We seem to have forgotten that boys will be boys
Our culture has lost its ability to channel the boisterousness of young men
Itâ€™s fruitless asking how to change male behaviour: we canâ€™t and never will
When Winston Churchill was a very young man he did something so stupid and irresponsible it could have cost us the war. During a game of chase with his cousin and his brother he found himself trapped on a bridge and, not wishing to be caught, he leapt over the side, tried to grab a fir tree, fell 29ft, ruptured a kidney and spent the next three days in a coma.
This would never happen now, of course. It just wouldnâ€™t be allowed. First, young Winston would have learnt early on from his female primary school teachers that such boisterousness isnâ€™t natural. Second, the message would have been reinforced by our rampant health and safety culture that reckless risk-taking poses a threat not only to the individual but also to the very fabric of society.
Perhaps this is the reason for all that pent-up male aggression noted by a Bristol judge yesterday, when sentencing two young men whoâ€™d got involved in a drunken brawl. Why, Crown Court recorder Frank Abbott wanted to know, had they insisted on having a fight?
Why couldnâ€™t they have behaved as chaps used to when he was a student: â€œWe would go shinnying up a telegraph pole then went naked in the swimming pool, but we didnâ€™t go around punching each other.â€
No indeed. Though Iâ€™m not quite of Abbottâ€™s generation, I can very much identify with what heâ€™s saying. Yes, as young men, we all sought regularly to get as heinously drunk as we possibly could. But never once did anyone I knew use this as an excuse to inflict violence on another person. First, we would have considered it ugly, brutish and wrong; second â€“ and just as important â€“ we would have thought it an appalling breach of etiquette.
The point of getting drunk was not to be unpleasant but to show spirit. Sure, that spirit might occasionally involve a bit of wanton destruction or light criminality (pinching a policemanâ€™s helmet being the holy grail), but any violence was a regrettable adjunct of the exercise rather than its main purpose. You were doing it to show how bold, uninhibited and fearless of the consequences you were, rather than because you had any desire to inflict misery or pain on anyone.
This is a subtle but key difference. As we know from literature going back at least as far as Roman times, the testosteronal boisterousness of young men has always been a problem.
But our various cultures found ways of channelling it and absorbing it.
War was the most practical solution. But when that wasnâ€™t available, there was always practice for war (archery, jousting, fencing, etc), sublimated combat (in the form of games, athletics contests, motor racing and so on) or ritualised male buffoonery such as you see at Oxbridge drinking clubs or on stag weekends.
Some of these safety valves still exist, of course, but theyâ€™re not nearly as prevalent (sport is an increasingly rare luxury at state schools), nor are they as culturally valued. In Victorian times, everything from the novels of Gâ€‰A Henty to cigarette cards featuring Wâ€‰G Grace to poems such as Newboltâ€™s â€œVitai Lampadaâ€ celebrated the vital social necessity of manly courage against the odds. Today we find that sort of attitude rather embarrassing.
Regrettably so, I think. As Iâ€™ve seen from my own childrenâ€™s school experiences, boys tend to perform better when theyâ€™ve got male teachers who can empathise with their natural thuggish idiocy than female ones who just want to pathologise it. In our feminised, sanitised times, we seem to have forgotten that boys will be boys and always will do stupid, dangerous things.
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s fruitless asking how to change male behaviour: we canâ€™t and never will. Rather, we should be asking ourselves how weâ€™d like our silly young men to behave: like those brawling lads up before judge Abbott. Or, as Iâ€™d prefer, like Winston.
Joyce Grenfell – “Nursery School”
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