Masculinities: Who Gets to Define Them?

In Australia we have an august organisation called the Mental Health Professional Network. It is federally (government) funded and supported, and aims at pulling together for mutual benefit mental health clinicians/professionals of different professional species (pun). Medical doctors are part of the mix. In my neck of the woods I was on the organising committee for a few years and have seen it peak, then decline, and now make its way back, not least due to the actions of dedicated volunteers. Its structure these days includes the use of webinars. The latest offering via webinar is – Men in Focus: Unpacking Masculinities and Engaging Men in the Prevention of Violence against Women by Dr Shane Tas, Senior Policy Advisor, Masculinities at Our Watch. The material to be discussed caught my attention because I recently came across two articles in State newspapers ( the Herald Sun- Aug 12 and The Age- Aug 11) which reported the withdrawal of several schools from a co-related project. Apparently, the Men In Focus project strongly incorporates ( or is strongly correlated to) research from another of their projects called “The Box”. The Box project questioned a large cohort of boys/young men. They were asked questions related to aspects of ( I will say – “alleged”) masculinities. Some parents looked at the questions and its implications and they hit the roof, causing some school principals to move away from the project.

So I took a fresh look at The Project summary. I easily found the coded information: intersectional; cultural construction; identity; gender inequality. I was surprised to find the word “essentialist”. I once again felt the slitherings of the woke-worm, and also the dis-ease I feel when I critique this stuff. After all, can a right thinking social worker really disagree with a project that wants to help stop men’s violence? So let me practice the usual sort of genuflection that signals (tongue-in-cheek) the usual doctrinal confession – called “virtue signalling”. So…. I most certainly agree with a lot of the propositions put forward! I want less violence. I want respectful relationships. I want that people will challenge their certainties about strictly gendered (“sexed” actually) behaviours . I want for men to work with women (can I say that and not be “essentialist”?) to find ways to improve society and the safety of women and men and children. BUT.

Here is the crunch. The essence. The author claims the following – quote: “What is masculinity?: It is a social construction rather than something that men and boys are born with”. His use of the word “rather than” is correct. He then pretty much dismisses any factors that might be considered biological or “born with”. The mandate he is given as a policy developer at the highest level of State government is to engage in “research to fill critical gaps in knowledge around what works to prevent family violence and violence against women.”. So… in which direction will that critical research go? I have now read and listened to a variety of literature on sex and gender and behavioral correlates; and can pick up when I am being ideologued. I really get upset these days when sociological writers give no effort to represent the very reasonable findings of evolutionary biology, comparative and evolutionary psychology. I am just astounded that someone in such academic authority (PhD in masculinities studies) can dismiss the very material that reasonably shows how evolutionary processes shape the social brain . Yes, biology is not destiny. Heather Heying reminds us that human beings are not a blank slate for culture to imprint, but are never-the-less the blankest slate of all living creatures. But without understanding the evolutionary factors that strongly influence power, coercion, violence, control and hierarchy, we are at the mercy of the cultural constructionists. Social workers prefer that social construction model, I know. I recommend that social workers read or listen to respected scholars like evolutionary psychologist Matie Haselton, evolutionay biologist Heather Heying, evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman, evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad, social psychologist Jonathon Haidt, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson and neuroscientist Sam Harris – for some illuminating perspectives. (Podcasts are a good introduction).

I went back and reviewed Shane Tas’s CV. No surprises. His heroes are Michell Foucalt, Judith Butler, bell hooks. They assisted him to make sense of his own discomfort about sex and gender. And they have great perspectives, if the conflict paradigm is the main driver. But their theories have no means of falsifiability. No scientific neutrality. All – is – culture. It is my contention that any arena of study that ends in the word “studies” (e.g. gender; masculinities) is already predisposed to have non-falsefiability as an inherent bottom line. In other words – they cannot be challenged. ( Do we remember how socialism worked??? Find an older Russian or Chinese older person who has migrated to a democratic country and ask them about communism as a viable theory.)

The Men In Focus summary includes a section at the end which states: Dealing With Backlash and Resistance. He writes – “it remains important to develop strategies that respond to and address overt forms of backlash.” Instead of saying that there may be contrary or additional views that help to ensure evidence based policy, he makes sure that there will be a distinction between true believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will need to be controlled. Is this not religion? A recent research project titled Clarifying The Structure And Nature Of left Wing Authoritarianism, conducted by Thomas Costello and associates, , published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2020, raises an alarm bell. Are we being led by the noses into a social constructivist universe? This all matters because the very definition of male power is whether it is all toxic and aimed at power over women or whether it is something else. I claim it to be – mostly – something else.

Now, it may well be that I am doing Mr. Tas a disservice. I have not read his PhD, nor have I listened to his presentation. I am reading from his front-end statements about his direction of interest. He thus far has not – publicly – inferred that there may be evolutionary aspects of male behaviours that can be strongly correlated to socialisation, procreation and hierarchy.

By David Hunnerup

David is an accredited mental health social worker in Tasmania, Australia. He has been a professional counsellor in one form or another from 1980. The last 24 years of counselling practice has been in a social work framework. He is now semi-retired but still quite active as a counselling social worker and supervisor/consultant. He has used the last 2 years to read and reflect on many things he never had time to ponder. Many pet theories in social work education are now in his spotlight.

This article is posted in slightly shorter form on the facebook group socialworkskeptic   This group is for ANY AND ALL social workers who may not have a relevant SW platform for chewing over ideas relevant to woke-in-socialwork. Members will have to 1. self identify as social workers, 2. have a relevant tertiary qualification in social work, , and 3. have an identified code of ethics to which they are committed and abide by in the public and social domains (i.e. I.T. platforms).

One comment

  1. Frankly, one give up. I am not surprised parents did not want their children taught this stuff. The Boy Crisis by Warren Farrell looks like it really might have something useful to say. There are videos of him on YouTube.

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