Men are the more reticent sex. They might, in general terms, be louder when discussing sport or politics or music but they often clam up when it comes to their emotions. For Siobhan Bligh, this is evidence of a “crisis in masculinity”. Men, she writes, are “constantly told from a young age to “man-up””, and to be “strong, emotionless [and] cruel”. Am I the only man who’s yet to face this curious command? Doubtless, some men have endured it but I have a simpler hypothesis to explain the general trend of apparent stoicism: that men have been the more reticent sex for centuries, be it in England, Russia or Japan, and that young men take after their fathers, uncles, brothers and friends.
For Bligh, young men are faced with an “unachievable masculine identity”. I am not sure what led her to this conclusion, given that the adult males that they are most exposed to beyond their immediate relatives are liable to be moronic or ineffectual losers like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Pete Brockman, Alan Harper and countless idiots blundering their way through adverts. It is true that boys can grow fixated on achieving the spectacular physiques of David Beckham or Brad Pitt, or thinking that rappers are men worthy of emulation, or believing themselves to be the next generation’s Kurt Cobain, but this just shows that male identities and experiences are too diverse to be generalised in such a broad manner. If people want to help boys, in a real, practical sense, they should come up with ways to stop so many of them growing up without fathers. This is a crisis, but it is one that people are wary of acknowledging.
Still, we are left fact of male reserve. This stands accused of a being cause of the higher rates of suicides among men, and of their unwillingness to seek help when facing mental illness or even physical suffering. This seems fair. It is, indeed, in cultures that promote emotional isolation, such as those of South Korea or Lithuania, that suicides are most common. Young men, and women, should be raised to know that we evolved as social beings not merely to aid us in hunting and housebuilding but to offer benefits of collective wisdom and emotional support. All humans are vulnerable enough that they sometimes require a hand to aid them in returning to a position of strength.
Even beyond the desire to help such troubled people, though, there are trends that oppose male, and female, restraint. There is the progressive stance against peculiarities of sex, and there is also confessional culture: a phenomenon that promotes emotional expressiveness as a sort of exercise in cleansing, as displayed in billions of tweets, updates, Ask.fm entries, tumblr. blogs, YouTube videos, advice columns and chat shows. At its worst, this vulgarises human feelings, as people compete for the attention of their peers, and conform to standards they perceive around themselves.
To reserve one’s feelings need not involve their repression, for that would imply that our emotions are designed to be expressed. This need not be true. One might respond to hurt or anger by adjusting the conditions that provoke it. Not all feelings are particularly complicated, and just as hunger may be solved by food and boredom by films, a negative emotion may respond to practical treatment. Other feelings are more troublesome, but may not be fatal for the introspective being. Individual meditation on fears, grievances and dislikes can help one to make sense of them in times when the naive contributions of others may cause further perplexity.
People should be helped to learn that there is no shame in seeking help for one’s problems, or, indeed, in discussing one’s feelings whether they be good or bad, but one should not hold stoicism to be inherently problematic. In an age where transparency is idealised it may appear suspicious if somebody keeps their feelings to themselves, but, then, a feeling that it is expressed can be deceptive. Human beings are strange creatures.