What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity as a concept is used in two different ways:
- Politically, it is an ideological weapon to denigrate manliness as a whole.
- Psychologically, it describes an unhealthy, destructive expression of manliness.
The political perspective presupposes that there is a culture war going on in our society: feminists against traditional men. From this perspective, we could either avoid the word “toxic masculinity” in order not to submit to the feminist narrative by entering their frame of discussion, or adopt the word in order to infiltrate the narrative and hijack their ideological weapon by exposing (straw) feminists as “man-haters.”
The problem with both these options is that presupposing a culture war leads to ideological camping. Is feminism something to be fought against or something to be discussed rationally? I believe that giving up the rational frame of debate would, metapolitically speaking, already be a surrender to the postmodern ideology underlying post-second-wave feminism. Therefore, we should adopt the second, psychological view of toxic masculinity.
Now, if we see toxic masculinity as the unhealthy, destructive side of manliness, we have again two options. We can either adopt the word “toxic masculinity” to signal that we are not bigoted but willing to recognize the feminist point of view, or avoid the word because it is so ideology-laden that it would only stir up emotions and undermine a constructive dialog.
If you have read thus far, I assume that you are rational enough to use the word “toxic masculinity” analytically, without getting caught up in prejudices and emotions. Therefore, I will not substitute the word with a more academic or clinical one. Conceptually, though, I understand “toxic masculinity” in the same way as I understand “negative masculinity” or, to give a definition, an expression of masculinity that has negative outcomes on well-being in the long term.
Doing the manly thing vs. doing the right thing
To acknowledge that toxic masculinity is real is to acknowledge that being a man is not the same as being a good person. A good person is someone who tries to do the right thing, that is, to maximize long-term well-being both for himself and for other people. He is thinking win-win and playing a positive-sum game. A manly man can be a good person, but he need not be, because goodness and manliness are orthogonal concepts.1
This is how we can conceptualize toxic masculinity for a basis of rational dialog. What might some examples be? It is actually quite simple to distinguish roughly between healthy and toxic forms of masculinity:
|Healthy Masculinity||Toxic Masculinity|
|grounded, strategic aggression||erratic, impulsive aggression|
|emotion suppression to achieve a good outcome||emotion suppression to defend a maladapted ego|
(e.g., athleticism, capitalism2)
|zero- or negative-sum competition
(e.g., imperialism, crusaderism)
|self-defense & violence to liberate||sadism & violence to oppress|
|seduction & sexual boldness||sexual harassment & assault|
|productive leadership||tyrannical leadership|
|true pride3||hubristic pride|
Short-term vs. long-term well-being
One hindrance in the discussion, however, is that long-term well-being is maximized differently than short-term well-being. Practically, this means that an obnoxious, hyper-aggressive asshole will often experience positive consequences in the short-term.
He may, for example, get what he wants when his adversaries cave in out of fear or moral disgust. Yet althouth the asshole might have won this time, he has played a zero-sum game and so lost a potential cooperative partner and diminished his social skills for the future.
Toxic masculinity is also more conducive to getting laid than being healthily emasculated. Combine this with the insanely powerful biological drive for sex, and what you get is men who flee towards the holy sexual grail of masculinity without any regard for the toxins it might hold.
My intention here is not to blame heterosexual women for their attraction to toxic masculinity; that’s just biology. Rather, I want to highlight, especially for young men who are reading this, that it is not necessary to be an asshole in order to be sexually attractive. There is plenty of green in the upper right quadrant. Hence, we need not defend masculinity as the ultimate value.
“Masculine” is, even if you have a heteronormative attitude, not synonymous with “good if you’re a man,” because being relentlessly masculine clearly can have negative effects on a man’s personal and a society’s general well-being. Just ask any clinical psychologist or the parents of a school shooting victim.
Conversely, it should also be clear that pride, violence, dominance, aggression, competition, emotion suppression, and sexual boldness are not categorically bad. They can be good if used in the right context and for the right purpose. Full-contact sports, entrepreneurial risk-taking, adaptive stoicism, and functional sexually polarized relationships are good examples here. So, let us quit moralizing. Let us see the nuances, let us analyze the outcomes, and let us praise masculinity when it deserves to be praised!
- Is Masculinity a Social Construct?
- How to Maximize Happiness in Society
- Sex and Human Nature (Edward O. Wilson)
- We could debate whether they are truly orthogonal. After all, behaving like a man is, to an extent, intrinsically rewarding for most men and thus directly linked to one aspect of well-being. There seem to be hormonal and neurobiological reward mechanisms that make a man feel good when he does “manly shit,” and these hedonic rewards may tilt the orthogonality a little bit due to accumulated short-term effects on well-being. For the purpose of simplicity, however, I stick to the orthogonal description here in this blog post.
- If you doubt that capitalism is a positive-sum game, read this article.
- Authentic pride is earned and prosocial, whereas hubristic pride is ego-driven and maladaptive; see here, here, and here.