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I've dealt with a wide variety of hecklers in my time, but I've never had to deal with a human shield before.

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Last year I was invited to headline a comedy gig for a charity dedicated to highlighting the problems of 'toxic masculinity'.

I accepted, even though it's not an issue I feel particularly personally affected by. I'm just a normal guy - in that I struggle to express any sincere emotions, suffer from multiple mental health problems, and overwhelmingly rely on the women in my life to provide constant emotional support that I'm unable to provide in return.

I wrote some material especially for the event that I sadly wasn't able to perform, because a drunk man entered the show shortly after I was introduced and bullied a smaller man into heckling me. I've dealt with a wide variety of hecklers in my time, but I've never had to deal with a human shield before. You're locked in a showdown with a stranger who can see no other option but to be aggressive towards you and no matter what happens you're both victims. It felt like a better explanation for the themes of the night than I could ever articulate.

I've always felt ill at ease with the phrase 'toxic masculinity'. I'm worried that it sends mixed messages that the social problem responsible for a male suicide epidemic is being given a name that sounds more like a Call Of Duty gamertag. Maybe that's fitting for a demographic of men who are more qualified to recognise various kinds of semi-automatic machine gun than their own moods.

So much of what we mean by 'masculine identity' feels like it's a new idea masquerading as a timeless and immutable truth. Historically, men didn't need an identity as such because they were considered the default human being. It was women who were defined against men as the 'other sex'. Thanks to the hard-won successes of feminism, many positive attributes previously considered the unique purview of manfolk are now shared. The invention of modern masculinity, I believe, is a reaction to this, an attempt to take whatever scraps are left unclaimed by feminism and assemble them into an identity that can be worn as a shield against the world.

But imagine you're creating a Frankenstein's monster and the only things you have to go off is that it has big arms and it wants to have sex all the time. It should be no surprise when that creature isn't particularly kind or empathetic. Yet it's these flesh beasts that rule the world, that prowl the streets, that stalk the corridors of government. It is their flesh that bubbles beneath my skin. Our generation didn't invent this problem; it was handed to us and it will be handed down once again, a million fathers worldwide vomiting bile into the mouths of their sons.

All this flashed through my mind as I was trapped in this humourless back-and-forth with the human shield heckler. I saw that both of us were repeating the same dead-eyed, inherited behaviour. It wasn't our fault. What we truly needed was compassion and acceptance.

"I accept you. I see you for what you are and I think you are beautiful. I love you."

My voice reverberated throughout the now-silent venue. A profound calm fell upon everyone present.

Sensing this was my moment, I attacked.

Next article in issue 132

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