In response to guidelines recently-released by the American Psychological Association (APA) questioning whether norms associated with “traditional masculinity” (e.g. stoicism) are harmful to the mental health of men, I recently wrote how stoicism helped me cope with the news that I have brain cancer. Last year, I was diagnosed with a low-grade glioma, or more specifically, a grade-2 infiltrative astrocytoma. It is low-grade, so for now, death is not imminent. But my neurosurgeon tells me the median life span of someone with a low-grade glioma is eight to ten years, and according to this study, the average life span of someone with a low-grade glioma is seven years.
This news would understandably come as a shock to many. But during this ordeal, as I wrote in my essay defending stoicism, not once have I cried. I have not been depressed, anxious, or out of sorts. I have not sought therapeutic help. Two nights before surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, I had dinner with a friend from high school, now a professional psychiatrist, who remarked how impressed he was with my “anxiety management” and “philosophical” attitude. On the morning of surgery, one of my sisters remarked that I was so calm she thought the doctor had given me a Valium.
In short, upon receiving the news that I have brain cancer, as well as during surgery and post-surgical recovery, I was stoic.
As I have written previously in this publication, I am a man who chooses not to cry. Not because I am hung up on trying to “be a man” but because crying has never been of much help to me. In fact, I feel worse after crying, which, to me, amounts to little more than a stormy emotional interlude that delays resolution of a conflict. The emotions pour out in a massive heap of confusion without the pilot of a rational mind to steer the ship and point in the direction of clarity and understanding.
The main point, as I argued in both essays, is that emotional restraint is not the same as emotional repression. Drawing on the ideas of ancient Greek Stoics as well as the naturalistic ethics of 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, I equate emotional restraint with a stoic equanimity in the face of life’s adversities, a way of life that I consider highly effective in maintaining a happy, healthy, and productive attitude about life even as unfortunate circumstances prevail. In short, stoic equanimity in the face of life’s adversities is not about trying to “be a man.” Rather, it stems from a philosophical outlook, cultivated over many years, which has served me well in living a healthy and productive life even when things don’t go my way.
All of this comes to mind as I contemplate not only the APA guidelines, but also the controversy surrounding the new Gillette commercial – “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Since its release, the commercial has attracted both support and outrage. In addition to an unsurprising backlash among conservatives, many men have expressed a desire to boycott Gillette, while Vox points out that the commercial annoys both sexists and feminists. Clearly, the commercial has struck a nerve.
But as Ethics and Public Policy Center Senior Fellow Mona Charen notes, there is no reason to be offended by a commercial that advocates for a traditionally-conservative cri de coeur to be a decent human being. Indeed, there is not. But that’s just it. The Gillette commercial has put forth a timeless message about the importance of human decency under the guise of criticizing “toxic masculinity.” But can a credible and thoughtful moral stance ever contend that bullying and catcalling constitute a “masculine” ideal? Sure, “be a man” and “boys will be boys” get tossed around by irresponsible adults, but when have these mindless phrases ever been considered as anything other than thoughtless excuses for inexcusable behavior by cavalier adults (male and female)?
Like the APA guidelines, the Gillette commercial seems to be hitching its wagon to the hidebound focus of social justice ideology on historical-social constructivism and dismantling “power structures” while glossing over the nuances and situational intricacies of the lived experiences of men (though, in fairness, the APA guidelines note they are not meant to be rigidly applied to every clinical situation).
This is also true of how they think about “toxic” masculinity.
None of this is to diminish or ignore reasonable concerns about how men can improve and how they would do well to engage in some self-reflection. Indeed, in the wake of #MeToo, I wrote about how men should be asking not what they have done right but what they have done wrong. A year before #MeToo, I penned another essay in which I questioned the practice of looking the other way while your “bro” cheats on his girlfriend. I have also written about how men should save the pickup lines for the bar, not the workplace, the persistence of discriminatory job advertisements, my own five-point plan for raising my daughter in a world where one in five women have been raped, rape culture in Trump nation, and how I discovered I might be more sexist than I thought.
