How we persuaded an MP who hates us to lobby for men’s issues

Well it’s been an extraordinary few days for the International Men’s Day team and our supporters.

We’ve gone from having a political debate about International Men’s Day tarnished by people making rape threats (see our statement on this here), to persuading an MP who declared her hate for us and told the BBC we do nothing to prevent male suicide, to call for “the Government to spend money on creating a specialist men’s suicide prevention service”.

I’ve posted a separate article on International Men’s Day’s track record on promoting male suicide prevention here, for the record, in response to Jess Phillips MP’s callous claim on the Andrew Marr show that International Men’s Day does nothing to help men who are at risk of suicide.

But back to the drama, which started last Tuesday when Phillip Davies did what no MP has ever done before, he took a proposal to have a debate on men’s issues on International Men’s Day, to the Backbench Business Committee.

Now International Men’s Day is an apolitical initiative and we invite MPs of all parties to support the day—and generally speaking, MPs across the political spectrum have been united by completely ignoring us.

So whatever people think of Philip Davies’ politics (he’s the parliamentary spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness which you’ll probably either love or hate), he deserves full credit for being the only MP to have advocated for an International Men’s Day debate and everything that follows was kickstarted by his willingness to take action.

In a bizarre way, had Jess Phillips acted like the rest of her peers on the committee and simply rejected this proposal in a straightforward, professional manner, the story would have ended there. Instead she chose to respond in a way,  described by International Men’s Day supporter, Martin Daubney, with “unbridled ridicule”.

On Thursday, I took Phillips to task in Telegraph Men saying:

“On the day that Jess Phillips MP sniggered at the suggestion that men’s issues should be discussed in Parliament on International Men’s Day, another 13 men died from suicide. It’s not funny. Not for the men whose lives were lost and not for their friends and family. Suicide is a men’s issue and if we don’t talk about the problem, we can’t solve it.”

International Men’s Day supporter and Guardian contributor, Ally Fogg, added his voice to the debate on Friday:

“Phillips is neither ignorant nor stupid. She knows full well what International Men’s Day is for, why it exists, and what the related issues are. She knew full well that in laughing at the suggestion that Parliament might need a specific occasion to discuss issues like those above from a gendered perspective, she is in fact laughing at male suicide. She is laughing at men’s unnecessarily early deaths.”

Ally is far more aligned politically to Jess Phillips than Phil Davies, so this isn’t political opportunism on his behalf. Fogg has been arguing that the contempt that people like Phillips show for International Men’s Day, is part of the problem men and boys face.

In 2011, for example, he highlighted the fact that when he spoke to people about International Men’s Day, “the majority were dismissive, jocular or mocking, and about a quarter were actively hostile”.

In 2013, he challenged people like Jess Phillips who mock and deride International Men’s Day, saying:

“Surely they realise that such swipes barely tickle at the men in designer suits who run the banks, the governments and the corporations, while cutting deep at the homeless, the desperate, the suicidal, the young victims of rape and sexual abuse leaving care and going straight to prison. They must feel so proud.”

The argument that our collective inability to take “men’s issues” and “international men’s day” seriously, contributes in some way to the problems men and boys face, is a discussion that deserves broader coverage.

Unfortunately by now the fact that Phillips had been the subject of rape threats and that became the news story.

At International Men’s Day we supported Phillips in saying NO to rape threats, but chose to keep challenging her on her opposition to an International Men’s Day debate.

Duncan Craig, the founder of Survivors Manchester and a supporter of International Men’s Day, captured our position perfectly when he commented on twitter: “Sad @JessPhillips doesn’t see importance of talking about male needs & disgusted she’s subject to rape threats!”

In amongst all of this furore, Phillips made a statement that doesn’t appear to be have made its way into the media. She said: “I hate fools who think men don’t have equality”.

This would describe pretty much everyone who supports International Men’s Day—she hates us all because we believe men and boys experience inequality. Most supporters of International Men’s Day simply take the moderate view that women and girls experience inequality and men and boys experience inequality too. Jess Phillips finds that view worthy of her hate.

In 2011 around 100 of us (including a representative of the male suicide prevention charity CALM UK who we’ll come to in a moment) signed a joint letter to the then Coalition government which said:

“There are now many areas where men and boys are showing up unequally such as health, fatherhood, education, criminal justice and community safety – and we believe that any effort to ensure equality for all in the UK needs to consider the specific needs of men and boys and how to address them.”

In its response, the government acknowledged that men and boys experience inequality and “committed to taking action to address the needs of men and boys where the evidence shows inequalities exist”.

So Jess Philips hates us all, because we are “fools who think men don’t have equality”.

But worse than this, Phillips also went on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday and discussed a newspaper article highlighting a new campaign by the male suicide prevention charity CALM UK.

