If you're a poor man, your options for a mid-life crisis include taking your own life. This is a "male suicide emergency", says one newspaper headline, in that "the male suicide rate is at a 14-year high" (same convenient source). Men, Suicide and Society focuses on gender, obviously, and on socio-economics, also obviously. It reviews "evidence and theory in psychology, sociology, economics and gender studies", and is convincing - I think - in what it says about the personality traits intrinsic to the condition of masculinity (some of them taught, learned, inferred; some not). Where it goes into talking about feelings, I was reminded of books by Deborah Tannen that I read years ago.
Men, Suicide and Society doesn't cover everything. There's talk about the "feminisation" of employment (defined as the shift towards a service economy and away from heavy manual labour), and of a range of other issues, but no mention of another much-discussed socio-economic (?) factor that might be significant here. "This report has chosen not to focus on the role of ethnicity," it tells us, and then we jump a bit about sexuality, which is also omitted, to find the explanation that "examining the experiences and identities of British and Irish middle-aged working-class men, the majority of whom are white and heterosexual, is core to reducing death by suicide".
Gender yes, but ethnicity no? I found this surprising, Most of them are white. Are we not saying, then, that white disadvantaged men in mid-life are more likely to die by suicide? Mostly white, anyway? I went online and found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Never heard of it, and only know about it what I've read online. But the AFSP also publishes studies on suicide. The latest, which draws on statistics of the same vintage as those in Men, Suicide and Society (2013, although the AFSP's population is obviously bigger) draws this conclusion: "White males accounted for 70% of all suicides in 2013." I wasn't surprised. [There's a lot more detail than that.]
Gender and ethnicity get a lot of coverage and it's impossible to be objective about them. I don't want to talk about age or sexuality, for the same reason. Nor do I want to defend men. History is full of white male oppressors, exploiters, discriminators, deniers of the rights of just about everybody else. Today, men are more dangerous to women than women are to men. In short, it's much easier to depict men - white men in particular - as aggressors needing to be controlled, than as victims in need of support.
And yet they're killing themselves.
It's also easy enough to poke fun at men: today's 'patriarch' is more likely to be depicted as a middle-aged domestic blunderer than as any kind of authority figure. So much for the passing on of a role model. From Men, Suicide and Society: "Men in mid-life are now part of the ‘buffer’ generation, not sure whether to be like their older, more traditional, strong, silent, austere fathers or like their younger, more progressive, individualistic sons." They're also somewhere between invisible and valueless: a recent news report told us that a group of eight migrants saved from a sinking small boat "included one woman"; any report on a disaster will routinely make clear that the casualties "included women and children". What's the value of a disadvantaged white man in a news report?
None of this adds up to an argument that we should suddenly turn our attention to mens' rights. Because men are still - for want of a better expression - the bad guys. The 2016 Glastonbury Festival included a venue called The Sisterhood, which was "an intersectional, queer, trans and disability-inclusive space open to all people who identify as women". People who identified as men were excluded. Why? "Women-only spaces are necessary in a world that is still run by and designed to benefit mainly men. Oppression against women continues in various manifestations around the world today, in different cultural contexts." Fair enough. But my question would be: who's running and designing the world to benefit mainly men? Because the world is not being designed and run by disadvantaged white men, and they're certainly not the beneficiaries.
Mostly, the world is being run by advantaged white men, with some parts of it run by advantaged non-white men, and in some places, advantaged women. Mostly, it's men. Mostly, they're white. All of them are by definition advantaged, whether or not they realise, acknowledge and/or accept that. If The Sisterhood has a purpose, it is to give the disadvantaged a space. It would be ridiculous to compare The Sisterhood's exclusion of men with the way the old-time London clubs used to exclude women (some still do, I think) - except to make the point that disadvantaged white men would be excluded from both. Advantaged white men design and run the world to benefit their own kind - which is not the same as saying that men run the world for men. There's a small, self-perpetuating group of white men that sets itself apart from other white men, as well as from everybody else.
Generally speaking, we don't have to declare our support for the disadvantaged, because it's assumed. We could all complete the sentences "I am a..." and "I am not a..." with a word that ends in "-ist". But we don't have to, because being a feminist and not being a racist (for example) are taken for granted as the default position for any right-thinking person. We don't discriminate.
And yet we do. There's no similarly taken-for-granted "-ism" for disadvantaged white men in mid-life, although the suicide statistics suggest that they need one. We may have learned (from history, from the way men behave) a collection of negative associations to go with the qualities "white" and "male", but today's disadvantaged white men are as disadvantaged as the rest of us.
And they're killing themselves.
Excluding men from a women-only space makes as much sense as excluding women from a men-only space, but it's not the same as excluding oppressors from an oppressed-only space.
Except ... all men are potentially dangerous. More so than women, say the statistics.
There is no easy answer to this.
One answer to the "male suicide emergency" would be to adjust government policy so that it helps out middle-aged white blokes. But wouldn’t that mean at least some redistribution of advantage away from people who are not middle-aged, nor white, nor blokes? Imagine the political fall-out, and the unintended consequences.
Sometimes, I just want to argue against the classification of people into easily labelled groups – although I suppose our least-worst approach to government requires it. But it’s difficult sometimes to keep in mind that every hard-working family that is just about managing, or disadvantaged white man, or whatever other shorthand classification we’re using today, is in truth a collection of distinct individuals. I want to argue for empathy.
Maybe trying to fix things is the wrong approach. Maybe identifying a problem and then looking for a solution – even making the assumption that there will be a solution – is to mistake the nature of the world. It’s imperfect. Trying to fix it won’t change that. Forget about hard-working families and go make friends with the people next door.
And be careful.