Opinion: Why Kiwi blokes need to talk about their anxieties


High suicide statistics in New Zealand are sometimed linked to the so-called ‘stoic’ attitude prevalent in Kiwi blokes. 


By Dr Andrew Dickson

Hegemonic masculinity – it’s an academic term for trying to figure out what it means to ‘be masculine’ and, by extrapolation, what it means to ‘be a man’. Academics and others have been fascinated by this idea for many years – there are entire journals dedicated to the study of it.

There has also been quite a lot of research looking at manliness in New Zealand. Most people will understand the broad findings – it generally isn’t that earth-shattering. For instance, it is often said that Kiwi blokes don’t much like calling on health professionals. If they get down, stressed or depressed they tend to stop talking, rather than talking more. Maybe as a consequence of this, men are significant in the high suicide statistics in New Zealand. A link is often made with the so-called ‘stoic’ attitude that seems to be prevalent in Kiwi blokes. 

If you consult an introductory philosophy website like this one it is pretty easy to get a sense of what Zeno, one of the first Greek stoic philosophers, active around 300 BC, was thinking as he pondered the idea of stoicism. It says, “the goal is freedom from passion (in the ancient sense of ‘anguish’ or ‘suffering’) through the pursuit of reason and ‘apatheia’ (apathy, in its ancient sense of being objective, unemotional and having clear judgment). It teaches indifference and a ‘passive’ reaction to external events (on the grounds that nothing external could be either good or evil) and equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.”

Seems legit and does appear to be a pretty fair representation of how we imagine the classic Kiwi bloke, perhaps with a little less philosophical reasoning!

But it is not enough. The problem with stoicism is its undue reliance on the pursuit of reason, without the recognition of the other side. Reason is built on logic of the conscious, but people also have an unconscious logic that is arguably more influential on their behaviour. In this sense objectivity is merely a fantasy, something we use to make sense of the vagaries of a life that could be meaningless if it wasn’t for the meaning we subjectively ascribe to it.

This is where I lean on psychoanalysis to help understand not just Kiwi blokes, but all humans. Freud had this nifty idea he called repression. Basically, the idea is that some things are just too difficult to constantly dwell on, so our psyche has this ability to paper over the cracks, at least temporarily, and repress these anxieties. This is not all bad, it can be really useful – enabling people to “get on with it” in the face of crisis and trauma. But it can be really destructive too – as things that are repressed often emerge in ways we do not expect. 

For me the way our current society understands “being stoic” covers over what is a more revealing truth: often stoic behaviour is based on unconscious repression. In other words, it is an excuse to “not think”, rather than to deal with the hard stuff in a productive way. The typical pub can be an excellent place to observe this in action, as the average bar leaner becomes a place for the “she’ll be right mate” slap on the back, or the “it’ll work out in the end” conversation stopper; now back to the rugby.

One of my many missions is to remove the shame from repression for men, and remove the shame from what we in psychoanalytic circles call the “talking cure”. Men need to feel that they can talk, and that if they do it will help. Perhaps then we might actually have the conversation we should be having in the pub.

Dr Andrew Dickson is a senior lecturer at the Massey Business School. He is an organisational sociologist interested in critical theory and its application to the health sector. He is speaking on this topic at ‘A few blokes, a bar and better health’. More details here: https://ancestralhealthnz.org/event/wellington/

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