From Plato To Sexism

28/09/2017 16:15


Sue Tibballs, in an article for Third Sector, suggests that campaigners should think of themselves as philosophers, asking questions, modern-day Platos. Absolutely we should, because it's only by understanding what and where the problem is can a strategy - or what's now termed a 'theory of change' - be developed. Understanding what the questions are help define which tools and avenues should be pursued to attain the changes sought. The right questions aren't always obvious.

Launching the charity, CALM, the starting question seemed clear. 'Why do more men take their lives than women?' It took a while to realise this question wasn't helpful. Men take their lives because of any number of reasons - money, depression, relationships, health, indeed men take their lives for the same reasons that women attempt to take their lives.

Instead, the question we needed to ask was why didn't we care? Why didn't the fact that more young men took their lives than died from any other single cause merit attention? People's response to the issue made this question a real itch.

All the health correspondents on the news desks knew about the problem. As did those within the Department of Health. Grant-makers like the Dept of Health, the Big Lottery and all the Trusts and Foundations in CALM's early days, none had a headline category that could be used to apply for funding to tackle male suicide. There was money for to tackled HIV/AIDs, or support prisoners, women, for children, for the elderly. But no headline category under which we could apply to tackle the single biggest killer of young men. This seemed extraordinary.

In CALM's early years, the pushback also came from within the suicide prevention arena itself. With the an almost automated response that "Suicide is complicated, it isn't just about gender. Now let's talk of policies for men and women," from suicide prevention experts and academics through to civil servants whose job it was to develop policy to prevent suicide, the issue was ducked, blanked or joked about to an extent that veered between the surreal, the comic and the downright tragic.

This was sexism. Unexpected, uncomfortable and surprising. As a society we didn't want to know, not just because 'suicide is dark', but because the victims here were men, and as such couldn't be proper men. Society's definition of manliness was someone in control, someone who wouldn't and shouldn't need help. A suicidal man therefore was sad, an embarrassment, not a proper man. As we started to push back, to question society's demand that men should be 'strong and silent', in control, invulnerable - then such notions began to be seen as the absurdity they were.

Pushing against accepted notions of masculinity became the way though to raising the issue of male suicide and getting the subject recognised. It was - and is - a campaign supported by artists, playwrights, musicians, poets, comedians and writers who have found a million different ways of pushing back against unhelpful and deadly stereotypes which demand not just that men are invulnerable, but also that they should be silent. Their many voices have helped create society where men are now allowed to look for help, to be freer to define their own identity. And collectively they've made sure that male suicide is taken seriously.

The road-block now is making sure that help is there.