The making of machismo: Men - violent, dangerous, even useless - are taking the blame for society's problems, says Nick Cohen

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The Independent Online
IS CRIME really a problem about men, who, after all, make up the vast majority of defendants before the courts? If we want to combat it do we need to re-examine our ideas about what constitutes masculinity, find new models for what a man should be and bring boys up differently?

It was these questions about the nature of men, rather than the usual arguments about unemployment, one-parent families and the breakdown of discipline, which dominated a conference on families, children and crime, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Independent on Sunday, in London last week. 'No matter which way you cut the statistics,' said Angela Phillips, an author and journalist, 'one factor is always closely correlated with criminality and that is the presence of a Y (male) chromosome.' She added: 'Perhaps it is time we considered the possibility that in our society . . . there is something pathological about the way in which boys are raised.'

The writer, Beatrix Campbell, had no doubts. Young men on council estates are engaged in a 'militaristic' culture of crime, she said. 'They celebrate war, force and hierarchies as ways of sorting things out.' The Government does nothing to stop them. 'Like battered women, estates have been abandoned by statutory agencies and left to the mercy of their most dangerous elements.' Young men were terrorising their neighbourhoods while mothers struggled to protect their children from violence and terror. The police ought to be protecting the women but - themselves part of a 'macho' culture - were failing.

Christine McCaughey, a probation officer, was equally sure that masculinity was the problem. 'Crime is incompatible with society's agenda for femininity and compatible with its agenda for masculinity,' she said. 'The traditional male-gender role encourages a preoccupation with status, success, competitiveness, impulsiveness, bravado, hedonism and contempt for qualities construed as feminine.'

Young men's, and particularly poor young men's sexuality, was held by some to be at the root of crime. Beatrix Campbell portrayed car theft as a metaphor for troubled masculinity. 'Men love the interior of cars,' she said. 'They want to possess them. I imagine (car theft) is a surrogate rape fantasy of men's, in which they occupy cars and make them their own.' The Home Office, she argued, was pandering to the fantasies of the joyriders they meant to combat, by using a picture of jackals surrounding a gleaming saloon in an advertisement urging people to lock their cars. The jackals in the advertisement were men 'wanting to rape the interior', Ms Campbell explained, and were shown 'caressing the feminine curves of the car' as they tried to break in.

Such feminist views come surprisingly close to some right-wing arguments. Indeed, the gap between a part of the left and a part of the right on social policy is far smaller than either imagines. The right, informed by 'core values' about the importance of family life and responsibility, blames poor single mothers for going on the dole, jumping the housing queue and causing crime by bringing up children in fatherless families. The left, informed by a feminist concern for women victims, blames men, unemployed or on low wages, for causing crime by following violent male stereotypes. Both, in effect, agree that the poor are the problem. And at last week's conference the left's version of the argument was treated sympathetically by an audience of probation officers, academics, and social and charity workers.

Twenty years ago, this approach would have been unthinkable from either left or right. In October 1974, when Sir Keith Joseph said in Birmingham that 'our human stock is threatened' by the rising proportion of children born to 'mothers least fitted to bring children into the world', the outcry was so great it forced him to abandon his plans to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party. For the subsequent change in sensibility, Edward Heath blames the passing from politics of the wartime generation, which was forced by necessity to see how the other half lived and thus developed greater empathy. To this could be added the belief, since the early Seventies, that mass unemployment in the West was here to stay and could not be tackled.

Anna Coote, a fellow of the IPPR, who chaired one of the conference sessions, noted that 'we haven't talked very much about employment for men'.

As she argued here last week, unemployment has deprived many working-class young men of a role in life. Young women, now less likely to be unemployed than young men, have added a breadwinning role without losing their role of wife and mother.

