Why is Samuel L Jackson Calling Men Dumb?

Samuel L Jackson dumb

Is getting celebrities to tell men they’re dumb the best way to prevent male cancer?

Samuel L Jackson made a trip to the UK recently to tell British men to stop being dumb. He hopes that doing this will help us solve one of the key health inequalities that men and boys experience. As a British man I’d like to say it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but it isn’t. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone suggest that men’s health inequalities are solely caused by our attitude and aptitude and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The reason Jackson is telling British men to stop being dumb is that he is fronting a new male cancer campaign called One For The Boys that is on a mission to “change male mentality”. The rationale is this—men in the UK are 60% more likely to get the cancers that affect all sexes and 70% more likely to die from these cancers. This is caused—so the thinking goes—by men being dumb. If only men would only stop being so dumb and talk about our health then we’d stop dying from cancer in greater numbers.

Personally, I’d say that Snakes On a Plane has more chance of being awarded a retroactive Oscar than Jackson has of ending men’s cancer inequalities by telling us to stop being dumb.

“If only men would only stop being so dumb and talk about our health then we’d stop dying from cancer in greater numbers.”

Those of us who are pioneering an integral approach to gender take a broader view of male and female problems. Firstly we take the radical view that women have problems and men have problems too. Secondly, when looking to address these problems we will always look at the ‘I’, the ‘we’ and the ‘its’. Put another way we consider, what’s happening personally, what’s happening culturally and what’s happening systemically.

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When we view men’s cancer inequalities from this broader perspective we soon discover that systemically we put less time, energy and money into fighting male cancer. This is demonstrated by three key facts:

  • We invest less funding into research about male cancers than female cancers.
  • Teenage girls in the UK and elsewhere are routinely vaccinated against HPV which the CDC says causes some male and female cancers, but so far only Australia is offering routine vaccinations for boys too.
  • Women in the UK and elsewhere are screened systematically for breast cancer and cervical cancer but no equivalent national screening programme exists to detect male-specific cancers.

These are measurable, systemic facts and it seems evident that if we treated men and boys equally and put equal amounts of time, money and energy into preventing male cancer then fewer men would die from the disease—and frankly when you look at the systemic evidence you’d have to be “dumb” not to see this.

“We put less time, energy and money into fighting male cancer.”

Then there’s the subjective world of what’s happening at a cultural level. One way to make sense of this aspect of the problem is to consider that there is an easy “bad man” cultural narrative, where men are painted as being at worst dangerous, and at best defective. My assertion is that everyone in the global men’s movement—in all its diversity—is at work trying to change the “bad man” narrative.

There are two distinct ways we are trying to do this—some of us accept the “bad man” characterization and work to change men and boys while others reject the “bad man” story and make challenging the narrative our starting point.

There are, of course, as with everything gendered, many nuances and shades to be found between these binary poles—and while the two extremes can often present themselves as being incompatibly hostile, they are actually trying to achieve the same thing—to change the “bad man” narrative that affects us all.

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So if we all want to change the “bad man” narrative, then how do we do it? Do we work hard to change and fix all men until there are no “bad man” left and the story dies of natural causes or do we try and speed up that dying process by killing  the “bad man” narrative dead in its tracks?

As far as initiatives like the Samuel L Jackson’s “don’t be dumb” campaign are concerned the answer is to label men dumb and defective and then try and fix us. This heroes and villains approach requires men to choose whether they are going to be a dumb-ass villain with a defective male mindset or the kick-ass hero who goes around telling all the dumb-ass men to stop being dumb!

But what if men aren’t defective and don’t need fixing?

“It doesn’t help men or women if men simply conform to a way they think they should behave.”

That’s certainly the perspective of the Australian psychologist and author, Dr Elizabeth Celi, who is one the world’s leading thinkers on men’s health and wellbeing and has a simple but powerful message for men: “you don’t need ‘fixing’-you need to be allowed to be you”.

According to Celi, men face huge expectations from society, the media, family and friends that lead to confusing messages. She describes the psychological struggles that men face as a battle between their “Regular Joe” who represents what’s really happening for them and their “Mr Invincible” who represents the male identity they think they should present to the world.

“It doesn’t help men or women if men simply conform to a way they think they should behave” says Celi. “Whether this is fitting into traditional male stereotypes (strong, independent, provider, tough, capable) or idealised male stereotypes (supportive, caring, strong, understanding, capable)”.

