I have always HATED the term ‘toxic masculinity’.
And every time there’s a scandal, like the recent despicable events at St. Michael’s private school in Toronto, the term gets thrown around in public discourse without much resistance. It is too easily accepted as a term that adds understanding and coherence to the situation at hand. The reality is much different as it’s impact is negative in almost every respect.
The problem with the term is multilayered. First, what the hell does it even mean?
Lack of Clarity
There is no clear and universally agreed upon definition of toxic masculinity. It seems to imply that masculinity itself is akin to a toxin. As long as you don’t get exposed to too much of it you should be OK. But if the men near you start to behave too much like ‘men’, then you had better take shelter because it is definitely not safe. There’s simply no such thing as boys behaving poorly, just men failing to reel in their inherent man-ness.
When horrible things happen like they did at St Mike’s we need to be absolutely sure of what we are speaking so as to fully understand the events and thus be better equipped to prevent something similar from happening in the future. Calling it toxic masculinity is far too general in a situation where nuance is desperately needed.
It’s Social Media Friendly
The hashtag #ToxicMasculinity is way too easy to throw around on Twitter and Facebook where under the right circumstances it can catch fire and become viral. And in the realm of social media simply being viral provides a certain amount of undue credence within and of itself. The term gets an incredible amount of momentum and this undermines the possibility of having a valuable dialogue about it. People are all in and it’s too late. And that is similar to nearly all activist movements that gain momentum on social media on the backs of provocative, but also overly generalized and misunderstood terms.
The world is becoming more and more complex but the way we share and consume information is becoming more and more superficial. We read hashtags and headlines and rarely take the time to fully understand the issue, at least not in large enough numbers. There may very well be valid and noble movements but when they are promoted by the thousands, and said promoters don’t have a full understanding of what they are supporting, the results are bound to have unfortunate consequences.
An all to frequent example of this are institutions that have little resilience in the face of the mounting pressure of a social media campaign and then act in a drastic manner to relieve the tension before fully thinking out their actions and whether or not it will actually achieve the desired outcome.
The implication is this:
Every man has this poison lurking beneath their skin waiting to jump out and attack should we men ever let our guard down. And it is our cross to bear that we were born with such an evil spirit within. Furthermore, it is this masculinity that we must perpetually and diligently repress as it is much better to hold back a primary driver of our personal identity than to risk letting that devil out into the open.
It’s not hard to see how irresponsible and unfair it is to promote such a far reaching, generalized term, with no universally agreed upon definition, and that which has such negative consequences for huge swaths of people.
It’s because we want to simplify the world. Our attention spans are going the way of the goldfish so in order to captivate a large audience we must oversimplify incredibly complex situations. This is dangerous and inevitably produces shallow characterizations of large groups of people. Every person becomes a symbol in a movement rather than a unique individual. Like a police officer at PRIDE, or white males as figures of privilege, and all men as possessors of toxic masculinity.
It is at the heart of identity politics to put the group that one belongs to as paramount, more relevant than the individual person. In this context it means that simply being male is the only thing I need to know to understand your propensity for acting out this immoral behaviour.
It Silences Free Speech
When people are the target of such an offensive and accusatory label like toxic masculinity it can quickly make them feel unsafe. It is not surprising that such an individual, or in this case half the population of the world, would be more likely to withhold a point of view rather than express it. Having a dialogue at all can become impossible when denying toxic masculinity becomes akin to condoning the acts in question.
This self censorship of individuals in the targeted group is perfectly understandable, even if undesirable and harmful to human progress. We have all seen the resulting firestorm when someone tries to offer a different point of view. People receive an onslaught of insults and threats on social media, they are screamed at on campus and forced to resign, they are drowned out in public, and there is an incredible amount of pressure to cancel even debates about certain topics. No matter how radical an opinion, this trend is bad news for everyone. Censorship doesn’t kill ideas, it simply puts them into hiding, until they find the opportunity to erupt down the road.
What About Toxic Femininity?
In researching this piece I couldn’t resist searching the internet for the feminine version of toxicity. I did find an example in this article on Quillette by Heather E. Heying, a former professor of evolutionary biology, and she defined toxic femininity as the following:
“… when women doll themselves up in clothes that highlight sexually-selected anatomy, and put on make-up that hints at impending orgasm, it is toxic—yes, toxic—to demand that men do not look, do not approach, do not query.”
It remains my position that the promotion of these generalized forms of toxicity is harmful for both men and women. But I suspect that any women who might be reading this post were quite put off by that definition above. Maybe that helps to see the male perspective more clearly.
Such overtly simple terms like toxic masculinity are intended to control the discussion. The term weaves it’s way through the entire conversation, supporting a particular point of view, without anyone knowing enough about what it means or how to refute it. It takes hold and it stays there. It’s time to wake up and stop using this term so we can address these horrible situations using the available science and truly get to the core of these troubling issues.