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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

JAVIER MAYORAL
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How to be a man

The quiet crisis of masculinity.

What does “being a man” mean any more? The story of Graham Deville is hardly atypical in modern Britain. He began his working life on the railways in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, two weeks before the great storm battered the country in 1987. He had basic responsibilities: sweeping platforms and emptying bins. After four years, he was made a railman – charged with looking after the tracks – then a release supervisor, then a duty manager.

His tasks varied greatly. He could be called on to deal with a suicide and then, if the points failed, to don an orange jacket to get the trains running under the supervision of the signalman. “I had huge pride in the job, very much so,” Deville tells me. Then came privatisation in the mid-1990s. He remembers walking into work and his manager stripping him of all his track supervisory roles. “Instead, we had to stand there and apologise for two-hour delays,” he said. “You went from being part of the railways to a cardboard cut-out for commuters to shout at.” He had spent eight years learning how to do his job well. “It was a very varied skill set and, basically, it didn’t matter any more.”

Deville was offered voluntary redundancy in 1998, not long after his first daughter was born, and took it – “purely because of what we’d been made into”. He was out of work for nearly a year and a half. With his expertise and management experience, he thought he would “just go out and get another job, but it just didn’t happen”. The skills he had were valued in the railways but weren’t really applicable elsewhere. His marriage collapsed; he was homeless for a while, with only a “few menial jobs here and there”. Now remarried, he earns his money fixing lawnmowers and chainsaws.

When he lost his job on the railways, Deville was left with the feeling that, somehow, his masculinity had been undermined. “It almost seems now like a prehistoric point of view that a man goes out and provides,” he says, “but you can’t help but feel like that. And, when that’s taken away, it does hurt. The role my parents were brought up with – my dad passed on that you provide. It’s very difficult to deal with.”

Deville is one example of how what it means to be a man is in a state of flux. Deindustrialisation, undoubtedly, is a fundamental reason. Britain’s economy has been increasingly emptied of skilled industrial jobs. Take manufacturing: while 5.6 million people worked in the sector in 1982, only 2.6 million did last year. In the past, many of these jobs were taken by men. In 1971, just 53 per cent of women were in employment; by 2013, that had risen to 67 per cent. For men, the trend has reversed: while 92 per cent were employed in 1971, 76 per cent were in 2013 (though the figure is still, it should be noted, higher than that of women).

The role of men has changed so much and so quickly that expectations and reality can be far apart. Men such as Deville who have been conditioned from birth to see themselves as the family breadwinner suddenly find that this is no longer the case. A central traditional component of male identity – of what a man is seen to be – has been steadily eroded. When I visited Longbridge in Birmingham a few years ago, I found that former skilled car workers were now employed as supermarket shelf-stackers and cashiers: an occupation that had been associated with women.

Simon, 44, worked for 17 years at a Southampton plant that manufactured rubber and latex for the tyre industry. For the last five years before he was made redundant, he was a supervisor and proud of his work. “There were quality standards that we had to adhere to, targets to meet,” he said. “We were supplying some prestigious companies and seeing tyres on Formula One, knowing that the rubber maybe came from the plant. It makes you want to do a good job.” All of the shop-floor workers were men. “We had such a scream. It was definitely a man’s world. There was lots of prank-playing and real bonds.”

When the workforce was told in November 2013 that it would be laid off, Simon was “shell-shocked”. He had a big mortgage and: “All of a sudden, the rug was pulled from underneath my feet.” He had to sell his house and rent it back from a housing association. He was married with six children. “You think about the masculinity aspect – being the breadwinner. And when you start not being the breadwinner, that’s quite a transition. It takes some getting used to, to be honest.” He was out of work for six months. “I found the whole process of signing on, going to job clubs, quite a demeaning process, really . . . It was very strange, not having a reason to get up in the morning, not having a reason to set the alarm.”

***

Elleke Boehmer, a professor of literature at Oxford University who specialises in gender, says that workforce changes in the UK have brought about an “incredible undermining of masculine self-confidence” and have “induced severe and troubling feelings of insecurity”. She gave the example of a close relative. As his work has become more insecure, he has become more “entrenched, more set in his masculine ways”. His behaviour at home hasn’t changed as his work has become insecure: he still expects his evening meal to be made promptly at 5.30pm, even though he is not returning home from a job.

Michael Kehler, a Canadian academic who researches the social role of masculinity, says: “The ‘breadwinner’ has such a long history and such currency to it because of traditional notions of what a man is. Because it’s so deeply ingrained, it can be really challenging for some young men to try and reconfigure themselves, to relocate themselves in a different economic time. The struggle becomes both economic [and] social and cultural.” Consciously or not, Kehler suggests, we fall back on our gendered identities on a daily basis. “That’s how we convince [ourselves] and understand our worth in so many ways.”