Celi certainly has a foot in the camp that’s out to challenge the “bad man” narrative. Her publicity materials say she “helps to debunk the negative myths and stereotypes about men – our fathers, husbands, uncles, grandfathers, sons and brothers…(and)…champions the need for more positive male role models through a renewed appreciation and mutual respect for the strengths and skills of men and masculinity, as they now apply, in the 21st Century.”

For Celi, this doesn’t mean ignoring the problems that men have, but it means respecting men for who they are, meeting men on their own terms and “assisting them to fulfil their lives in the best way possible”.

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I’ve met other men and women with a similar philosophy towards helping men as Celi and they are generally highly experienced people who are proudly, positive about men and boys and have real life experience of making a difference.

“These pioneers in men’s work are developing new narratives and stories that help us make sense of gender from a male perspective.”

These pioneers in men’s work are developing new narratives and stories that help us make sense of gender from a male perspective. Celi’s approach is to help men get beneath “Mr Invincible” and help their “Regular Joe” to identify and express their “True Man”. She’s fully aware that men can sometimes struggle to access help—not because men are dumb, but because we face an internal struggle between our “Regular Joe” and our “Mr Invincible” which can sometimes make it difficult for us to be true to ourselves and reach out for support when we need it.

It’s an approach that Samuel L Jackson and other male cancer ambassadors may do well to consider if they want to be better role models for men’s health.

Many cancer charities are primarily focused not on preventing male cancer today, but on raising funds for research or equipment to treat or stop cancer tomorrow. With the emergence of a social marketing approach to fundraising it has become common for charities to create a “Mr Invincible” persona which hides their “Regular  Joe” and doesn’t reveal what their true self is up to.

Campaigns like “One For The Boys” present themselves to the world as a “Mr Invincible” who is out to “change male mentality” and save men from their dumb-ass selves. The reality is, their Regular Joe doesn’t know how to “change male mentality” and is primarily using their “Mr Invincible” persona to raise money for hospital equipment. Their true measure of success will be how much money they raise not how much “male mentality” they change.

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And rightly so. Raising money for charity is a noble cause and celebrity endorsement can help raise a campaign’s profile and credibility and attract extra funds to support the good work they do. For that alone, Samuel L Jackson should be commended.

But Jackson does not have the skills, knowledge or training to tackle men’s health inequalities anymore than Dr Celi has what it takes to deliver lines like: “I have had it with these mother***ing snakes on this mother***ing plane!”.

“Samuel L Jackson does not have the skills, knowledge or training to tackle men’s health inequalities.”

The reason campaigns like the one backed by Jackson don’t measure how much personal change happens as a result of their work is that they aren’t really behaviour change campaigns. In reality, they are fundraising campaigns dressed up as behaviour change campaigns—or put another way, they are a “Regular Joe” hiding behind “Mr Invincible” unable or unwilling to reveal their “True Man”.

Which is ironic when you consider that their lead message to men is “don’t be dumb”, stop being “Mr Invincible”, it’s okay to acknowledge your “Regular Joe” and show us your “True Man”.

If these campaigns were honest with us they’d say something like: “Look, we think it’s terrible that more men die of cancer than women and we’d like to do something about it, but to be honest that’s not our job. We’re a small part of the solution and we just need a bit more cash to do more of the stuff we’re good at, but don’t expect that to have a major impact on the unequal number of men who die from cancer next year.”

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A problem as big as cancer can only be tackled through a combination of systemic,cultural and personal change. Locating the problem inside of individual men feeds the “bad man” narrative that men are dangerous or defective and leaves us isolated, disempowered and unable to act.

If we want more men to engage in tackling cancer then we need a new a narrative, a narrative that highlights the cancer inequalities than men and boys face and mobilizes men to take action by highlighting the systemic and cultural problems that help cause this inequality.

When we locate men’s collective problems outside of men and provide a positive narrative that respects and values their worth, then we are more likely to inspire and empower men to take action—and make it easier for men to work on their personal problems when they want to.

When I see Samuel L Jackson on the screen looking me in the eye and telling me man to man “don’t be dumb”, I switch off. But what if he said this to me:

“When we locate men’s collective problems outside of men we are more likely to inspire and empower men to take action.”

