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Men, just don’t shut up

Essay | 9 minute read
Women have fought hard and long against being silenced. So why are some now calling for men to shut up? A writer reflects on gender politics, language, and male mental health as the government appoints a suicide prevention minister

‘Men, just shut up,’ pronounced the Democrat politician, Mazie Keiko Hirono, amid the confirmation hearings for America’s new Supreme Court Associate Justice, Brett Kavanaugh. Which men in particular she was addressing, we can’t be sure. It is clear that she wasn’t addressing any particular ‘type’ of man or specific group of male colleagues. It would seem that she was addressing the male community at large.

Such a comment, without doubt, raised Hirono to the greatest of heights and inspired admiration from her fellow female Democratic senators and beyond. I can see why. It is a bold statement made at a crucial time of confession with more and more women speaking up about their experiences of abuse and harassment. I fully and openly applaud it and I am proud of the women who are coming forward, not just with regards to Kavanaugh, but throughout the #MeToo campaign and the many before who, in the absolute face of adversity, fought for their right to be heard.

What I find unsettling has nothing to do with the movement itself. Rather, it is the language we so often use to talk about, or address men, en masse, that bothers me. And not least because it is actually the women’s movement – something I fully and openly endorse – that has drawn my attention to it.

On researching Hirono and the wave of support she received, online and in some parts of the mainstream media,  I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of articles, features, and blogs openly championing the phrase in one way or another, many written long before her speech: ‘Why men need to shut up’ (Femina). ‘Men need to shut up and embrace feminism’ (Smashing Gender Change. ‘Shut up men…’ (Emirates Women). ‘Men: shut up for your rights!’ (A feminist guide). This is to name a few, but it felt like a barrage: an aggressive sound-wall of the same obstructive statement, fired consistently and directly at the men in our society.

What bothered me more was the moment I typed the word ‘men’ into the Google; one of the most commonly searched phrases suggested was: ‘men need to shut up.’ A Google search is always a strong indicator of the most trending topics online, on any given day. It would seem on that day (perhaps sparked by Hirono) men needing to shut up was a particularly popular ideal.

In the meantime, men are killing themselves at an alarming rate across the globe (eighty-four men a week in the UK); along with this (perhaps partly because of it) they are battling a truly life-threatening culture of silence. In the context of the stark statistics on male suicide, is a cold-tongued request for them to ‘shut up’ really the right thing to endorse?

This may feel like an enormous leap in judgement, and I will understand if many women reading this now are chomping at the bit, wanting to say, in no uncertain terms, that I have completely missed the point. I am trying to assess a broader picture here. I understand why Hirono said what she said. I get the historical, political and social context. I know too well the good fight for women’s vocal liberation.

But I also feel that blunt, off-the-cuff phrases like Hirono’s, especially if put on repeat (as I found online), could be doing more damage than we might think. Being the sister of a man who killed himself, and also being a woman, I ask you to hear me out.

As we all know, language is an incredibly powerful tool, with more influence over how we absorb information and where we allow ourselves to go with it than we can imagine. When my brother died, I tuned my hand to every possible, enigmatic phrase to describe his passing. ‘My brother passed away, and it was a decision he made,’ being the common phrase of choice. But after a while I began to feel like I was lying. The way I was talking about his death wasn’t doing the gravity of it any justice.

I was bubble-wrapping it for people (myself included), protecting my immediate social network from the grave reality that, one night, a man of forty decided he could no longer bear the pain of living, and, despite the many who loved and adored him, killed himself. That is what happened. Saying it any other way doesn’t honour the crushing details. Saying it in any other way also gives licence to avoiding the next and most obvious question. Why?

Photo by Oliver Cole/Unsplash

Whether you see the choice to die made in the ‘light of the mind, cold and planetary’ (Sylvia Plath), or whether you see it as a consequence of being too ill to have a choice, the fact remains that men are sinking under in big numbers. Around twelve men every day are exiting from their life because, for whatever reason, the torment of living is greater than not. Before we can begin to understand why, we need to fully and openly accept that this is happening.

Looking at the language used by the likes of Hirono and the very public arena in which she used it, I am inclined to think that we haven’t done so. That this very real, very urgent epidemic hasn’t even begun to enter the outer layers of our collective, social atmosphere. Because one of the key issues regarding male suicide is that men on the whole are suffering in silence. They simply aren’t talking enough.

