Stop Ragging On Your Mates. It's An Aussie Tradition That's Damaging Our Men.
There’s an article at The Good Men Project titled ‘Why do Friends Give Each Other a Hard Time?’
The author, Kai Morgan, was inspired to pose the question after finding herself in a car full of young men.
The resulting story is a real cracker. Dean, our hapless lead, is the butt of every joke. When the guys stop at a supermarket for some supplies, poor Dean is the only one who doesn’t make it back to the car. The others soon spot him, wandering around the car park looking forlorn, unable to relocate his friends.
Our narrator expects one of her buddies to rush to Dean’s aid, but is instead informed with a chortle that our hero “clearly needs to develop his orientation skills!”
Back in the car, Dean is needled mercilessly. “How do you expect to join the Marines if you can’t make it back to the car?!” But he doesn’t react. He smiles, even.
The author doesn’t get it. She is sure that Dean must be inwardly fuming. She is worried about him, and checks on him later. When he reassures her that this is all part of the group’s social dynamic and he’s A-Okay, she’s obviously reassured.
But I don’t buy it.
I’m not convinced that Dean is peachy with his friends, despite the torment. But I’m not surprised that he keeps his feelings to himself.
I have also found myself the fly-on-the-wall when a ribbing session has broken out between mates.
“Did you see Luke trying to pick up that girl at the pub the other night? She couldn’t get away fast enough!”
“At least I try to pick up chicks! The only woman you’re in a relationship with is your mummy!”
(I am assured by my friend Tom, 32, that this is an authentic–sounding exchange.)
Tom also tells me that when he was in his late teens and early 20s, very little was off limits. Common barbs traded between mates included 'lazy', 'tight-arse', 'pussy-whipped', and 'shit-driver'. “But it was always delivered in a light-hearted way. It was all supposed to be a big joke.”
We all know the rules: the person on the receiving end of the wisecracks is to remain unperturbed. You react, you’re a wet blanket.
Not a very fun rule, if you're Dean. So why didn’t he protest? Why did he tell the caring Kai that everything was dandy?
In the article, he explains it like this: “Reacting emotionally without thinking things through would be selfish. In everyday life you can’t afford to take things personally or let your emotions run you.” He goes on to clarify that he views the process as a sort of “training” -- the other men are allowing him to practice the art of controlling his emotions. He is learning “the rules”. (Of what, he doesn’t clarify.)
The men themselves are also interviewed and each agree: they are “supporting” the younger and more vulnerable Dean by teaching him how to respond appropriately to life’s stressful moments.
Dean certainly does a good job of exonerating his friends in the eyes of the author. But I don’t believe he’s okay with the torment, really. I think he accepts it, because it’s part of the social contract.
Dean is being hazed into the man club.
I asked a bunch of men why they rag on each other, and initial answers ranged from “It’s just a really shit, uncreative way of trying to be funny,” to “It’s not something I would do anymore but back in the day I suppose it was just boys trying to out–shock each other.”
All this is obviously true, but I reckon Dean was onto something. I reckon it’s a practice sesh for being a “proper” man.
There’s been plenty of conversation lately around the pressures of traditional masculinity, and how the expectation to be tough and unfeeling impacts on men’s mental health.
But how does traditional masculinity develop? Men have to learn it, and they’re not getting their lessons from an extracurricular class. As Dean points out, “ribbing” is a sort of ritualised sparring session where young men can practice squishing down their feelings.
It’s also a competition; to see who is the most assertive and the least affected. It’s a way to separate the weaker boys from the tough and establish hierarchy.
Tom points out that, “What you take is even more important than what you dish out, because that’s where you’re really proving how tough you are.”
Men who can’t take it aren’t just teased. They’re ridiculed. “The whole ribbing thing is supposed to be a ‘joke sesh’, so if someone gets upset all the time, they’re preyed upon. They’re humiliated for ‘not being able to take a joke’.”
As Dean observed, this is the way that vulnerable men are “taught” to subvert their emotions.
Tom remembers: “In high school there was this one guy who just couldn’t handle getting teased. He’d break down crying, or run away. And everyone thought he was a total weirdo. I would look at him and think, ‘That’s why you don’t have a hissy fit when someone makes a joke about you.’”
Of course, the whole ragging-on-each-other thing gets old for most men eventually. Sean*, 31, tells me: “I hate it so much. I wouldn’t associate with men who socialise by mocking each other anymore."
But most men have been exposed to ribbing culture at some point. And that sort of thing doesn’t just exit your psyche the second you break away.
Ribbing culture is particularly insidious because the insults are encoded as jokes, robbing men of the opportunity to feel hurt without also feeling shame over being “weak”. It’s just one more way that men are denied the space to form a healthy relationship with their emotions.
It’s everyday practices like ribbing that induct men into the cult of traditional masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is a spectrum. At its extremities are the abhorrent behaviours we all associate with the phrase; sexual assault, domestic abuse; but these behaviours don’t crop up in a vacuum.
The spectrum also encompasses “typical” male traits like anger and emotional illiteracy; traits which are reinforced by everyday practices like ragging on your mates.
If we’re going to do something about toxic masculinity, we need to do more than call out sexual assault and violence. We need to acknowledge the line that exists between those abhorrent behaviours and the “normal” cultural practices that we witness everyday. We need to show how everyday practices like ribbing come together to incubate an unhealthy version of masculinity; a version which is unfeeling, tough and angry, and which trains men in maladaptive coping mechanisms. A version which, at its extremes, can lead to violence.
Lately, we’ve done a great job at calling out behaviours like sexual assault. But if we are serious about entrenching healthier forms of masculinity, we need to be willing to take a deeper look at the everyday male rituals that we’ve always accepted as “normal”.