“Listen brother, every man’s and woman’s life is precious so why are we putting less time, energy and money into fighting cancer in men? It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it any wonder that more men than women are dying of cancer every single day? Are you okay with that? I’m not. So here’s what we’re going to do. Us men, all of us, we’re going to get together and make sure we start putting more time, energy and money into fighting male cancer, cos that’s the only way we’re going to beat this goddam, mother***ing disease. So whose with me? Are you with me brother? Are you with me?”

Now that’s the kind of good man narrative that I’d be happy to part of and it could apply to any of the issues that men and boys face.

If we want to create an international men’s movement that is capable of tackling the many different problems that men and boys  experience all over the globe then we need to start writing scripts that we’re all proud to put our names to.

That may mean challenging some of the “bad men” narratives that are alive in the world. More importantly it means defining the world’s problems in ways that men are inspired to solve them. That way we’ll start to see men as a big part of the solution to the many different challenges the world faces, rather than always seeing men as being the problem.

Men aren’t dumb or defective. Of course we have problems, but we’re not “the” problem. We are, like women, the solution.

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 —Photo Credit: Flickr/Erik Charlton

Further Reading and Viewing:

Regular Joe vs Mr Invincible (Dr Elizabeth Celi)

Dr Celi Interview About Men’s Health and Social Bias Against Men

Don’t be Dumb Video (Samuel L Jackson)

Because We Hate The Body of Men (Glen Poole)

Do We Collectively Demonize Men and Boys? (Glen Poole)

 

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About Glen Poole

Glen Poole is an international expert on men and boys and author of the book Equality For Men. He is Director of the consultancy Helping Men, UK co-ordinator for International Men Day and host of the National Conference for Men and Boys in Brighton and Hove. You can follow him on twitter @equality4menUK and at www.equality4men.com.

Comments

  1. This line of argument is fine, as long as you buy into the underlying social science perspective which is more interested in “the system” rather than individual agency, and plays scant regard to time – if it happened last year, it falls outside the frame of reference.

    15, 20 years ago, much less attention was paid to preventative cancer screening for women than is now the case – in fact, the effort put into any preventative screening was minimal compared to today. That was changed because people chose to take action and move it along – people stopped being dumb and ignoring a problem which could be addressed. Progress in preventative medicine, like any other cultural change – for it is as much a matter of culture as socio-economic change – has been uneven. There certainly need to be improvement, but there is no one right way to move that along. Jackson, is telling me to stop being dumb, is appealing in a different way to a constituency that probably don’t have much time or interest in debates about culture and society, but who will respond better is the issue is presented as a ‘get off your barstool’ problem.

    So rather than investing time, bytes and readers attention span explaining why Jackson’s answer is not yours, it would be more useful to invest time and thought in working out how a variety of different approaches can work to tackle the problem for different angles and mobilise different groups. Respect the diversity of approaches.

  2. Thanks for those observations Mike

    Things have certainly changed in Men’s Health over the past 15 years in the UK. When the Men’s Health Forum launched here in 1999 the government was investing £8 in women’s health for every £1 it invested in men’s health. More that a 100x more funding went into female cancer research than male cancer research —- now the gap has reduce to 3x more funding for women — still three times more though — so the fact remains that we put more time, energy and money into preventing men’s cancer—it’s clearly and inequality that contributes to unequal outcomes for men—and my key point is that locating inside of men is not only unhelpful and ineffective—it’s a form of discrimination — and it’s typical of how we approach the problems that men have

    There is a clear gender difference here in how we approach women’s problems and men’s problems— can you imagine a campaign to end the pay gap that said “women, don’t be dumb, get a job and work hard” — of course not

    When I train professionals on working more effectively with men and boys I provide them with a number of new models of thinking that leave them more empowered to make a difference

    The two models that consistently receive the most positive feedback (and people tell me months and years later that they are still making a difference for them) are:

    First – seeing that we view gender through the “women have problems women are problems” filter and switching that to “women have problems and women have problems too”

    The second part is the integral model, and primarily the “I, we, its” layers of thinking which people reports giving them far broader perspective of the issues they are addressing and how to address them.

    These model of thinking provide a framework for understanding how a diversity of approaches can work and in sharing this article more people will now have an insight into some of those models.

