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Why Calling It ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Isn’t Helping
If we are to address the challenges presented by American masculinity, we need to start by stating what we hope would be obvious: masculinity is not toxic; our culture’s narrow, conformist, violent, bullying, man-box version of it is.
Being clear in this way serves an important purpose. Language that critiques men’s culture (toxic culture of masculinity) is received differently than language that critiques men’s personal sense of self (toxic masculinity). Culture is a construct, formed and shaped by all of us. It represents not us as individuals, but a collective agreement on how we should behave. No one’s entirely happy with culture, so people are more curious about and open to cultural critiques.
A term like toxic masculinity, even if we sense some truth in it, doesn’t invite us to distinguish between ourselves as individuals and the culture we are caught up in. Which is why I always prefer to talk about culture, shifting the focus to where powerful generative change is possible while potentially reducing reactivity. And it’s a conversation that works. As more and more men come to understand we are all victims of man-box culture, change is accelerating.
Men are coming to understand that they are facing an epidemic of isolation forced on them by our culture of male emotional suppression. The man-box teaches us from birth to hide our emotional expression, our need for connection, our empathy, and our relational acuity, taking on the stereotypical performance of male disconnection. In this way, generations of our young sons have been systematically bullied and shamed into isolation and conformity.
The result? AARP estimates 42 million Americans aged 45 and up are chronically lonely. The health impact of this level of social isolation is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It increases the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, depression, and a raft of other illnesses. Social isolation is literally killing men, and the women who love them, by the millions.
My partner Saliha Bava often raises the following crucial distinction about the word masculinity. “When we say masculinity,” she notes, “we imply that it is singular, monolithic. It is not.”
Accordingly, perhaps a better term to use than toxic masculinity might be “toxic masculinities,” implying there exists additional masculinities which are not toxic or self-destructive. It’s a reach, but I’ll take what I can get when it comes to starting a conversation about how we use language.
Meanwhile, change is already happening. Good, decent, empowered men are working to change the culture of manhood, based on some simple truths. Men do not want to be angry. Men do not want to be alone. Men are not naturally inclined toward the toxic confines of the man-box. If we were, it wouldn’t be killing us.
Which is why a healthier, more compassionate culture of masculinities is on the rise — but please, if we are to win this battle, we must condemn the culture of toxicity while showing compassion for the men and women trapped in it, as we work hard to create cultural change.
A powerful message of compassion toward men benefits the women and children of the world, who need their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to be authentic and joyful human beings — but it isn’t always easy to come from a place of compassion. Some men are broken. They are acting out in terrible and damaging ways.
How do we offer compassion to those of us who are broken, who are in pain? The same way we would for anyone else. We listen to their stories, consider their context, offer them alternatives, and hold them to a higher standard of behavior while inviting them in out of the cold of isolation and loneliness.
Men must lead in this work. Men are already leading the way, even as our toxic culture of masculinity continues to bully and banish millions of our young sons to a terrible and isolating place.
There isn’t a man in America who hasn’t been put through the man-box grinder. Yes, some who live in the alpha male, pecking-ordered, bullying world of the man-box have chosen that life. But for millions of us, life in the man-box is not living at all. It is a slow death. It is an alienating and isolating culture of forced conformity that is killing our capacity to form healthy collaborative relationships. This harms our families, our communities, our nation, our world, and yes, ourselves.
Instead, we can empower our sons and daughters to grow their natural capacity for connection from their earliest years. Relational intelligence and social emotional learning are powerful frameworks for accomplishing this. Given encouragement, our children can grow their relational intelligence within the back and forth of family life, ensuring our man-box culture does not suppress the naturally occurring relational capacities they are born with.
We are at a turning point. We can end man-box culture by offering boys and men a much wider range of joyful, authentic masculinities to choose from. It’s up to all of us who are willing, men and women alike, to do the work required to bring millions of men in from the cold.
Here are some folks who are making positive change at the cultural level. The men and women at the Good Men Project are working to grow more compassionate and diverse masculinities.
Men like Justin Baldoni are helping drive a new conversation about manhood, asking tough questions about how we can self-reflect and change.
Groups like The Mankind Project are tearing down the walls of isolation that trap men in cycles of anger and reactivity. If you are a man who is struggling, reach out to these guys, or other men’s groups. Men are waiting to help and to heal the damage done by our man-box culture. Our personal work as men, lovers, fathers, and sons is there, waiting to be done.
See the documentary titled The Work, which was filmed inside Folsom Prison. It is powerful proof of men’s capacity to encourage each others’ healing and compassion, as revealed in one of America’s most brutal prisons. It will stun you.
For our part, my partner Saliha Bava and I have written The Relational Book for Parenting, because curing nearly every cultural challenge we face comes down to helping our kids (and ourselves) form more authentic, joyful, diverse, connected relationships in the world.