Yet some speakers at the conference thought that, in work or out of work, men were of little use in bringing up children. Ms Phillips, for example, said that little girls were raised by women and saw women 'clean, cook, and care for her and her siblings'. They thus had a clear view of what kinds of lives they might lead and what kinds of roles they might perform when they grew up. Little boys did not see their fathers performing a traditional breadwinning role. With no adult male role models to follow, they were inducted into the 'coercive process of masculinisation' by other boys. They '. . . fight at school, come home and wrestle with their fathers in the garden', Ms Phillips said. A little boy thus feels ' . . . an inner sense of confidence that he is doing something (fighting) that men do'.

But this is surely too gloomy and deterministic a view. It begs the question - given that many middle-class boys, if anything, see even less of busy fathers than working-class boys - of why all males do not turn to violent crime. Indeed, why is it that, even in areas of high deprivation, the majority do not? About 90 per cent of people found guilty of indictable offences are indeed men, the conference was repeatedly reminded. But it should have been added that in 1992, 94 per cent of those offences were not outbreaks of dangerous machismo, but minor offences against property - dubbed 'wimp crimes'.

So how can the number of criminal men be reduced? The feminists called for cultural change, but their view of men as being socially, perhaps even genetically, programmed for violence and insensitivity, is pessimistic.

Ms Phillips argued that boys 'need to have men around them who are not cardboard cut-out figures'. She said: 'They need fathers who will teach them that family life is something they can participate in on equal terms with women.

'It will,' she conceded, 'take a long time to produce a generation of fathers like that.'

In a strange way, Ms Phillips echoed David Willetts, the Conservative MP for Havant and former policy director of the Centre for Policy Studies, who also talked of the need for transformation in attitudes, and said Britain could only be a less violent country if it had common goals. But as soon as he spoke, the fragmentation of modern Britain became apparent. Were common goals possible or desirable in a multiracial society, members of the audience asked? And who should say what they were?

The one recommendation nearly every speaker made was for universal nursery education. David Utting, research fellow at the Family Policy Studies Centre, was one of many who quoted an American study that showed that money spent on a child's pre-primary- school education would be recouped many times over. When the child grew up, they would be less likely to offend and more likely to pay taxes, the study found.

But Mary Tuck, former head of research at the Home Office, was not convinced. She gently mocked the 'dinner-party view of the family' - the liberal belief that the state's failure to provide child support led to crime, which was the reverse side of the 'saloon bar view' that there were too many single mothers. She did not subscribe to the belief that childcare alone could cut crime. 'Men can be good fathers and families do benefit if two parents are there.'

Mrs Tuck was an energetic part of a movement inside the Home Office in the late Eighties and early Nineties that rediscovered faith in rehabilitating criminals. Along with Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Lord Justice Woolf, author of the report on the Strangeways Riot, she rejected the prevailing orthodoxy that nothing done with criminals worked and emphasised that education and treatment for offenders outside jail did reduce the likelihood that they would reoffend. These ideas have now been abandoned by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Mrs Tuck pointed out that good research on what crime strategies worked (prison was not one of them) had only been noticed by a liberal elite and had not percolated to a wider public.

The only speaker who was genuinely optimistic was Tony Blair, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman. Mr Blair argued that John Major and his back to basics campaign misunderstood the modern world. The Government's talk of targeting single mothers was doomed to political failure because there were too many of them and because they all had relatives who knew how hard they struggled. Mr Blair could well have added that, now there are so few married couples who can be confident they will stay together forever, the prospect of eventually being a single mother must be in the back of many women voters' minds.

Mr Blair said that it was impossible to talk about families and crime without discussing the wider community, social responsibility and jobs. 'The modern view of the individual and community should surely be one in which rights and responsibilities go together,' he said. The purpose of state policies should not be to replace individual responsibility but to improve its chances of development.

Families were crucial to an individual's development, Mr Blair said, but they did not exist in a social vacuum. 'It is common sense to say that if the family has a decent income, lives in pleasant surroundings and has access to high-quality education, raising a child well is made easier.'

It was standard Labour rhetoric, perhaps, and some of those who listened thought it old-fashioned and unadventurous. But Mr Blair at least offered more hope than those who seemed to argue that we should despair of men.