Prior to becoming the Head of the South Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit in 2021 I worked for many years in the Probation Service. During that career I worked with many, many men convicted of violent offences both in Prison and in the community. This included men serving life sentences for murder. Many of the offences were for violence between men and commonly both victim and aggressor did not know each other prior to the violence taking place. Frequently the trigger for the violence was some perceived insult or disrespectful act.
In the course of the work of a Probation Officer you try to understand why the offence took place and with that understanding help the perpetrator recognise how they could think and act differently in the future. However, the most common responses given at the start of these conversations were ‘I had no choice’ and ‘you would have done the same thing’. Neither of these statements is ‘true’ but were often firmly believed.
I was fortunate enough to work with Anthony Whitehead, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Huddersfield University who was exploring how men understand what being a man means. We are a product of nature and nurture so much of what is seen as manly is based on a construct of masculinity rather than biology. One of the themes of Mr Whitehead’s work was many men adopt the belief that real men ‘transcend their fear of danger’ – that ‘real men’ are affirmed as men by their fearlessness in the face of danger or threat. As young men grow up they are surrounded by imagery of the fearless man in films – examples include Rambo, Die Hard, The Equaliser, The Magnificent Seven, and almost any film with Clint Eastwood in it.
So, in a potential violent incident between two men this perception of being a real man has both participants afraid they may get hurt but even more afraid of being seen as afraid. Which is where the ‘I had no choice’ statement resonates – the fear of being seen to be afraid increases the pressure on the participants to follow through the threat to actual violence. The results include deaths and serious injuries, arrests, and convictions.
Men engage in more risky behaviour and die from injury and accidents far more than women. I can think of three young men amongst my friends who died in wholly unnecessary accidents growing up. Men commit suicide more than women. In 2021, 75,128 men were in prison compared to 3,196 women.
To help reduce violence and all the harm and pain it causes we need men to recognise the real man as ‘fearless hero’ is myth – a construct – and when acted out it harms and damages men. Buying into the ‘fearless hero’ is to men’s disadvantage – and being able to move away from the thinking and behaviours it encourages is better for men and for women and children.
The VRU has already been described as Wokey Snowflakes for its approach to violence – a relatively new insult and one I am happy to embrace. If reflecting on history and using our understanding of the past to improve and inform our future is being Woke, then sign me up!