    I do respect and encourage a diversity of approaches — and provide people with a framework for integrating a diversity of approaches in my work with men and boys — as I wrote in the article “Raising money for charity is a noble cause and celebrity endorsement can help raise a campaign’s profile and credibility and attract extra funds to support the good work they do. For that alone, Samuel L Jackson should be commended.”

    I am also an avid collector of good practice from around the world to help me identify and share the common ingredients of effective approaches to working with men and boys (part of that process is also identifying ineffective trends so we can learn to avoid the pitfalls of these approaches in future) — one of the ineffective trends in men’s health is thinking that telling men the are “dumb” is an effective way to change behaviour—in all my experience I assert it is not—others may think differently, I’m saying enough already!!!

    Thanks for your feedback and taking time to comment

    Best

    Glen

  3. Will Best says:

    My biggest problem with the ACA is that it is effectively a transfer of wealth from men to women. Specifically young men to old women.

    There are a number of reasons for why men don’t consume the same amount of healthcare that women do even adjusting for pregnancy related expenses

    1) The average man works longer hours, and as breadwinners are least able to take off work for what amounts to checking out minor discomfort
    2) Men are more likely than women to die suddenly (heart attack, work related death)
    3) A lot of symptoms are masked by a general state of discomfort men are in from their manual labor job

    The problem with your approach is that while it isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game it kind of is. Right now men plow a lot of money into women cancer (NFL has its pink month). The money to increase spending on male related illnesses has to come from somewhere, and the most likely place is other fields of medical research.

    I might also point out that an exceptional amount of money is poured into HIV which is predominantly a male problem (75-80% of all HIV cases are male)

    • Interesting additional note of funding

      In the UK in 1999, research into prostate cancer was receiving just £37,000 a year compared with £4.3m spent on research into breast cancer.

      In 2012/2013 the spend on female cancer research was £60m a year, three times more than is spent on research into male cancers (£19.7m).

  4. Thanks WIll — some good points there

    On zero sum game, couple of points — firstly it’s not just about money for research, I think prevention and culture change is more important and I’m also a believer in doing better with what you’ve already got—take the Samuel L Jackson initiative it wouldn’t take more money to do it better, just a different focus or visions

    Thanks for your comments

    Glen

  5. OirishM says:

    Trying to insult and shame men into changing has scarcely worked when various feminists have tried it.

    And while Samuel L. Jackson is cooler than all of them, it ain’t going to work coming from him either.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    I agree that calling men dumb is counterproductive and off the mark. There are larger systemic issues that go beyond individual choices.

    However, the individual and systemic can’t really be separated. If a society ignores male health issues, and men are an important part of society, then men are partly responsible for the way that society treats their issues. It’s not all their fault, and it can’t be reduced to stupidity, but men are part of the problem. Women are the other part.

    This sounds a lot like the flip side of what seems to me a common feminist viewpoint: society is oppressive and violent, yet somehow women are not responsible for creating that society. Here, society ignores men’s health problems, yet somehow men are not responsible for creating that society.

    I think a better approach, instead of calling men stupid, is to tell them to wake up. Tell other men to stop helping to create their own death camps.

    • Hey wellokaythen

      You’re right ignoring the individual doesn’t work

      From an integral perspective we look at I, we, its — the personal, the cultural and the systemic

      The limitation of men’s health initiatives that locate the problem inside of individual men is that not only do they ignore both the systemic and the cultural issues they also don’t assess the personal effectively

      There are subjective and objective interpretations of the individual issues—we can objectively measure that fewer men go to the doctor, for example, but then we come up with subjective reasons for why this is and mistake for the truth— men are dumb, men are reluctant, men don’t care about their health, men are embarrassed, men are asleep and need to wake up — all of this is subjective interpretation — we inevitably pick the interpretation that most resonates with our own subjective prejudice and project that prejudice onto men and end up wrestling with our own shadows

      Of course is more men take greater responsibility for being healthier then that will help, that isn’t in dispute. The question is how do we best do that. Well there’s lots of evidence that making systemic and cultural changes results in individual change

      It’s interesting, no private business would say oh men aren’t buying our product—what’s wrong with men? They’d ask do we need to change the product, do we need to change something systemic (distribution, delivery, price point etc) or do we need to change how this product is culturally perceived amongst men?

      Private businesses have known for years how to change men and women’s personal behaviour by making systemic and cultural change. when we apply the same thinking to men’s health we’ll start to see change

      Glen

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