Sunday, January 20, 2019

Toxic Men, Toxic Women, And The Toxic Cultures That Nourish Them

Gillette, in an oddly incongruous act of virtue signaling [1] - or, more generously, cause marketing -  has recently released a controversial ad about what has been called "toxic masculinity."  You can watch the video above; here is an (imperfect) script based on my notes from watching the video:
"Bullying, the #metoo movement, violence, pornography, sexual harassment... Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can't hide from it. It has been going on far too long. We can't laugh it off. Making the same old excuses (group of men: "Boys will be boys..."). But something finally changed (female news anchor: "Allegations involving sexual assault and sexual harassment..."). And there will be no going back. Because we ... We believe in the best in men (Terry Crews: "Men need to hold other men accountable." Two other clips show guys stopping other guys from harassing/catcalling a woman).  To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. (Clips of men playing with daughters, connecting across racial lines, and stopping bullying). But some is not enough. Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow."
There are a number of things worth addressing in this cultural moment, so here we go.


I think we have to in order to even have this discussion.  The Atlantic quotes a bunch of studies that  think so:
“In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, ‘Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures.’" 
In other words, men and women are different. [2] This does not mean all men or women fit neatly into a particular mold. My wife and I are exhibits A and B of this. It's simply an acknowledgment of generally correlative characteristics that emerge in men and women. I know this is a hotly debated topic, but we can't even talk about something that is uniquely, toxically masculine (or feminine) without at least have some kind of foundation that acknowledges gendered differences. As a friend and fellow pastor/blogger noted:
"In order for us to rail against toxic masculinity we have to admit there is such a thing as healthy masculinity. Any bad is dependent upon the good. Any evil is a deprivation of the good or a violation of a good purpose. You must have a good purpose before you can violate it. Yes, masculinity exists, or else it couldn’t turn toxic."


There is no universally accepted definition, but the explanations I found follow a general theme.

“It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.” 
“The term ‘toxic masculinity’ can be used to describe a set of very narrow standards, behaviors, and expectations for manhood and masculinity that values dominance, power, and control and devalues empathy, the acknowledgment of emotions, and other traits that fit outside of this narrow definition." 
“Although the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is used loosely to imply that men, in general, are insensitive beasts, this is not true. What toxic masculinity really refers to is when stereotypically male traits that are endorsed by a culture take forms that damage society and ultimately men themselves. Strength morphs into violence, assertiveness warps into entitlement, stoicism is twisted into emotional stuntedness. The result is men who can’t take no for an answer, who are unable to empathize with others, and who sometimes become the subjects of #MeToo posts.
In other words, toxic masculinity is what happens when:
  • traits typically associated with “being a man” – traits that are neutral or good in and of themselves - are used by men to bring bring death to the world instead of life. 
  • men use their unique strengths to break the world instead of build it
  • men direct their masculine traits to harm those around them instead of protect them
Claiming there is such a thing as toxic masculinity is not a critique of masculinity per se, though I have seen some writers use it as a bludgeoning tool with which to take a swing at every man. (Men! Boo! amiright?"?!?!) That kind of perspective is, of course, ridiculous. Toxic masculinity is a critique of good masculinity that breaks bad. [3]

Really, "toxic masculinity" is just a new name for a type of person that's been around for a long time. Look what the book of Proverbs says about the fool:
  • A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit.
  • A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating.
  • If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs.
  • A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.
  • Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool.
  • Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. 
  • A fool is reckless and careless.
  • A fool... will despise the good sense of your words.
  • The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.
  • Anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
  • The mouths of fools pour out folly.
  • A foolish man despises his mother.
  • It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.
  • Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper is a fool.
  • The mouth of a fool brings ruin near.
  • Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!”
There are plenty of other examples in the Bible of what it looks like when men are fools in the areas of money, sex and power. Toxic masculinity (or hyper-masculinity, as it used to be called) is nothing new. It's as old as Eden.


