Young men need better role models than Jordan Peterson

We are losing the battle for the minds and bodies of our young men.

There is no doubt it is a strange and confusing time to be a younger man. They're standing alone, just in their late teens or early 20s, watching nervously as a quickly spreading and incendiary global debate starts to heat their toes: what does it mean to be a man?

It is the role in society, even, I'd argue, an obligation, of every man with a bit of life under his belt, a little grey in the beard (and ears), to become a positive model of modern manhood.

We need to stand up and start a conversation, do some talking.

Because at the moment all the talking is telling young men that there's something wrong with them, simply because they're men. They're told the perfumed evil of feminism has stolen something from them, that they are right to feel angry, alienated and disenfranchised.

Darkweb of misinformation

Consider the "rock star" of the right, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, on a speaking tour of Australia right now. He has 1.9 million subscribers on his YouTube channel and has so far reached 45 million views. Every school shooter, every involuntary celibate (incel), every men's rights activist, in his mum's garage with his samurai sword collection, axolotl and laptop, gets one hundred percent of his initial contact, information and ultimately, sense of community, online.

Petersen's core message is one of individual responsibility. But within is hidden a clever rhetoric against feminism, equality, social justice and discussion on gender, driven by a purposely bamboozling vocabulary, which lends false gravitas, that is compelling to his information-poor audience.

Feminist commentators, like Jane Caro, Clementine Ford, Tracey Spicer, and many others, for years screaming into the void, have called for "male allies" in the fight for women to achieve the basic human right of equality.

It is up to those of us with a voice and an intelligent argument to make, to stand up and say, loud, proud and strong, that it not a bad thing to be a man. It is wonderful. We have extraordinary bodies, strength and abilities that are beautiful and a joy to be around … when we get it right.


The masculine misconception

The term toxic masculinity has been stolen and misused in the debate, especially since #MeToo lit a bomb under the world-wide discussion on what it means to be a man.

Masculinity in itself is not toxic. Personally, I'm delighted to be a man and enjoy all that comes with it. There is not one part of my masculinity I feel ashamed of.

Young men need to know that the best, most rewarding relationships with women, and everyone, happen when they value others as a being on the planet with equal rights.

They need to know that to be an "alpha" male is actually to be the most loving, the most compassionate, a "consoler-in-chief", not a commander in chief. The term has been lifted and, again, misused, from the 1983 book by Professor Frans de Waal, called Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes.     

de Waal paints a compelling picture of strength at its best in the position of alpha in ape society. He settles disputes. He soothes. He is fair, kind and compassionate. The role has little to do with physical strength or winning fights.

A silver lining

Young men need to see a model of positive masculinity among the silverbacks in their group. Tim Winton has written of his despair at the state of young men and how men "need to provide better modelling". He wrote evocatively, in The Guardian last year, that young men are having the "tenderness shamed out of them" as they "pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the shithead army".

Older men need to notice young men, and engage with them, our nephews, sons of friends, young blokes at work.

"The first step is to notice them, to find them worthy of our interest … how else can we take responsibility for them? And it's men who need to step up and finally take their full share of that responsibility," Winton writes.

We do need to shine a light on the bad elements of masculinity, those learned and enforced behaviours of being the tough, stoic, strong, leader who never needs any help … until he kills himself or someone else.

We need to walk and talk a new masculinity, where empathy, compassion, laughter, conversation and tenderness are valued more than being the tough guy.

A better man

Jordan Peterson is right that we all have an individual responsibility, to ourselves and each other. That responsibility is to make sure everyone on the planet enjoys the same individual rights and freedoms.

For young men, that responsibility includes thinking about, looking for and engaging with, a better masculinity. They need to be shown how to be better than sucking up the worst of YouTube and to engage in some critical thinking.

It is the role of older men to not only be there when they come looking, but put our hands up and say, "Hey, Mate, over here. I'd love to have a chat with you about something …"

It's an obligation.

Phil Barker is the author of The Revolution of Man, Allen & Unwin.