Joe Collier on being a male

Professor Joe Collier The sheer plasticity in the way we relate to one another amazes. Over any day I could be a father, a husband, a son (in-law), a teacher, a professor, a lecturer, a tutor, a supervisor, a doctor, a patient, a carer, a friend, a clown, an entertainer, a legal expert/opinion, a witness, a government advisor, a writer, a media pundit, a game show host, a chef, an apprentice (to a stonemason), a student (of French), a guilty accusee (speeding), a nondescript, and so on.

In this protean world there would be many “mes” that would only surface in particular circumstances and I can slip insensibly between them without a thought. Moreover, there would seem to be no conflict, no crisis of identity. Whoever I was, it would always be the same “me,” with those who know me able to recognise that “me.”

And in many respects my plasticity is everyday, if one compares it to the “morphing” extremes of some of those with whom I have worked who were (as was later revealed) at one and the same time a paediatrician and a paedophile, an ethicist and fraudster, an avuncular professor and violent husband etc. But even for these extremes the capacity to slip insensibly from one persona to another seems to be retained.

Just as there is a plasticity in one’s actions or behaviour, there is also plasticity in one’s feelings and the ways one relates to others. It is these feelings/qualities which I plan to explore here over the next few months. The sort of titles (domains) I have in mind are “on being white,” “On being a teacher,” “On being old(er),” “On being on the margins,” “On being an atheist,” and “On being ahead.”  Today, however, I begin with ‘On being a male’.

There must be a myriad influences that determine how individuals see themselves in society and how they respond to societal pressures. In addition to the indeterminate contribution of one’s genetic baggage, one’s feelings will have been shaped by upbringing, family (and other) relationships, sexual orientation, age, education, work environment, political leanings, and, of course, close personal events (accidents, deaths, family changes etc). The feelings/qualities I have now will l have been moulded by my being a white, married, atheist, able-bodied, heterosexual, London-based, left-leaning, retired, academic, male doctor aged 67 with three adult sons.

As a male I hold three central tenets. Firstly, that there is something identifiable as maleness (as distinct from femaleness, or nothingness), second, that I identify with, and feel very much part of that male identity, and third, that ultimately I have a responsibility to and for the behaviour of the male “diaspora.”

Defining what actually constitutes maleness is difficult. It is not the same as being macho, it is not “male” good looks, it is not being heterosexual, but nevertheless there is a certain (shared) sameness amongst men. Many of the qualities are worthy and valuable, and, taken together, constitute what ultimately makes men endearing as partners. 

Other qualities, such as aggression and violence, repel and risk leading men into isolation. The “positive” male features might include, bravery (intellectual and/or physical), irreverence, adventuressness, flamboyance, originality, spontaneity, steadfastness, camaraderie, independence, trust-worthiness, matter-of-factness, single mindedness (ie uni- as opposed to multi-tasking) and protectiveness.  None of these are exclusively male and many change with age, but as I see it they have a way of aggregating. In some aggregations they combine to manifest as broader qualities, as for instance when irreverence, flamboyance, originality, spontaneity, camaraderie and humour, create playfulness, a quality lasting into late adult life. Indeed, it is this spirit of playfulness and “fun”’ that seems to me to be such a privilege for men when I compare it the burden of the ordered, organised and “responsible” (often referred to as “mature”) conduct of many girls and women.    

Alongside these are the very negative qualities of men (although again not exclusively so) such as arrogance, aggression, violence, anger and paternalism,  often seen as the key male attributes, which are leading increasingly to men being mocked and shunned.

Whatever these rather “earthy” qualities, it is my experience that in successful working relationships, all can be subsumed into professional skills and aptitudes such as endeavour, industry, honesty, integrity, responsibility and a capacity to deliver etc. Moreover, these qualities men and women share in equal part. 

So, for me, members of group “male” have many good qualities and are certainly not  inherently “bad” or inherently inferior, yet everyday as a male I am faced with our other side which engenders in me feelings of shame, guilt, anger and embarrassment..
Although I am not responsible, whenever I read or hear of women being violated by groups of men (eg soldiers, sportsmen) or by a current or former male “partner” or a family member, I feel ashamed and guilty. Somehow the perpetrators are my “brothers” and so in some way I must have colluded by association. I want to repair the damage, to apologise on behalf of men but to whom and how? I certainly feel that I have a duty to do something, and am left repeating my belief that this sort of behaviour is not inevitable, that it is not a necessary consequence of being male, and it is not immutable. I would love to help change these behaviours and I feel confident change will come but I expect we are talking about altering the attitudes of the (very) young.

I am sure it is worth trying to influence young adults (and I tried this approach as a teacher at medical school), but by this stage it is probably too late. I often think that change might occur if men developed ‘champions’ of model male behaviour in schools, universities and the workplace, but perhaps this is optimistic.  

It is more anger and frustration that I feel when I see pictures in the news in which all the leaders of a summit conference are men, when almost all industry senior executives are men, when the large majority of MPs are men, when nearly all coverage in the sports pages relates to male events, when almost all the drivers of buses, trains and taxis are men and so on. My anger here is not so much directed at the men in the pictures but at a society that permits, and even encourages, so many gross inequalities. I have tried to right such wrongs but there will be few who will have noticed any difference. So, I ensured that as many speakers were women as men when arranging conferences; I engineered schemes at my own medical school to ensure no discrimination against women undergraduate applicants; I introduced policies on gender neutral language in the work place; I have frequently complained to the papers about their stilted coverage. These are areas for which women have been fighting for years, but men too must join in and with vigour. Society (of which around half are men) wastes so much talent and energy by the present arrangements.         
As a man I am caught. I am very aware of being a male and identify with many of their values while being guilty and ashamed of many others. As a male I feel men generally (and who better to start with than the very many male doctors) have a responsibility to put our own house in order, but we will need help. It is certainly not an option for men to assume it is not their business. In my view, men and women, while recognising their differences, should work together to strengthen both genders in the spirit of partnership. Were this to be achieved we would all be so much stronger and there would be such a sense of liberation.

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London.