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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

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

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