That’s Men: Beware of creating the strong man

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 01:00

Beware the strong man. Or, more accurately, beware behaving in ways that create the demand for a strong man to protect the weak. The thought occurred as I read a review in The Psychologist on the role of the strong man in the history of the past 100 years.

Researcher Steve Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, recalls getting dirty looks a quarter of a century ago as he lounged by a swimming pool in the Black Sea city of Varna where he was attending a psychology conference.

The dirty looks, he realised, were caused by the book he was reading. Not only was it called Male Fantasies but “the front cover sported a lurid picture of a naked man on a stallion with swastikas in the background.”

Needless to say he put the book away quickly – though it was, in fact, a scholarly analysis of the rise of the Nazis, and not a male, 1980s version of Fifty Shades of Grey .

The book attributed the successful rise of the Nazis to a combination of two factors: damaged German pride and “wounded masculinity” after the humiliation of Germany by the Treaty of Versailles following the first World War .

One town even had the following words carved in stone on a monument: “We eagerly await the coming of the man whose strong hand may restore order.”

Hitler, of course, was that strong man. Mussolini, too, helped many Italians to overcome their sense of having been cheated by Britain, France and the US at Versailles.

He may even have fit the strong man stereotype better than Hitler. “He loved to be pictured, stripped to the waist, performing manual tasks,” write Reicher and his colleague Alex Haslam of the University of Queenland. The ideal image of the Italian nation came to be symbolised by “his torso and his jutting jaw.”

All of which takes us, needless to say, to Vladimir Putin. We used to like to laugh at his bare-chested displays of masculinity – I don’t think we’re laughing anymore.

Russia, too felt humiliated after the collapse of Communism in the 1990s, the authors suggest, and this humiliation was completed by the “slapstick administration” of Boris Yeltsin.

Then along comes Putin with his aura of “aggressive, homophobic, patriarchal force.” Another strong man – and we know what strong men have brought with them in the past: a redemption of national pride that ends in catastrophe.

Reicher and Haslam argue that the democratic nations of the West need to learn lessons from all this: the more we insist on imposing our economic, political and moral values on those we defeat, the more we create a space in which the strong man may appear to be the best hope of the humiliated.

I once eavesdropped on two men in Dublin Airport expressing their contempt for a certain “effing” Irish businessman with an international reputation for aggressiveness. Then one of them paused before declaring: “He’d be a great man to run the country, but.”

We too have a sneaking regard for the strong man.

Addendum: Should loneliness be viewed as a major health problem? Research conducted by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago suggests it should. The study looked at mortality rates in people over the age of 50 for a six year period.

Those who were most lonely were almost twice as likely to die as those who were most connected with others. The research comes in the wake of studies in a number of countries showing that people with good social networks are less likely to suffer dementia than those who are isolated. In an era in which individualism has been steadily increasing, the findings have important implications for health and for quality of life.

Loneliness may be an invisible condition – the lonely are often hidden behind the doors of their houses and apartments – but it can kill for all that, and emotionally painfully too. And it could become the fate of any of us in the wrong circumstances.


Pádraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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