Although the Epiphany is an important celebration in the Church’s life, it remains in some ways a feast day we dread. After all, it is a miserable business: the process of removing the decorations from the Christmas tree and packing up boxes of tinsel, with only a wilting poinsettia watching the festive curtain call. Rightly or wrongly, the day which marks the season’s end is for many the inaugural day of the January Blues.
The climax of the January Blues is said to occur on the third Monday of January, which was described in the press last year as Blue Monday. Blue Monday is allegedly the unhappiest day of the year for men and women across the country, who are struggling to cope with the anti-climax following Christmas and their already failed resolutions for the year ahead.
Though we often speak of them flippantly, a study of New Year’s resolutions over the past 50 years could provide some valuable insights into the evolution of our desires and expectations. It might also help us to measure the spiritual and moral health of society. Would we discover that our definition of happiness and how best to pursue it has changed significantly?
Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, is famous for his observations concerning moral consensus and what this revealed about society. Durkheim’s most famous piece of research, published in 1897, presented suicide rates across Europe as a sort of social barometer. He concluded that a certain category of suicide was more likely in societies where consensus has broken down. He said a lack of moral consensus, along with weak social norms, rendered the individual’s appetite insatiable, leaving them in a state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
Although gloomy, at least January provides the period of reflection that we were supposed to cultivate during Advent. In this spirit, I wonder what Durkheim would conclude about the state of Britain’s moral consensus today, The recent debate about the definition of marriage or the legalisation of assisted suicide surely reveals that the consensus has splintered, with fundamental principles now up for debate.
One notable similarity, more than 100 years after his research, is that suicide is still more common among men than women. According to the Office for National Statistics, 4,552 men committed suicide in Britain in 2011 – more than three times the number of women.
Why is a man aged between 30 and 44 three times more likely to commit suicide than a woman?
It doesn’t require a degree in Gender Studies to reflect on this discrepancy between the sexes and its broader significance. An unfashionable question pricks the conscience: is society failing men? Ironically, it is very difficult to imbibe today’s politics and media without concluding that men are an over-represented, disproportionately successful tribe. But this particular needle has stuck, as can be seen in the endlessly repeated news items on sexism in the workplace, in the classroom, in the home, in the boardroom and even on the bus. Such preoccupations, though often valid, risk ignoring other fundamental gender discrepancies in wider society. For example, the homeless charity St Mungo’s latest report states that 73 per cent of their clients are male. The Manna Society in London reports that in the summer of 2013, 93 per cent of its clients were also male. This gender imbalance does not come as a surprise when we think of the majority of the faces we encounter outside stations and cathedrals.
The common portrayal of men as an army of the suited, booted and powerful does not represent those who are at the very bottom of the heap, homeless or in despair. Figures who are highly influential in social media and politics, who pride themselves on being pioneers of gender equality, could use the season of January Blues to highlight that, statistically, men are much more likely to kill themselves or to sleep rough.
Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, recently highlighted the latest popular gender debate via her Twitter account. It concerned Marks & Spencer’s decision to introduce “gender neutral” toys following complaints from customers. Creasy tweeted: “If it annoys some so much girls might want 2 play with cars, imagine how they’d feel if they knew also wanted 2 run companies & stuff! ;-@”
Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, has also added her voice to the debate, writing: “The ramifications of gender stereotyping in the early, formative years can be felt deeply in later life. As Early Years Practitioner Leanne Shaw points out: ‘If girls are offered only princess clothes to dress up in, they will only act as princesses. They will be limited in their imagination, not having the opportunity to problem-solve how to put out a fire as a fire fighter, or to bandage up a limb as a doctor.’”
If Lucas’s prediction about the rigidity of childhood ambition were true, society would be gradually overrun by ballerinas and astronauts. Fortunately, children’s ambitions tend to evolve with age.
When you consider the bigger picture, this type of hand-wringing is a pastime for the few who have the luxury of dedicating themselves to the pursuit of limitless equality. Is there anything really wrong with encouraging our sons to play with cars and our daughters to play with Barbie? There is a strange paradox with modern-day champions of diversity: it is that they are determined to propagate the idea that we are all exactly the same. Accepting common differences between the sexes has become taboo.
Just as with femininity, traditional masculinity should be welcomed and honed, not suppressed or abolished. The fanatical emphasis on gender equality risks bulldozing men completely out of the picture, leaving them at a loss as to what role models it is socially acceptable to aspire to and how exactly they should fit into society.
Although it is often perceived as the enemy of equality between the sexes, the Church has a lot to offer men, especially as many face a challenging year ahead, looking for work to support their families, or a home for their loved ones. Aside from the charities supported and run by Catholics, the Church can offer males something at a fundamental level as well. Promoting the notion of vocation, whether as a husband, a priest or a single man, reminds men that they each have something vital to contribute.
With our social and moral consensus eroding, the Church can fill a void by encouraging men to embrace their masculinity without shame, guided by a fundamental conviction to love and respect their female neighbour. Should this begin to form part of our moral consensus, 2014 could be the year for truly authentic gender equality.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (3/1/14)