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Why a sense of belonging is so important

On the eve of the Six Nations – arguably the best time of the year – there is an almost tangible buzz of excitement. The championship offers a time to come together with family, friends, or strangers in the pub. A time to get behind your team and urge them to play the best rugby they have ever played. A time to feel involved, to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

As a rugby-loving Scot living in Norfolk, it can be a little tough to find Scottish fans to watch with. But I am no less excited about supporting my team as they take on the English in their first game on Saturday. The Celtic fringe tends to rally together to egg each other on to beat England.

But as we know, the joy and exhilaration of supporting sports teams as part of a collective can sometimes turn sour, can’t it?

Thinking back to summer 2021, when Euro 2020 football matches were being played in host cities across Europe, we saw some horrific reports of football fans’ bad behaviour. Fans without tickets broke through barriers to watch matches, others booed opponents’ national anthems, violence broke out, there was vandalism, litter and more.  

And sadly this sort of behaviour is by no means exclusive to sports fans. There were a number of other headlines that caught my eye last year, which prompted me to reflect.  

In July I read about groups of men abusing RNLI lifeboat crews as they brought rescued migrants to shore. One volunteer said beachgoers hurled abuse at a group of rescued migrant women and children, and that “some drunken yob threw a beer can at them”.  

In September, the BBC revealed that, despite there being 4,493 male victims of killings and 2,075 female victims in the last decade (in England and Wales), more than nine out of 10 killers are men.

Then, in November, we saw reports once again of fire crews being attacked on bonfire night – something that happens every year across the UK. Another instance of people who are risking their own lives to keep us safe senselessly becoming victims themselves.  

To me, it seems there is an obvious thread running through these stories: it is always disaffected men who are behaving like this.

I think we need to talk about why. Might it be that, as a society, we are failing them?

In recent years, society has (rightly) paid an increasing amount of attention to the challenges facing minority groups. In no way do I wish to negate any of that work, or to pit any group against another. But, to have a healthy society, everyone in that society needs to feel equally valued – and that includes those who don’t identify with the narrative of privilege. We tend to have less sympathy even for individual men, because of the privilege that we attribute to men in general. This puts us at risk of glossing over or forgetting altogether the challenges that men do face.

Let’s not forget, for instance, that men still have the highest rates of suicide across the UK (15.3 of every 100,000 people compared to 4.9 for women in England). Or that boys continue to underperform in education to the extent that experts are calling for a major inquiry to understand why this is. Added to that, we expect young men to be ever more emotionally competent, without always providing them with the tools, opportunities or role models to help them embed healthier ways to handle their lives and emotions. 

Where do we go from here?

We need to look at masculinity

A friend shared with me a helpful passage from rapper, journalist and author Akala’s ‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’. He writes about the challenges that teens face from around the age of 13, when “there is a change in confidence, an unwillingness to speak, a fear of being embarrassed and, for the boys especially, a turn towards aggression that often begins to manifest around this age.” In his own experience, despite having A* grades, he “felt so aware that [his] fragile masculinity could be challenged at any moment” that he learned to ‘screw up his face’ instead of smile, to shout instead of cry, and to fight his peers when all he really wanted was to hug them. He suggests many people lose this fear around the age of 25, once they finally feel they’ve “made it through”. But, he adds, “some are never lucky enough to be exposed to new and life-changing experiences, and some are still so unhappy with themselves that murdering someone over trivialities remains an everyday possibility”.

We need to better support men, especially through their adolescence, so that they don’t feel the need to ‘toughen up’, to push away their emotions, to pretend to be OK all the time, even among their closest friends. We need to start in early childhood. It may not always be clear what needs to be done, or when, but I hope some of the following suggestions are a good place to start.

We need to look at belonging

A recent Forbes article explains why group belonging is so important: “Belonging is more than just being part of a group. Belonging is also critically tied to social identity – a set of shared beliefs or ideals. To truly feel a sense of belonging, you must feel unity and a common sense of character with and among members of your group.”

Of course, it’s not only men who benefit from a sense of deep belonging – everyone does. So each of us, and especially our young people, need to prioritise activities that help to establish and nurture strong bonds with others. Join a sports club, a book club, a games club, a table tennis club, a theatre club, or any other type of club. Create one at school or work to spend time with people you share an interest with. If you have never sung in a choir, it is an amazing feeling when you all sing together (and there are plenty of choirs that welcome complete novices!). Joining this sort of group allows people an outlet to positively project their personalities, and to meaningfully connect with others. They are also really effective ways to spin off a fulfilling social life.

In the school setting, it can be as simple as instilling in pupils a need to look out for everyone in their boarding house year group; eat together, check no-one is missing, bring everyone in. I often talk about acts of service being good for the soul, and again, supporting a local food bank or charity, or joining a fundraising campaign, are all brilliant ways to gain a sense of belonging.

We need to look at values

The Forbes author also explains that “groups often have rich value and belief systems, and when we identify with groups, these can provide a lens through which we see the world.”

When this goes wrong, you see stories of people who are searching for a place to belong, but end up finding themselves belonging to a group that has unsound, and even dangerous, value systems. But why are people susceptible to being drawn in to groups with questionable value systems?

Research conducted as long ago as the 1950s goes some way to explain how people’s perspectives can change depending on the group they belong to, including in the case of ‘mob mentality’ behaviour. The research showed that people will readily conform, or change their behaviour, to match the group outlook or decision – even when they know or should be able to clearly interpret that by matching the group outlook they were giving the ‘wrong’ answer. They were influenced by wanting to fit in with the rest of the group, and by considering that perhaps the rest of the group must have known more than they did, and so they doubted their own minds.

So, in addition to nurturing a sense of belonging, we also need to instil positive values in our young people to help them face challenging group behaviours. We can all help with this. As heads, coaches, teachers, parents, managers, older siblings – we need to talk about and practise our values, and call it out when we see people we know behaving in a way that they probably know themselves isn’t positive. In our families, offices, sports clubs, schools, WhatsApp groups and friendships, we all have a role in establishing and upholding our group’s values. The more emphasis we can all place on tolerance, inclusivity and kindness, the more positive our groups, and therefore our society, will be.

We need positive role models

The phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see” has been common in education circles for some time, usually in the context of enabling pupils to see diversity among role models, to help ensure that every child is able to ‘see themselves’ in any future career. One famous example was Barack Obama’s election influencing millions of young Black Americans to believe for the first time that there was no job out of their reach.

Young men in the UK also need to be inspired, but perhaps we need to share more stories about role models with values we admire, rather than simply career aspirations. Returning to sport, you only have to look at the All Blacks who are among the best rugby players in the world, yet are humble enough to clean their changing room every time they play. Or take Liverpool footballer Sadio Mané, who was filmed cleaning the toilets at his local Mosque, where he chose to celebrate the evening’s Premier League match win.

Or, finally, to bring things full circle, we saw last summer images of kilted Scots litter-picking in London, on the morning after the England-Scotland Euro 2020 match. I admit feeling more than a little national pride at that, something I look forward to much more of – for all of us – as the Six Nations kicks off.

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