International Men’s Day has been supporting CALM (and CALM has been supporting International Men’s Day) since 2011. This year CALM is using International Men’s Day to launch a social media campaign for its #BiggerIssues campaign, which I encourage you to support.

But when Andrew Marr responded to the suicide article by quipping: “I’m tempted to say that perhaps we should have International Men’s Day”. Philips response, waving at the newspaper article, was: “You may be tempted to say that it wouldn’t help any of these people.”

That’s right, International Men’s Day, an initiative that’s been highlighting the issue of male suicide in the UK since 2010, a day which has consistently supported the country’s only male suicide prevention charity and a day which is used by that charity to promote its latest campaign on male suicide—doesn’t help men at risk of committing suicide.

Today in the Huffington Post, Jess Phillips says she feels miserable that she let herself down with her “flippancy and palpable anger.

She says: “the most painful misrepresentation of me, is that I don’t care about male suicide rates. It’s frankly remarkable that I find myself in the position that I have to do this but let me be clear, I really, really do care. I really, really care.”

But Jess, the people who support International Men’s Day care. They are all sorts of people including men who’ve been raped, men who’ve been bereaved by suicide, men who’ve considered suicide themselves, to name but a few.

And you have brutally and cruelly attacked these men and their supporters three times this week:

  • First you responded to a proposal that our issues should be debated in parliament with “unbridled contempt”. Put yourself in our shoes, how do you think that felt?
  • Next you said you hate us because we think men don’t have equality. How do you think it feels to champion a cause like male suicide or help for victims of rape and abuse, only to have an MP say she hates you?
  • Finally you said, on national television, that the work we and our supporters have been doing for six years does nothing to help men at risk of suicide

You’re a passionate advocate for women’s equality Jess. If you can’t put yourself in a male victims shoes, put yourself in a female victims shoes.

How would you feel if a male MP acted this way to a request for a day to focus on women’s issues? Can you feel that? Really feel it? That’s how you made some of our supporters feel.

Now if you still think it’s remarkable that people think you don’t care, then that’s probably because you don’t care enough to take responsibility for your actions in the past week and consider how they have impacted others. (None of which excuses the idiots who have abused you, but neither is that abuse an excuse for any of your actions).

And now for the story’s conclusion……

The remarkable end to this tale is that after much pressure from International Men’s Day and some of our supporters, Jess Phillips has come out in support of Government funding being used to create a specialist men’s suicide prevention service.

This is great news and Jess Phillips deserves credit for this. And let’s also be clear, this would never happened if:

  • There weren’t people in the UK who have been promoting International Men’s Day for the past six years
  • Phil Davies hadn’t raised the issue of International Men’s Day in parliament
  • Jess Phillips hadn’t responded in such an inappropriate way
  • International Men’s Day and its supporters hadn’t put continued pressure on Phillips
  • Men’s charities hadn’t been prepared to have civil discussions with Phillips behind the scenes

Disappointingly, Phillips has yet to change her position on the need for debate about all men’s issues on International Men’s Day, telling the BBC Politics Show that she still doesn’t support the debate.

Still,  through a very scrappy and at times unpleasant debate, we have seen some positive developments in fight against male suicide this week. Imagine what we could achieve with a more intelligent and mature debate which didn’t involve sniggering, hatred and rape threats—but did involve politicians of all parties discussing how they think the many inequalities that men and boys faces can be addressed.

Imagine what we could achieve if the first thing politicians did when they hear it’s International Men’s Day is to ask “how can we help” rather than ignoring us like most do or ridiculing us like Jess Phillips continues to do.

On a personal note, it’s sad to see that Jess Phillips doesn’t acknowledge the role that International Men’s Day has played both in highlighting the issue of male suicide and creating the opportunity for this particular debate to happen.

So if you read this Jess, here’s my final thought for you:

We’ve put so much work into raising the issue of male suicide in recent years, for you to tell the British public that International Men’s Day does nothing for men at risk of suicide, is deeply insulting and offensive.

It’s no good apologising for the offence you caused “with how what I said to Phil Davies has been misrepresented”—that’s not really an apology is it? That’s blaming others, some would even say it’s victim blaming as many those who spoke out against you, did so on behalf of male victims.

With this in mind Jess, what would make a difference is an apology for the offence you have caused and continue to cause, full stop—and an acknowledgement of the hard work and commitment of the team and International Men’s Day and all our supporters in helping to raise awareness of a whole range of issues facing men and boys—including male suicide—for the past five years.

Here’s our track record of campaigning on the issue of male suicide here.

FOOTNOTE: On Tuesday 10th November it was announced that there would be a debate on Male Suicide and International Men’s Day in parliament on 19th November 2015. We are delighted.