Toxic Masculinity

Today, I want to think about the expression “toxic masculinity.” [1]. I have three major goals in writing this essay. The first is not to whine about the expression. The second is to try to persuade you that I am not whining about the expression. And finally—at last, something of substance—to look at the place that kind of designation has in our language. This last observation is only about what “toxic” adds to the expression and how that could be improved.

And since the first two are matters of style, I will begin on the third one and you can draw your own conclusions about the first two.

The adjective “toxic” adds nothing of value to the noun “masculinity” as both words are currently used. It would be very helpful if toxic masculinity were the name of one end of the scale of “kinds” or “forms” of masculinity. Unfortunately, that would require a name for the other end of the scale and that is where the expression, in current debate, comes up short. There is no useful name for “the kind of masculinity everyone approves of.”

It is easy to think that non-toxic is the solution to the problem, but negation alone is not going to get this job done. Imagine, for instance, that we were talking about shyness. We have no trouble saying that one person is shy and the other outgoing. “Outgoing” gives us a positive notion of what we are talking about. It is easy to imagine gradations of “outgoingness” or of “shyness” (it works either way) because both are acceptable values and each has its own merit.

That is why “shy” and “non-shy” doesn’t help. It doesn’t answer the question “What characteristics are you thinking about when you say, non-shy?” To which, a good answer might be, “If I knew that, why would I say non-shy?”

Why indeed?

The notion of what men are supposed to be like has not taken on any particular form yet. The notion of what men should be like, which was much more stable when society was more stable, is now in rapid flux. We really don’t know what we want men to be like—men don’t know either—so we are having trouble coming up with a name for the other pole.

This is a problem only at the general level. We have no trouble admiring a particular man. There are virtues [2] that are not sharply gendered. There are ways of being a man that everyone in the setting agrees are just right for that setting or for the marriage or for the group of men friends of which he is a part. The problem comes in talking about masculinity in general. [3]

This is a problem that has no obvious solution. It is not hard to design one. Get a broad agreement among the most powerful stakeholders about what a good contemporary masculinity ought to look like. Define it so that there many kinds of behaviors that are seen as part of the same general notion. Sell that notion of masculinity by all the relevant channels until it is so broadly understood that people can refer to it without stopping for redefinitions.

I don’t want to speculate about how likely that is. I am saying only that it is the way all the other new ideas are sold, so why not? Also, what else is there?

Finally, I notice that more and more I am finding troubles with evaluative scales that have only one active pole. The dynamics are that if there is only one pole and it is good, you get as close to it as you can. If it is bad, you get as far away from it as you can. And all the other values—the existence of which we take for granted when we are talking about normal scales of value—disappear. All the things you lose by getting as close as possible to the good pole or as far as possible from the bad pole simply go out of focus. Or go away. That’s just crazymaking.

Every strategic choice, and this includes linguistic choices, needs to be justified on the grounds that it provides more benefit than harm. That means that the effect on many valued entities needs to be kept in mind. And that means that the kind of unipolar linguistic construction that produced “toxic masculinity” needs to be rejected.

[1] It just occurred to me how jarring it would be to abbreviate it as ™ and even more so to develop an organization named T.M. and to trademark that name as T.M.™
[2] Etymologically, a “virtue” is “a manliness.” The Latin
vir is the source of all such words. That is why it always takes my mind an extra tick or so when I hear or read of a woman “losing her virtue.” I know what is meant, of course, but the etymological shadow cast on her losing her manliness just takes me a little longer to process.
[3] “Femininity” has the same problem, of course. The virtues of gender roles at a time when definitions and preferences are changing so rapidly. Still, I note that no one has bothered to invent a “toxic feminism.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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