Content Warning: Mentions suicide
For: a positive step for all
By Beltrán Field and Miranda Garralda Wong
Men, in particular, are expected to behave in certain ways that involve shows of strength and masculinity, an archetype which is not compatible with strong emotions that reveal any weaknesses or worries. In a world where many young people feel severely under pressure and unable to cope, this is a toxic combination. Consequently, the mental health of young men is a little discussed yet widespread issue – highlighted by a spate of recent student suicides at a rate that is only growing. This is in need of more attention. It is with this context in mind that the University of West England (UWE) set out to elect its very own men’s officer, James Knight, a decision that drew no small amount of criticism and saw his resignation soon after.
There are various valid arguments why the appointment of a male student representative is a debatable idea, especially when the role is positioned alongside pre-existing ‘Liberation Officers’. The main one can be boiled down to the fact that these officers are supposed to be readdressing social imbalances by championing the causes of minority groups, and men clearly do not count amongst those groups. According to Edinburgh University Students’ Association, the role of the Liberation Officers is to “represent communities of students who are either underrepresented in Higher Education or who experience oppression (including harassment and discrimination) in wider society.” Having been the dominant sex for much of human history and in the vast majority of human societies, it seems hardly appropriate for men to get their own Liberation Officer when in many cases they are the ones others are being liberated from.
However, it could also be argued that the term Liberation Officer is perhaps not the most suitable term for student representatives as it is limiting in its scope and attitude; the framework for student ambassadors could be rethought. A few examples highlight how the role of these representatives does not always align with its existing definition: while a Women’s Officer is still needed as much as ever as there is still progress to be made on various key issues, the student body of the university skews in favour of women, not men (in 2017 it was recorded as 61 per cent female to 39 per cent male). Secondly, non-binary representation is in many ways inadequate under this framework, as people who are non-binary are actually represented by the Women’s Officer, a fact that is not easily identifiable from the Women’s Officer’s title. Furthermore, the term ‘Liberation Officer’ could be seen as condescending by those who do not want to feel like the group they self-identify with needs some sort of special treatment, which is an unintentional side effect of the current terminology and language.
It is often said that the day we achieve true equality is the day we no longer have to talk about and celebrate equality, as it will just be accepted as the norm. The current system of Liberation Officers rightly seeks equality by promoting those minority groups who need the most attention, but it risks doing so in an exclusionary manner that actually reinforces differences between different groups and identities.
One potential solution to this would be the creation of a more expansive and inclusive framework where all identities are given their own ambassadors who are able to highlight their particular issues and concerns, and thus help to reduce these distinctions between majority and minority groups. Naturally, this can only occur so long as it is made very clear that the principal aim is to promote equality between all groups, acknowledging that for this to occur, past injustices need to be corrected and certain groups will be deserving of a greater focus to compensate for this. Nevertheless, equality should be desired and advocated for by all, and an inclusive approach that recognises the concerns of all and tackles the dangerous and false perception that progress towards equality for certain groups will lead to inferiority for others is the easiest way to break down the barriers that are preventing us from achieving that equality. It is with this in mind therefore that the idea of a Men’s Officer might well be in everyone’s best interests.
Against: support not liberation
By Jemima Salmon
Within the student body and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, there has been some discussion of a men’s Liberation Officer – we have BME, Disabled, LGBT+ and Women’s Liberation Officers, so it is only fair men get their Liberation Officer too. A Liberation Officer’s role is to represent student communities who, in the Students’ Association’s words, “have been traditionally underrepresented in Higher Education and who continue to face oppression in wider society.”
The Students’ Association should not have a men’s Liberation Officer. My dismissiveness of a male Liberation Officer may be presumptuous – after all, I do not identify as male and I do not know the struggle men face, so why should I so certainly decry that men should not have a Liberation Officer? A provocative remark about men taking it upon themselves to make decisions on behalf of every group since time began would not help my cause. However, it does speak to the fact that (white) men can in no way be argued to be an underrepresented, oppressed, community – 21st century society is still the community of white men. The Students’ Association’s Liberation Officers are the very evidence of the continual fight of those who, again in the Students’ Association’s words, do “experience structural oppression.”
Considered as a group that needs liberating, the recent proposal is almost comical. However, the facts and situation that caused this are far from comical, and can in fact unmelodramatically be called dire. Men do not want a Liberation Officer because it is unfair they do not have one, but because within our university and wider community, there are problems affecting males on a disproportionate scale. The Samaritans Suicide Statistics report is grim reading, and even more so if you are a male in Scotland – while for females the suicide rate is steadily decreasing, suicide for males in Scotland increased for the third consecutive year in 2017, rising to 53 deaths for university-age males; overall in the UK, one in four suicides is male.
Our society may be a community of white men but this privilege costs men too. Perpetuating rigid and restricted concepts of masculinity leaves men unable to talk about both their mental and physical health with detrimental consequences. This is a problem which has been too long ignored and needs to stop. The proposal of a men’s Liberation Officer is a commendable attempt to mitigate the detrimental effects of society’s pressure on males, and our growing awareness of the damaging effects of our entrenched notions of masculinity is incredibly important.
However, action should not be taken in the form of a Male Liberation Officer. It is not an accurate or fitting role, and far too contentious a term – to argue that men need liberating will only lead to cries of derision. A Male Student Support Officer, on the other hand, would be lauded, giving male students at Edinburgh someone to speak to and creating a body which recognises and raises awareness of the problems men face – and there is not a moment too soon to begin.
Illustration: Hannah Robinson