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Toxic Masculinity And A Confusion Of Terms

“Universities across the nation are taking steps to actively purge male students of what’s been labeled ‘toxic masculinity’.”  So begins a recent piece [1] which reflects an increasing push on the part of some to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with being a man in the traditional sense.

University programs are being developed aimed at stripping young men of the legacy of “harm, oppression and dominance” which is alleged to be inherent in being a masculine male.  Taken to its natural conclusion, this movement asserts that to rid the world of sexual violence, body shaming, terrorism, pornography, rape (the list goes on), one must diminish the ‘traditional male’ socialization that young men might have received in their families, high schools, scouting troops and sporting teams.

While no reasonable person would argue against the need to strive to rid our world of the malignant litany of crimes above, it is important to reflect on whether it is in fact true that the cause of these problems occurs when men embody masculine characteristics.  Is masculinity toxic?  Or is something else at play here?

To Be A Man Or Not To Be A Man?

One small college with a “commitment to a diverse and inclusive learning environment,” has freshman students who “identify as male” (this should be our first clue) watch a film about masculinity entitled The Mask You Live In which warns students that the notion of masculinity comes with harmful side effects [1]. The argument goes, in part, as follows:

At the root of the problem rests the habit of boys being told to “Be a man [2]” whenever they struggle.  As the proponents of the theory see it, being a man means one is either athletic, sexually successful or rich (or all of the above)—and to be one, some or all of these, one must not be empathic.  Thus the “manly” male fails to develop appropriate relational skills and, since athleticism, sexuality and wealth never really satisfy, he is destined for isolation, substance abuse or addictions of some sort to quell the pain. Furthermore, the pressure to be a man prompts violent outbursts because men want respect, and “respect is linked to violence.”  (A proposition which, by the way, is not supported by psychological evidence; violence leads others to fear a person, not to respect them.)

It is certainly true that staking one’s identity in achievements (athletic or otherwise), net worth or sexual conquests is certainly not going to end well.  One need not look far in our present society to see evidence of men and women who do so and suffer accordingly.

But, does the achievement of such goals now, or has it ever, really defined what it means to be a man?

The difficulty seems to be that these theories, and the ‘educational’ interventions based upon, them make a leap from characteristics that may be seen as common among traditional men (competitiveness, fecundity, achievement) and the ends to which they are put.  To be masculine means not only to have these characteristics, but also to put those characteristics to their proper purpose.

Yes, Be A Man

So, if masculinity is not intrinsically toxic, why do some men have difficulty with relationships and why do some young men turn to violence?  The answer is no doubt complicated, and surely varies from person to person, but there are some fundamental facts that can be brought to bear.  Some people do suffer from a failure to develop empathy for others, and this deficit can in fact lead to violent behavior such as bullying and hazing, as persons so afflicted cannot understand the feelings and experience from another’s perspective.  Yet this failure is not masculinity; this is a failure in development that can be caused by parental neglect or traumatic experiences.

Masculinity is manifested through development of virtues apt to the gifts of being male. Although society has changed and cultural differences should be acknowledged, men have been built to protect, to serve and to provide.  All of these undertakings, it should be noted, are interpersonal in nature, and appropriately so, as it is in the formation of meaningful relationships that masculinity has its purpose and beauty.  Virtues which aid in these endeavors are then fortitude (courage), perseverance, charity, temperance (self-control) and prudence (wise discernment), among others.  A male embodying these traits would be the last to enact violence against women, engage in terrorism, or indulge in pornography.  However, men who lack these traits may find it difficult to provide for their family, be accomplished in their occupation, or feel comfortable with other males.

Strength, achievement and fecundity without virtue may indeed be toxic, but the combination alone is not masculinity. Solving the problems listed at the top of this article does not require inhibiting natural male attributes.  Masculinity without these attributes is not possible.  Rather, what is needed is a recognition by society—a recognition which some seem unwilling to make—that virtue still matters.

The recently released film Hacksaw Ridge [3] provides a current reminder about what true masculinity looks like: the masculinity of love, sacrifice and courage.  What we learn from the heroes depicted in such films is that while it is important to tell a young boy to “be a man”, it is gravely important to show him how to be one.