Hard News by Russell Brown

I, Bloke

I'm a heterosexual male, me. And the last time I saw some, my blood was definitely red. I'm proud of it - to the extent that one can can feel pride in an accident of birth - and very definitely comfortable with it. Like the ad says, it's great to be a guy. I'm not threatened by anyone who isn't like me, whether by virtue of gender or sexual orientation. Why on earth should I be?

I certainly don't have a problem with the fact that we've had two female Prime Ministers in a row, that we have a female Chief Justice, or that a woman the same age as me runs Telecom. They all got there on merit, and, given the history of 150-odd years of nationhood, they represent a welcome evening-up of the batting average. I like the way that John Tamihere habitually refers to his party leader as "The Boss": prosaic, gender irrelevant. I might note that the women I've worked for have probably been, if anything, better managers on average than the men.

Whilst I am irrevocably male, I have certainly had the opportunity to be non-heterosexual - indeed, as a young man I received one or two very specific invitations to (literally in one case) go down the path. I thought about it and was obliged to politely decline, on the basis that I just didn't fancy guys. Women, on the other hand ... don't they look great? Aren't they such a great shape and everything?

My preference has been for strong and intelligent women (like, why would "weak" and "stupid" be attractive anyway?) and, happily, I've been shacked up with one for many years.

All of which is a means to getting to the fact that I think John Tamihere's allegedly controversial speech on men and manhood (there's also an accompanying op-ed piece covering similar turf) was quite admirable - with one main exception, which we'll get out of the way now. He declared that "the pendulum of political correctness has swung too far" and implied that this was something to do with the problematic social statistics about men that he went on to list.

Tosh. Young men aren't five times more likely to cause a fatal road crash or 22 times more likely to be imprisoned than women because of "political correctness". You get that because young men are stupid and always have been. Don't get me wrong: male stupidity is as much a blessing as a curse. Our biological willingness to shoot for the moon, to embrace risk and forge out further than reason would dictate has been an engine of social and technological progress. It just also happens to get us killed and locked up sometimes.

I do recall a time, in the early 1980s, when perhaps there was more in what Tamihere said. It was called being "politically sound" back then, and one particular house I found myself living in was absolutely brimming with it. You had to be careful about how you used the word "girl", and a few guys were so consumed with guilt about oppressing women (including by having sex with them) that they actually tried to be gay. (Although one nice guy, who went on to some prominence, somehow managed to parlay not-being-oppressive into getting up a threesome with his girlfriend and another politically-sound young woman. Bastard.)

In this large household, the chaps would once a month be asked to clear out so that a women's evening could be held, and the local rad-les-fems could attend without having to breathe the same air as blokes. I didn't mind this at all - but where I drew the line was the idea of a corresponding men's evening, where we would all get together and, presumably, discuss how we might improve our sorry selves and avoid oppressing women. I figured I already had more positive ways of getting together with other chaps.

We've moved on from that now. Men are different to women, and have different needs. Male bonding over a beer, at the rugby, or on a stag night, works real good for me. At the same time, I've always enjoyed the company of women (tip for young blokes: being a sensitive new-age guy is actually a great way to meet girls).

On the other hand, we shouldn't understimate the degree of change in New Zealand male culture in the past two or three decades. Kiwi blokes once did not embrace beyond a handshake - now the All Blacks barely seem to stop hugging each other long enough to play rugby.

A good deal of what Tamihere was talking about revolved around fatherhood, which, ideally ought to provide the impetus for the men who encounter it to be more focused, more responsible and less selfish. It's the most important thing that most of us do, and it demands a sense of strength and guardianship that goes beyond mere muscle. And when you consider that for women parenthood involves having your genitals split asunder, it's actually not a bad deal.

It's far less common now for New Zealand men to treat their wives as surrogate mothers. The overwhelming majority of men now attend the births of their children. Some of us cook up a storm. This doesn't make us "metrosexual" or "just gay enough", just genuine partners in love and life.

More controversially, I think even gay men often have a fathering, or at least mentoring, role. Being gay doesn't mean you don't need role models, and for every old poof cruising K Road for boys, you'll find many more who have a kind of caring role for young men going through the still-fraught business of being young and queer. It is - and I know this might outrage some people - a kind of family.

But, returning to the red-blooded heterosexual mainstream, the social issues facing men in modern society, as outlined by Tamihere, are important. They aren't necessarily new - men have been doing most of the crime and wiping themselves out throughout human history - but there is great social merit in addressing them. Indeed, many of them are addressed by, say, the same politically-correct public health officials who routinely get a bagging for targeting resources to such risk groups as Maori also target resources at young men.

Some of the apparent failure of boys in the school system is simply a matter of the relatively better performance of girls in that system. In other respects, we may well have a problem. So what to do? More male teachers would be a fine thing: in their collective 10 years of schooling, my two boys have had one year with a male teacher between them. You could address that by paying teachers more (for all the mourning of our status, men still earn more than women, and still have broader employment options) and by specifically addressing the needs of boys in education. These are intelligent responses.

I think the issue isn't, as Tamihere had it, just society's perceptions of men, but also young men's perceptions of themselves. I've just done an interview with Yvonne Densem about the fall-off in young men seeking to enter journalism, for next week's Mediawatch. She found in a study that while young men held the profession in relatively high regard, they often saw it as too studious and too responsible a job for them. The positive media role models they identified were men who might sometimes be a bit risque or surprising - the likes of Martin Devlin and John Campbell (they seemed to like John much more for the fact fact that he utters the odd "bugger" or "bloody" than for his excellent grooming or journalistic style). This is fine in a way - I like to be a bit risque and surprising myself, y'know - but focus can be fun too.

It might have been useful for Tamihere to acknowledge that for a fair stretch of his adult life he didn't himself meet the admirable standards he was recommending. We all grow and learn and we don't always get it right.

So anyway, it was a good speech, mostly - and Sean Plunket's forlorn attempt to get Tamihere to say something dumb about "The Boss" on Morning Report today was an exercise in completely missing the point. Men, in particular as fathers, need to learn that they can be leaders by example rather than social demarcation, be responsible without having to run the show, and be strong without being violent. Just leave "political correctness" out of it.