This is not to turn men into victims. We live in a world run by men, for men: 90 per cent of the world’s billionaires are men, while women account for only 9.6 per cent of executive directors at top British companies (depressingly, this compares favourably with the picture internationally) and 29 per cent of MPs. Across the world, violence is overwhelmingly inflicted by men. The global recession has disproportionately affected women’s incomes.

But the point is this. Being a man is not static: it can change and be redefined. “Masculinity is a performance that has a deep relationship to power,” says Gina Heathcote, a senior lecturer in gender studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “There are a lot of rewards from it, even if you think of it as a continuum of experience.” Its expression may differ depending on place and time but power is a big component of it. “It is more often exerted through strength, a kind of public acumen rewarded – even aggressiveness,” Heathcote says.

From an early age, what it is to be a man is drilled into young boys. Being sporty and athletic; talking about women in an often degrading way; getting into fights – these can all be seen as “manly”. Those who don’t conform are at risk of being called “a woman” or “gay”. Heathcote thinks of this as the “casting of the feminine on to deviant men who don’t perform in the same way”. Keh­ler says: “When a man transgresses or doesn’t fulfil expectations, then they’re judged individually – as less than a man.” But this treatment isn’t inevitable. “The way I look at it is: that’s very plural and fluid. To think of it as a single conduct doesn’t capture how complex and layered it is.”

Keegan Hirst is a striking example of the way in which our sense of what it is to be a man is evolving. To many, he probably appears as masculinity incarnate: more than 6ft 3in, with a rugged appearance and a broad Yorkshire accent. But Hirst is the first openly gay British professional rugby league player. “When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t around, so my idea of being a man was from my mum and what I read in books,” he said. “Manners, being chivalrous, looking after someone when they were sick.”

But he could hardly have been unaware of what manliness meant for others: “shagging loads of girls and knocking someone’s head off, the ‘Lads! Lads! Lads!’ thing”. Hirst had a wife and two children and he was “petrified” of telling his teammates when he was ready to come out. He sums up his fears: “It’d undermine everything you’d done previously, years of playing, earning their respect. I suppose the idea is that being gay conflicts with ‘being a man’; it makes you less of a man. That’s the outside perception but it’s what I thought – that I’d be less in their eyes.” The response could hardly have been more different. When Hirst told one teammate, he burst into tears. “He felt bad about what I’d gone through, that I’d gone through it alone. The whole point of a team is you look after each other, you go through it together, you’re all pulling in the same direction.” Within a week of coming out, the fact that he was gay was integrated into casual banter. “It’s all in jest – I know if anyone did it with any malice from the outside, the group would be the first to jump in and say that’s not on and fight my corner.”

Sport is often regarded as a fortress of unreconstructed masculinity. And, as Hirst says, because being gay is seen as almost the ultimate form of unmanliness, it is not surprising that there are so few openly LGBT sports players. There is not a single openly gay professional footballer in Britain – even though there are certainly some in the closet. The exception remains notable by its tragedy: Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and ended up taking his own life.

“I think it’s fear of the unknown,” the former England captain Gary Lineker suggests to me. “Fear of being the first, fear of fellow players’ and [the] crowd’s reaction. I think, actually, the reaction would be hugely supportive and would be received very positively if someone is brave enough.” Even in football, the old, unreconstructed masculinity is in retreat. “I’m not so sure football is as macho these days,” Lineker suggests. “Most players are pretty well groomed and care about their appearance, and so on. Also, the majority of footballers wouldn’t give two hoots as to someone’s sexuality.”

Professional football is a good barometer of how much masculinity is changing. If footballers are able to come out and not receive an adverse response, it will surely be symptomatic of a broader transformation.

***

The LGBT and feminist movements have certainly changed what it means to be a man, and not just in Britain. Nadje al-Ali, a gender studies specialist at SOAS, suggests that in the Middle East some young men understand that the struggle against gender-based oppression is part of the struggle against authoritarianism. “Militarised forms of masculinity are often seen as the ideal,” she says. Women used to be told: “We need to sort out the big issues first – let’s deal with colonisers, or class-based occupation, then we’ll look at women’s rights or gender-based violence.” But, increasingly, men understand that sexual equality isn’t a side issue but an essential part of all these broader struggles. The rise of LGBT movements, she suggests, have “played an important role in challenging binaries, gender binaries, prevailing notions of masculinity”.

The growing emancipation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people has eroded static ideas of gender and sexuality. In a YouGov study last year, just 7 per cent of Britons over the age of 60 said that they had “varying degrees of bisexuality” but the figure rose to 43 per cent among 18-to-24-year-olds. Curiously, men were less likely to say they were completely heterosexual than women. There is evidence of a surprising class division: in Ireland’s referendum on equal marriage last year, it was reported that working-class areas were generally more supportive. The male grooming industry is booming and is now estimated worldwide to be worth around £14.8bn annually. “Some stuff has been around – like beard oils and hair gels, just more to the forefront,” says Nathan Stowe, who blogs at Manporium. “But with face creams and cosmetics, that’s largely been more stigmatised till recently.” The use of moisturiser, he notes, has gradually become more socially acceptable among men.

