchy is redundant in a real sense, much of our values are grounded in such an outmoded notion of power relationships based on gender, race, class, and skin colour. Where the society is increasingly unable to accommodate these meanings, there is growing dissonance and disjuncture -- conflict, disharmony, discord, discomfort, and disconnections.

Alcohol abuse; retreat into the Rastafarian/dread subculture which insists on traditional patriarchal values in male/female relationships; the formation of urban territorial gangs; establishment of a network of drug trafficking and abuse; and unorganised and random violence are some of the ways in which men respond to the changes, argues Miller, whose solution is soundly revolutionary.

"Abandon patriarchy," he says, and "replace it with notions of humanity that affirm the personhood of all humans, that adopt a global perspective while operating at the local level, and that remove special significance from the ascriptions of race, gender, age, nationality, class in the distribution of power, wealth and status in the society".

While we must find immediate relief from the daily bloodletting, the long-term solutions must be such a (re)definition of our norms and (re)framing of our values at the most basic levels, including, of course, what manhood is and what it is not.

To this end, we do, in fact, need a super ministry, achievable partly by collapsing some currently unnecessary ministries and combining health and human services, to bring together disparate entities relating to child/adolescent welfare, women, parents, and the family under mature, competent and visionary leadership, and to include an intensive care unit to address the crisis of male dysfunction.

Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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