Toxic Masculinity

It's a thing, y'all

I’m no epidemiologist, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. My prediction is that we’ll get a collective respite in the summer, but likely have new outbreaks move across the country. I think vaccinations, at the pace we’re going at, will be a good thing, but probably won’t help us reach herd immunity before new variants start to form. 

Our most unprotected flank right now is the right wing male that bought into conspiracies or the idea that you can dominate a respiratory illness through sheer force of will. These are the same intentionally ignorant souls who harbor expectations of winning barroom fights because they have watched MMA, or prevailing in a shootout at Safeway with their trusty pistol because they watched an action film. Some will die from the virus, but most will just be the vectors to spread it further in the population, which creates more opportunities for those variants to occur. 

Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Like “defund the police,” the phrase “toxic masculinity” creates a visceral reaction in many people that prevents them from even engaging on the subject. Both are elegant and succinct ways of labeling concepts, but that minimalism also can act as a hard stop to genuine dialogue. Whether we say “defund the police,” or “let’s change our budgeting for public safety to address many of the problems that police are not suited for” is a topic for another day, but I do want to dig in on this matter of toxic masculinity and what it means for our society.

There is no single example of toxic masculinity, but more of a family resemblance between various behaviors and opinions where an overlap occurs. It’s a broad umbrella, but the linkage tends to be a generally anti-social world view that favors dominance above all else. These can include so much: the unspoken norms of a discomfort with close male friendships or emotional sensitivity of any sort, the win at any cost mentality of competitive sports, tolerance of misogyny or racism behind closed doors, bullying disguised as male bonding, irresponsibility conflated with liberty, a fetishization of violence, and so much more. If enough of those messages get internalized and reinforced by the individual’s social group, they can become outward qualities, and these individuals are harnessed by politicians and other cultural figures for political and financial gain.    

First of all, god bless anyone who is willing to engage in political debate on social media these days. I can’t do it anymore. I’ve basically given up on white, right leaning males in any conversation. They’re blocked whenever possible from both my personal AND professional networks. I’m still wrestling with how to deal with it with my family, but basically I no longer engage. 

I’m not sure if this is a good move or not. We live in a society where social and economic capital is key to basic survival. If I’m thinking in that way, the more of us that boycott bad actors the better the punishment for bad behaviors. But this does go against my personal belief in the notion of restorative justice, that we are a more just society when we engage with rather than punish bad actors, and make them undo (or try to) damage they have done. Plus, the perception of “cancel culture” further hardens a whole swath of these actors from any meaningful engagement. 

We’re running out of time. Toxic masculinity is driving the politicization of all sorts of popular progressive reforms: in addition to the public health considerations around Covid, gun legislation, addressing climate change, anti-racism, gender equality, and even the basic governance associated with democracy are under siege from the id of the entrenched, regressive, white male. The previous inhabitant of the White House gave permission to this id to be public, but it has been long swirling under the surface, alive in online discourse and other safe spaces for casual misogyny, homophobia, racism, and generally quotidian attitudes about violence and death of others.  

My thesis is that the US is actually getting better in this regard, and that all of these demons are being more openly acknowledged than say, 100 years ago. But I am finding it harder and harder to believe that any change will come peacefully. As a middle-aged man with a family, I cannot support the notion of a violent denouement with these forces, although I certainly expected it when I was younger. But I also cannot see a near term future without some significant, and necessary conflagrations as we wrestle with this problem. The good news is that there are more people who want to get better than not. But the axiom that power is never given up freely is so true in this context, especially with a culture that has been reared to value dominance and power above all else.