“Gay and bisexual men have challenged conventional masculine ideals, expectations and traditions,” the veteran LGBT activist Peter Tatchell tells me. “Our gender and sexual nonconformity have redefined what it is to be a man, subverting machismo and allowing more straight men to escape the limitations of rigid, orthodox masculinity.” The nonconformity of gay men, Tatchell suggests, is a challenge to the entire gender system that sustains “the social hegemony of male heterosexuality and misogyny”.

Elleke Boehmer offers a note of caution. The rise of LGBT and feminist movements has “thrown masculinity on to the defence”, she says. Indeed, you can see a “male backlash” against the chipping away of traditional masculine power expressed in a number of ways, whether it be the men’s rights activists who obsess over feminists online, or ­Fathers4Justice, who once threw a condom filled with purple powder at Tony Blair when he was prime minister.

It seems undeniable that straight men are significantly more likely to have female and LGBT friends than they once were. Antony Cotton, who plays the “camp” factory worker Sean Tully in Coronation Street, says that while most of his friends were girls when he was a child, “The majority of my friends [today] are heterosexual men.” Being gay even has some advantages, he finds: straight men are more likely to be open with him than with each other. What hostility he does receive comes more from gay men who somehow feel that his campness undermines the greater cause of LGBT equality – because acceptance for them means embracing the norms of dominant masculinity. “On social media, there’s this phenomenon of gay men saying things like they’re ‘non-feminine’, ‘non-camp’ – this obsession with passing off as straight.”

It is true that men now find it easier – or less “unmanly” – to discuss emotions than they once did. “Men are far more open than 20 or 30 years ago,” says Lineker. “We’re much more relaxed in talking about feelings and worries. We’re more tolerant of differences than we used to be. Slow progress for us Neanderthals, but we’re getting there.” Yet men who suffer mental distress remain far less likely to seek help than women. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK; a downward trend was reversed by the financial crash in 2008.

***

Clive Lewis is unusual for a Labour MP – not least among Labour’s left flank – for being a former serviceman. He joined the Territorial Army in 2006 and served in Afghanistan in 2009, where he remembers soldiers’ boots melting because of the heat. There was a “bit of a macho camaraderie” and “Man up, cupcake” was an expression he heard a lot. The army encouraged what he calls “controlled aggression”. Lewis recalls a training exercise at Sandhurst: he was “pushed so hard” and was “so hot and so tired”; he stormed the nest of machine-gun positions “screaming pure rage”. He was “killed” in the exercise but was held up as an example for others to emulate.

After Afghanistan, Lewis found returning home difficult. “I knew when I got back something wasn’t right . . . I found it very difficult to interact with people.” While his sergeants and corporals would return to their base with soldiers who could understand what serving in a conflict zone was like, Lewis, as a reservist, was thrown back into ­civilian life. “It was like feeling crushed,” he says. Eventually, he was diagnosed with depression, but he found it difficult to talk about. “That mental health side is embarrassing. There’s a stigma. As a man, you fear it’s about your masculinity – you’re not strong enough, not tough enough. There’s a shame about it . . . As a man, you think you’ve failed and guilt comes from that.”

Then there is violence. An estimated 1.4 million women suffered domestic violence last year in England and Wales; 400,000 were sexually assaulted and as many as 90,000 were raped. Why do men commit these crimes? “Because they can,” says Elleke Boehmer. “It’s still in some senses socially sanctioned. Male violence against women is triggered by feelings of defensiveness, threat and insecurity.” She links some of the phenomenon to men losing their position as breadwinner, or their sense of power. “So you lash out in the way you know best, that has been socially sanctioned in the past.” Deindustrialisation, change of political regime, conflict – “In the end, it leads to women’s bodies bearing the brunt of male violence.”

What it means to be a man has changed in some sections of society but Gina Heathcote is troubled by how “hegemonic masculinities” have not been so influenced. She offers the political realm as an example, contrasting how the media suggest there is “something powerful about David Cameron that Jeremy Corbyn is somehow not permitted to have”. Unquestionably – with his sometimes red-faced bullying demeanour – Cameron is portrayed positively as a strong man in a way that Corbyn isn’t.

Where is masculinity headed? Boehmer hopes that she has brought up her two sons as feminists but she realises that there is countervailing pressure in the playground, at school, on the football pitch. This might “militate against the feminism which is, in any case, quite irritating coming from their mother”. Yet there is no static idea of being a man. Michael Keh­ler believes that the rise of feminism and the LGBT movement has given all men “a greater allowance to be unlike the rest of the boys. There’s more room created for difference among men than historically has been there. Men have been trapped, limited.”

There is nothing inevitable about men oppressing women, being full of aggression, or clamping down on other men who don’t conform to a rigid concept of masculinity. Being a man can mean being inclusive, open and accepting. Masculinity is fluid and its future is up for grabs.

Owen Jones’s most recent book is The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It (Penguin)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind