At the conclusion of the Wimbledon final, after Andrew Murray’s big girl’s blouse routine, I was tempted to tweet something uncharitable about men who cry in public. I don’t consider myself to be a stick-in-the-mud reactionary, but there’s something about men who turn on the waterworks that brings out my inner Sir Bufton Tufton. Whatever happened to the stiff upper lip?
But I thought better of it. I’d only be deluged with hundreds of angry responses from those who found the sorry spectacle ‘honest’ and ‘moving’. Twitter is the perfect medium for herd opinion. If you say something genuinely heretical, the Twittersphere lights up with indignation. It’s like a machine for enforcing politically correct dogma. I’ve now been called a ‘c***’ so many times on Twitter that I’m beginning to grow weary of ever saying anything non-conformist again.
Then I drank a bottle of wine and thought, ‘F*** it.’
‘Disappointed by Murray’s emotional incontinence,’ I tweeted. ‘Am trying to teach my children not to cry if they lose a game. Didn’t help.’
Geoff White, who describes himself as ‘left-leaning’, immediately shot back: ‘First man to reach a Wimbledon final in decades, he’s entitled to a few tears. You are a dick.’
That sentiment was echoed by Dan Murphy, a ‘Brightonian at heart’: ‘The first in singles for 50 odd years. That’s worth a show of emotion. Even kids understand the magnitude of his achievement.’
This turned out to be a common response: Murray’s tears were appropriate, given what he’d achieved — and had nothing to do with losing. He’d have cried even more if he’d won. It was the occasion he found overwhelming, the pressure. Maybe so, but couldn’t he have exercised more self-restraint? The defence of Murray is that his blubbing was a ‘human’ response to having the weight of the nation’s expectations on his shoulders. Yet if it’s ‘human’ to cry in such circumstances, why didn’t Fred Perry or Bunny Austin burst into tears when they found themselves in the same position?
The obvious answer is that 75 years ago it wasn’t socially acceptable for men to cry in public. Murray’s tears were no more ‘natural’ than Perry or Austin’s dry-eyed response. It reflects a change in social conventions and, in particular, a different conception of masculinity. Back then, it was considered unmanly to cry. Today, it isn’t. And that, of course, is what I’m complaining about — the fact that it’s no longer taboo for men to behave like 14-year-old schoolgirls.
When I pointed this out, Twitter again exploded with rage.
‘Crying is a great healing process and usually it’s brave men that display such emotions in public,’ tweeted someone calling himself Kandyyman.
Another man — Francis Francis — thought my comments were ‘unbelievable’. Didn’t I know that ‘bottling up emotions’ causes ‘psychological harm’? He was so incensed, he followed up with another tweet: ‘Other ½ works in the mental health field and is deeply concerned by your comments.’
But is that true — or just a contemporary cliché? The conventional wisdom is that society’s views about whether it’s OK for men to cry in public have changed in response to mounting empirical evidence that repressing emotion is psychologically harmful. The research evidence is inconclusive, not least because we’re still only in the foothills of gaining a scientific understanding of the human brain. Some psychiatrists believe in the talking cure, while others believe there’s still a lot to be said for a stiff upper lip. (It’s why American combat veterans were less prone to psychological problems after the second world war than after Vietnam.)
I suspect our notions about what psychiatry teaches us change in response to society’s ideas about what’s acceptable, rather than the other way round. Our views about psychological health reflect wider changes in society. They don’t cause those changes.
To my cynical eye, it was clear that Murray wasn’t giving in to an involuntary human impulse or activating some safety valve essential for mental well-being. Rather, he was participating in a new social ritual whereby professional male athletes are expected to cry at big occasions. It has to do with the march of the equality principle and the elimination of all differences between citizens of the developed world, including the difference between men and women. Expect much more of it at the Olympics — from all nationalities, not just the British. And if it makes you feel like weeping, make sure you do it behind closed doors.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.