Of course not. Anybody can do this. I would prefer that female authors address their target audience at this point so that I can avoid the dreaded accusation of "mansplaining":
“In a free society, everyone, regardless of gender, is free to be a manipulative, narcissistic, emotionally destructive asshole. So I’m not sure why men have been getting all the credit lately." 

"Is there such a thing as toxic femininity? I believe there is, and it takes many forms. It’s the manager who verbally abuses teammates and then blames pre-menstrual syndrome, it’s the lover who withholds sex until she gets her way about a vacation, it’s the counsellor who empathizes so deeply with a client that she tells her to file a false rape case. Toxic femininity is when women use their gender to obtain certain privileges. It is when noxious, indirect modes of confrontation are masked with gentleness. It is when empathy turns into ethical shortsightedness."

"Young women have vast sexual power. Everyone who is being honest with themselves knows this: Women in their sexual prime who are anywhere near the beauty-norms for their culture have a kind of power that nobody else has. They are also all but certain to lack the wisdom to manage it. Toxic femininity is an abuse of that power, in which hotness is maximized, and victim status is then claimed when straight men don’t treat them as peers. Creating hunger in men by actively inviting the male gaze, then demanding that men have no such hunger—that is toxic femininity. Subjugating men, emasculating them when they display strength—physical, intellectual, or other—that is toxic femininity. Insisting that men, simply by virtue of being men, are toxic, and then acting surprised as relationships between men and women become more strained—that is toxic femininity. It is a game, the benefits of which go to a few while the costs are shared by all of us."
Once again, this kind of critique is not a dismissal of femininity. It’s a critique of femininity that breaks bad and ruins what it touches instead of building it. If I may be so bold as to repeat myself, toxic femininity is what happens when (and these are my informal definitions)::
  • traits typically associated with “being a woman” – traits that are neutral or good in and of themselves - are used by women to bring bring death to the world instead of life. 
  • women use their unique strengths to break the world instead of build it
  • women direct their feminine traits to harm those around them instead of protect them


One would hope that we use these terms and have these conversations so we can properly identify a problem and move toward a solution. When we simply hashtag anyone we dislike as #toxic, shame  anyone who makes us uncomfortable, and throw all men (or women) under the bus because of who is in the spotlight, well, we become the toxic ones.

This discussion should be leading us to an important question: what brings out toxicity in people? I think we can all agree that something has gone wrong if people become toxic to those around them. It’s not enough to say, “Here’s what it looks like.” We have to ask, “How did we get here? Where are boys and girls learning that this kind of behavior is okay? What does the formation process look like? How is toxicity being enabled, modeled, or even encouraged? 

I have a few ideas of how this applies. Feel free to expand this list as needed. 
  • If you tell people enough times and in enough ways that “you and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals,” they will, eventually, “do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.“ 
  • If our cultural storytellers sing happily about “blurred lines” between us undomesticated animals, we shouldn’t be surprised that lines blur and domesticity loses its appeal. 
  • If we sing along enough times to, “I did it my way,” don’t be surprised if people start to, in fact, do whatever they want to do, even if their way is terrible. 
  • If we don’t recognize pornography as a public health crisis, let’s not be surprised when those who view porn begin to view the real thing like they view the image: an object for their pleasure, a commodity that can be owned, a toy to use and discard. 
  • If we don't take warnings seriously about how modern relationships are being destroyed by some of the fruit of the Sexual Revolution, we are going to see depression, loneliness and the long term fallout of scarred hearts and commodified bodies continue to rise (Read "Tinder And The Dawn Of The Dating Apocalypse." Seriously. Read the whole thing.)
  • If we don’t learn how to help boys and girls flourish as boys and girlswhat we dismiss, overlook or reject about their distinctive gendered otherness will eventually come out distorted and broken. Don't stop Billy from rolling in the dirt and turning sticks into guns:  roll in the  dirt with him and then teach him how to plant stuff; show him how to use power in the cause of justice. 
  • If we let wealthy, celebrity serial sexual abusers skate around the law (as well as all those who ignored, enabled and covered up for them), what do we think will be the end result? Less bad behavior? 
  • If every reality show features people behaving badly - like seriously, in need of intervention badly - and they get famous, what kind of behavior do we expect from their adoring fans? 
  • If we adults do not model personal integrity as we offer honor, respect and common human decency to others, we will sow the wind in our children and reap the whirlwind. 
And if our hearts are full of darkness, none of these other things will matter much in the end. We can change every social structure imaginable, but if unchecked evil resides in our hearts, it will find its way out in the end. 

