Toxic masculinity has emerged as the target of choice of many identitarians. That said, the term itself has almost become redundant, since masculinity itself is now increasingly framed as toxic, as a kind of poison.
The recent entry of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ into mainstream media discussions – as we saw last week with the controversy over Gillette’s #MeToo-inspired advert – coincides with a growing tendency to cast men, especially white men, as the key obstacle to a just, ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ society. It is important to note that the crusade is not simply against men, but against the values associated with men. Outwardly, the wrath of the campaign is directed against male violence, entitlement and sexual aggressiveness. But this crusade is also intensely hostile to virtues such as courage, risk-taking, self-control and stoicism. These once-celebrated values are treated as pathologies.
The invention of toxic masculinity is really an attempt to pathologise masculine identity. Our era is characterised by the flourishing and celebration of a growing number of identities, but it makes an exception for male identity. That cannot be celebrated. Indeed, male identity has all but become what the sociologist Erving Goffman, in his classic study Stigma, characterised as a ‘spoiled identity’.
A spoiled identity is one that lacks any redeeming moral qualities. It is an identity that invites stigma and scorn. What is perhaps unique to the spoiled identity of masculinity is that it has not only been morally devalued – it has also been medicalised. The American Psychological Association, for example, recently published guidelines for dealing with boys and men which explicitly present masculinity as a medical problem.
According to the APA, traditional masculinity is ‘marked by stoicism, competitiveness’; it casually couples these values with ‘dominance and aggression’. It says that the bad habits associated with masculinity, ‘like suppressing emotions and masking distress’, often start early in life and are ‘psychologically harmful’.
Psychology has a long history of denigrating identities by medicalising them. Until the 1970s, homosexuality was broadly treated as an illness. Today, it seems, it is the turn of masculinity to be cast in the role of a dangerous pathology.
These guidelines reflect a wider cultural crusade against masculinity which is aimed at re-engineering boys and young men. As one of the authors of the guidelines, Ryon McDermott explains, ‘If we can change men, [then] we can change the world’. From this standpoint, masculinity is the moral equivalent of a disease that must be eradicated.
Since the rapid ascendancy of the #MeToo movement, the moral crusade against masculinity has gained widespread support among the cultural elites and mainstream media. And now psychology is providing the intellectual resources that might give this crusade the authority of scientific expertise.
In truth, though, it is not science but moralising that informs the APA guidelines. The APA condemns so-called masculine values while counterposing them to what it considers emotionally correct values.
Since the 1990s, the emotional inadequacy of men has been a constant theme in psychological literature. The central argument being that the failure of men to seek help, display their emotions and acknowledge their vulnerability harms them and others. The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has been developed to disparage stoic men who are drawn towards autonomous behaviour and self-control.
The apparent inability of masculinity to acquiesce to weakness is framed as a fatal flaw in the male psyche. Self-control and the aspiration for individual autonomy are presented as psychologically destructive impulses. Indeed, the therapeutic profession has continually decried the tendency of young boys to aspire to autonomy. As two British psychologists, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, wrote in The Times in 1999, ‘Stereotypical ideas about masculine toughness deny a boy his emotions and rob him of the chance to develop the full range of emotional resources’.
This new hostility to masculine values is not simply a hostility to men. Women who display such ‘masculine’ characteristics as self-control and strong ambition have also come under intense suspicion. Men who act like women are clearly preferred to women who behave like men. According to today’s emotionally correct hierarchy, feminine women come out on top, feminine men beat masculine women for second place, and ‘macho’ men come last.
The stigmatisation of masculine behaviour actually corrodes the psychological and moral development of boys and young men. Young boys are continually taught that they are morally and emotionally inferior to their female counterparts. Many of them are led to believe that unless they cease behaving like boys, they will never become emotionally literate and be able to cope with the challenges of life. Teaching children that masculine behaviour is a cultural crime disorients young boys. Many young men today find the transition to adulthood confusing because values that are associated with being a man receive so little cultural validation.
Humanity as a whole suffers from this crusade against values that are (wrongly) attributed to men. Courage, autonomy and risk-taking have been central to the development of the human spirit. Contrary to the APA’s new guidelines, the ethos of stoicism serves well those who face difficult experiences. Humanist values will suffer a severe setback if this crusade against so-called male values continues.