Hard lesson for men afraid to show us their soft side
Men are on their way out. According to a provocative new book by American journalist Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, women have adapted successfully to modern socio-economic changes, leaving men on the sidelines, feeling dismayed, out-performed and redundant in more ways than one.
I'm not convinced by the broad sweep of Rosin's argument: across many countries, there's still a huge gender wage-gap, a woeful lack of women in positions of power in politics and public life and guess who's still doing the majority of cooking, cleaning and childcare?
But while men, as a general category, continue to hold almost all the cards of privilege and power, it's true that life is increasingly challenging for many individual males, who struggle to make sense of a world where their historical roles of authority and unquestioned competence are fast melting away.
At first glance, you would think Northern Ireland was a great place to be male. Men are still very much at the helm here: the place is over-run with corpulent, self-righteous old blokes in blazers with brass buttons, telling all the rest of us what to do and how to think.
Stormont is bubbling with testosterone: the few female representatives we have are regularly excluded and the men often make the real decisions, with a nod and a wink, behind closed doors.
Our politics set the tone for a macho culture of guldering, grand-standing and unsophisticated, one-dimensional arguments.
It encourages the tribal boneheads and knuckle-draggers, who can't hold more than one thought in their heads at any given time, witlessly assuming that, if you attack unionist tactics, you must be a republican and vice-versa.
It's the same if you criticise fundamentalist Christians — it's immediately assumed you must be in league with the devil, or at least Richard Dawkins. It's stupid, neanderthal thinking, or rather non-thinking. We can do better than this.
Gay rights, in particular, seem to bring certain male unionists out in a parodic performance of beefed-up heterosexuality, an almost physical rejection of all things gay. (Republicans, on the other hand, tend to channel their macho side in a guttural, don't-mess-with-me Belfast twang.)
Ian Paisley Jnr has perfected the swagger, the chortle, the loud pinstripe suits and even louder repudiation of homosexual practices, but Sammy Wilson has been learning fast. On Monday at the Assembly, he kicked the gay marriage proposal into touch with macho aplomb.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, at the Ulster Covenant commemorations, the Rev Alistair Smyth, one of the high wizards of the Orange Order, took the opportunity to rail at Westminster for “encouraging homosexual activities”. And Jim Allister has been prominent on the airwaves, getting himself into an outraged lather at the sheer “absurdity” of gay marriage.
Unwavering straightness is represented as the ideal, clean, God-given state, while gayness is implicitly characterised as dirty, evil and unnatural.
But what is it about heterosexuality that they find so pure? When it comes to domestic abuse, rape and child-abuse, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are male heterosexuals. And there is nothing clean, or natural, about that fact.
The reality is that the institution of marriage is as tough as old boots. Jim, Alistair, Sammy and the rest of the lads act as though some fragile citadel of sanctity is about to be stormed by dykes in Doc Martens, but — just like masculinity itself — marriage, as we know it, is not about to be crushed underfoot, whether gay people are allowed to partake, or not.
Being macho is essentially a show of bravado, an extravagant and sometimes aggressive display of male virility and power. In the animal world, male peacocks fan their tails and turkeys wobble their impressive wattles.
Here in Northern Ireland, male politicians strut the corridors of Stormont with a sense of entitlement, male bands in lurid uniforms march the streets and shaven-headed men prowl through our parks with Rottweilers on chunky leads.
But all too often, there's nothing behind this elaborate performance, except fear and frustration. Because macho culture has nothing real to offer anyone, including men themselves. If men are taught that they must constantly maintain a facade of toughness and control, even when they are frightened or upset, they will suffer and decline.
Admitting vulnerability is actually a form of strength. And the sooner the men of Northern Ireland realise that, the better it will be for them — and all of us.