After Matt died, a female acquaintance said to me that men should be doing more to help themselves. ‘They need to be talking more,’ she said. While some might find this a fair point, I found it deeply aggravating, and a regretfully typical, disparaging attitude towards a topical male issue. It felt like the intelligent woman’s equivalent of saying: ‘Man-up. Man-up and start talking about how you feel.’ I came away feeling troubled not just as a person who had lost a brother to suicide, but as a woman too. Women know better than anyone how one’s gender can negatively predetermine one’s role in society. But the expectation here was for men to break the centuries-old barrier that society had created and start talking about their feelings. As simple as that!

It was also as if this friend were dismissing the possibility that a male issue could be as complex as any woman’s. Most women would deny this outright. But attitudes like this, and equally those of  ‘shut up’, feel somewhat consistent to encouraging a culture of male silence. It is baffling, considering women have fought so hard to be heard.

I was surprised, when coming to write this essay, to find how so few women actually talk about male suicide. At a click, I found one TEDx Talk by Steph Slack, and a Telegraph article by Zoe Ball. There are some others, but not enough to make me feel like this issue is pushing at the forefront of women’s thinking. I imagine many don’t feel it is really a women’s issue. And while I can already hear the arguments as to why it is not raging in my head, I still disagree. It should be a women’s issue for several reasons (some of which will need their own article). But the primary reason is because we, women, can help.

We have created some of the most successful, far-reaching, and genuinely effective platforms for discussing and disclosing those pressing or delicate issues that fester in the undercurrent of society, whether it be acclaimed programmes such as BBC Woman’s Hour, or collaborative blogs from volunteer organisations such as Women Being. I applaud these forums and catalysts for open conversation and admire the women who have created them. They, and many others, have paved the way for unbridled, accessible debate about matters that may not otherwise be publicly addressed.

And with these resources at our fingertips and an ever-evolving understanding of how to approach vulnerability on a public platform – how to encourage those who are vulnerable to speak out – shouldn’t we, the advocates, be taking more of a leading role in this crisis of silence?

We share this world with men, yet it would appear we know so very little about their inner traumas and grief (and perhaps in some cases, are unwilling to learn). Men are dying by their own hand far too often, and this ‘choice’ (if you believe it to be a choice) obviously brings men’s mental health into question.

Photo by Amy Velazquez/Unsplash

As with any significant illness (especially those that are invisible) we need to asses the causes. Women, to my mind at least, are extremely well-versed in the slow yet necessary process of unearthing those underlying and contributing complexities of the human condition. My question (or rather my plea) is: can’t we take these skills – along with the many years of knowledge we have accrued on mental health, social isolation, trauma, gender-abuse and so on – and apply them where they might be needed most?

Of course there are some who are doing it already. I am currently editing an anthology of writing on the subject of male suicide called ‘Eighty-Four’, and I have been surprised by the number of female contributors. In fact, to ratio, it is the male writers who have submitted the least work – another indication that we still have some way to go. I know the job of getting men talking isn’t for women alone. There is a lot to be said for men speaking out for men. But I can’t help thinking it might be better to honour our hard-won approaches to human suffering and put more energy into supporting and speaking out about what is happening to the men in our lives, rather than contributing to the ongoing mantra of shut up and listen to me.

We are the talkers, so why encourage anything but? We are the ones who have overcome obstacle after obstacle, despite repression, stereotype, fear, and taboo. I feel we can lead by example. Encourage our fellow male humans – our lovers, our brothers, our fathers, our friends – to do the same. We can dial down the volume on the silence-mantra for all men (reserve our anger for those individuals that deserve it) and use the power of voices to raise men up… or at the least raise awareness. I would rather this than yelling into an empty, repetitive vacuum. At best, the invocation for men to shut up is preaching to the choir, or hoping to landslide some sort of pathetic verbal victory.

In the end, Hirono’s comment and the many others like it aren’t admirable to me. Once upon time I might have waved my flag and joined in. But circumstance and consequence have led me to a very different perspective. I think we owe it to ourselves, and to the progress we have made, to assess our own behaviour in relation to that which we have fought so hard to overcome – that is, being silenced.

Helen Calcutt is the editor of the anthology ‘Eighty-Four’ (Verve)

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