The Pervasive Poison of Machismo

Big Bottle of PoisonMy take on the horrors which were inflicted on the Gaza flotilla is perhaps slightly different than most. I can’t help at look at the events of the past few days and think Israel has made itself a dunce among nations. If they really wanted to avoid a conflict, they should have let the ships through. Furthermore, they should have allowed them to unload their cargo unmolested. No doubt Hamas would have made a big show of their arrival, fired a few guns in the air, and then the activists would have gone home. It would have been forgotten by the media in about 48 hours as it wouldn’t have qualified for the old maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads”. Afterwards, things would have continued as previously. However Israel decided that it had to appear tough; the fallout from their brutality is becoming more dire by the day. Turkey is referring the matter to NATO, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have offered to escort further convoys. Machismo in this case made matters so much worse than they could have been; yet Israel is apparently unrepentant.

However this is not the only recent instance in which the need to appear strong has superceded sense. One of the most irritating aspects of the New Labour Government was its near-total inability to admit error. There were a few exceptions which proved the rule. For example, Alistair Darling dared to admit that things were bad, and apparently the “forces of hell” were unleashed against him. More typical was Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, who found it difficult to acknowledge any mishandling of the Gurkhas’ case. The avatar of New Labour, Peter Mandelson, attacked anyone who dared to question his party’s competence or credibility. It was so absurd and insulting that I found myself at times screaming “Be human!” at the television, a rage that was only soothed by the likes of Darling, Nick Brown or Tessa Jowell, who were sufficiently clever to acknowledge fault openly. But overall, Labour hasn’t learned any lessons. It does not appear that the upcoming leadership election is going to be a choice from among the humble: humility is not a defining characteristic of the Milibands, and as for their most obnoxious opponent, I suggest the Labour movement needs less Balls, more brains.

Machismo even transcends the constraints of science and engineering. President Obama is presently in trouble because of his inability to find the right emotional register in relation to the Louisiana oil spill. Apparently the public needs to see him get angry at BP for its lack of care and concern. The President’s Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, stated when pushed on the issue that the President did indeed get angry, after all, Barack’s jaw clenches. Somehow remaining dispassionate and thoughtful in this instance is perceived as weakness or showing a lack of empathy, rather than as an attempt to be purposeful and constructive.

North Korea is a swaggering state. Its people are subject to famines, yet as a recent trip by the reporter Sue Lloyd of BBC’s Newsnight indicated, they are very hesitant to admit they need anything. For example, during a visit to a collective farm, one of Ms. Lloyd’s minders felt the need to stand in front of an approaching tractor in order to block the view of a prominent European Union logo. The party line was to say that the state produced everything the people needed, in spite of it being absurdly obvious that it wasn’t true.

Emotional incontinence is also prominent feature of economic life. I recently consulted with an academic who is preparing a research project which will examine the cultural aspects of boom and bust. As part of her preliminary work, she had taken some time to absorb the culture of the trading floor. The language used by the brokers is apparently sexual and graphic: if they’ve done well, then the trader has been the perpetrator of coitus, if they’ve done poorly, then the trader has been the unwilling recipient. This is not merely a matter of throwaway statements, it is an ongoing dialogue between the market and the individual. One might expect instead, however, that these people would be attempting to make rational decisions about how and where money should go and what investments to support; not at all, it appears that beating the market is some sort of triumph more akin to the Vikings pillaging a Northumbrian village.

On a more micro-level, I’ve seen mistakes persist in spite of the fact that saying, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, let’s try a different approach” would have been less costly for all concerned. All of the above cases indicate that far too many people are performing for an audience, real or imagined. They are metaphorically stripped to the waist and carrying a short sword in the arena of gladiatorial combat. The blood may race, the pulse may quicken, and even triumphs may be achieved, but in the final analysis, this is killing us. Imagine if Gordon Brown had been able to say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, let’s try a different approach” at the beginning of the credit crisis? It’s likely he would have been able to enact more progressive policies to alleviate the slump, and while there would have been some flak for admitting failure, at least much of error’s stain would have been expunged by the abandonment of hubris. Imagine if the media emphasised thinking over feeling? Perhaps their focus then would have been on what intellectual firepower President Obama is bringing to bear on the problem of the oil spill; indeed, his focus would be more on solving the actual problem than handling the publicity associated with it. Imagine if market traders operated in an atmosphere in which they carefully sorted through their investments, did their homework and didn’t think of it as series of one-night stands: perhaps they would have looked at the contents of complex derivatives and realised that despite the potential returns, it wasn’t worth the risk. However, some pathological need to appear strong is preventing us from being a stronger society.

I wish I could say that I believe more women in top jobs is a particular answer; I have a tendency not to believe in silver bullets. Margaret Thatcher was certainly not lacking in testosterone, even if excessive use of this quality offended and dismayed colleagues: in the end, this felled her. However, a more gender-balanced approach could help change the culture from one based on pseudo-virility to one based on reason and humility. It is this change that we need; the pervasive poison of our present culture is literally murdering people in settings as diverse as off the shores of Gaza and the famine-plagued cities of North Korea. According to the Catholic Catechism, pride is one of the seven deadly sins: when one first hears it, it may not seem so. After all, what’s wrong with having self-esteem? Progress, however, may be achieved by recognising that in many instances it has tipped over from a matter of acknowledging one’s own worth to being an absolute menace to mankind.

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