James K.A. Smith writes, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.” 

We are what we love. May we learn to love the right things.

I will let the folks at Axis have the last word:
"Like Gillette, we also believe men can do better, especially Christian men whose masculinity is rooted in the masculinity of Jesus. Broken men dominate women professionally, theologically, personally, and relationally. Christ-like men elevate women to equal status by treating them with respect and dignity. Broken men attack the weak; Christ-like men protect and defend the defenseless. Broken men cover up and protect other men’s bad behavior. Christ-like men courageously confront their brothers and call them to a higher standard. Broken men mansplain. Christ-like men listen, validate, and learn from women."

[1] "As far as Gillette goes, a quick search of past advertising shows a hypocritical tendency to use women’s sexuality to sell to men. They also have donated corporate funds to local abortion clinics. Nothing says hypocrisy like telling men to “be the best a man can be” while communicating that women are objects and children are expendable."

[2] A made a list several years ago drawing from numerous studies in biology, sociology, and psychology that looked at differences between men and women. Not all of the things on my list showed up on every list, but these are the winners based on preponderance of evidence. Notice the language of "tend to" and "generally." These are statistical observations, not iron clad rules.

  • Men get lots of testosterone, women get lots of estrogen. Men tend to be taller and broader, built for confrontation (men actually have thicker skulls).
  • Men generally have more grey matter in their brains (processing center) and women have more white matter (network connections) in their brains.
  • Women bond with their children chemically(oxytocin) in ways that men don’t. Cells from the unborn baby actually permeate the mother’s body.
  • Men often score better at tasks that involveorienting objects, while women usually do better at language tests.
  • Women tend to build relationships with words; men more often with activities. It's “Ladies, shall we go out for dinner and talk for 5 hours?” vs. “Hey, you guys want to watch the Superbowl or go golfing?”
  • Women are generally more concerned with how to solve a problem (it’s relational). Men usually want a solution to demonstrate their competence.
  • Women tend to build support networks; men, not so much. In studies, girls tend to go through mazes together with “collective intelligence.” Boys tend to establish a chain-of-command and send out scouts.
  • Women tend to see the interconnectedness of problems in a task and can be more easily overwhelmed.Men get more done, but they tend to minimize the complexity.
  • Women tend to remember things that have strong emotional components. Men tend to remember memorable events. “Do you remember that trip when we really connected with your family?” vs. “Do you remember the zoo?”
  • Men often feel validated through shared activities; women through shared experiences.
  • Women generally determine the quality of a day or a life by their relationships; men generally value accomplishments. Little girls will make sticks play together; boys will fight something with them. I look at a finished project and think it was a good day; my wife is more likely to consider whether we did projects together to reach the same conclusion.
  • Women tend to respond to emotion with more empathy. Even as babies, girls respond to the emotion around them in ways boys do not.
This does not mean men or women have exclusive rights to these things, or that there is no overlap. I believe that, ideally, we impact each other in such a way that we increasingly learn and grow in the areas we don't have.

[3] I do get frustrated by what seems like a constant barrage of criticism and a LOT of portrayals on TV of men as doofuses. Seriously. Watch commercials where men are portrayed as idiots and ask yourself if the company advertising could get away with that same commercial if they reversed the roles. For the record, this makes the discussion of toxic masculinity more volatile to men than it would need to be because it feels like just another case of angry man haters crying misogynist wolf. But I digress. My point: I don't want unfair representations of men to distract me from fair criticisms.

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