But when writing these essays, I was motivated not by an ideological commitment to “social justice” but by moral concerns stemming from personal reflection on areas where I believe men can improve, or where the cause of social progress can be advanced. Of course, there is likely to be a fair amount of overlap between my own personal concerns and the overarching concerns of the social justice movement. But the latter is primarily concerned with revolutionary activism aimed at “structural” norms viewed as oppressive. I am not an activist by nature, in part because I believe activism is inevitably corrupted by the emotional excesses of collective action, which tends to display exhilaration over equanimity, euphoria over sobriety, and exhibitionism over dispassionate dissent, thus doing away with the anchor of sober autonomy and succumbing to the sound and fury of a maddening crowd. In my view, this tends to hurt the prospects for social progress.
I articulate the idea of mass demonstrations of solidarity as a triumph of emotion over reason in more detail in an essay on why I choose not to participate in protests. But the basic point is that, as so often tends to be the case with the social justice movement, otherwise reasonable concerns about oppression and marginalization in society inevitably succumb to the pitfalls of confirmation bias and other cognitive and emotional biases (e.g. availability bias) in the way we think about issues, a proclivity that naturally arises from a penchant to attribute all sources of injustice to historical, cultural, and social “power structures” – or rather, social mores that, according to a social justice activist’s view of the particular more in question, allegedly sustain oppression and marginalization.
That’s not to say that oppressive historical, social, and cultural norms are not worthy of examination. But it is to point out that not all matters of conscience necessarily come down to an analysis of “power structures”. There may be other factors that must be considered. At the very least, however, clear thinking is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for advancing the cause of justice. Otherwise, do we understand the nature of progress and what we must do to achieve it?
Take, for example, the notion of “toxic” masculinity. First, its origins can be hard to trace – did it originate as part of a men’s organization modeled on the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous or as part of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement? Second, how we currently understand it can vary depending on the purpose or agenda it serves. Perhaps without encountering too much disagreement, one can define it as a degree of aggressiveness in male social behavior that goes beyond assertiveness, and that such aggression stems from a view that equates strength with an unhealthy dose of emotional repression. But what is meant by words like “aggressive”, “assertive”, “strength”, and “emotional repression”? How do they relate to masculinity? Are they always harmful? Are they traceable exclusively, or at least primarily, to historically-oppressive social norms? No.
For example, stoicism can be a healthy to approach life rather than, as the APA guidelines suggest, a harmful behavioral norm associated with “traditional masculinity” that can, at most, be occasionally be helpful as a “power-through” stopgap for coping in times of extreme duress (e.g. war).
In short, it is not easy to arrive at a precise definition of “toxic” masculinity, how it is harmful, and how it relates to cultural norms. One inevitably runs up against a slew of assumptions and beliefs about what masculinity is, about the attitudes and behaviors to which those assumptions and beliefs give rise, and about what masculinity is supposed to be. For example, I am a man who has trained in boxing and kickboxing, disciplines which one would associate with toughness, physicality, strength, and high levels of testosterone. Yet if I’m at a bar, I gravitate to fruity drinks like strawberry daiquiris and apple martinis. Moreover, though I am straight, I love to go to gay clubs with gay friends and dance. Old-school stereotypes about masculinity may find affinities for kickboxing and gay clubs and strawberry daiquiris in the same personality to be incongruous, but if a less-enlightened friend cracks a joke about my masculinity, I shrug. I feel no threat to my masculinity.
Given the diversity of views, not to mention the plurality of lived experiences of men, is it impossible to arrive at a general definition of “toxic” masculinity that can account for these differences? Maybe it is.
One attempt defines toxic masculinity as “the socially-constructed attitudes, mindsets and (yes) boundaries that tell men that there is only one possible way to embody their (also socially-constructed) gender, and women that they should be looking for (and submissive to) a violent, sex-obsessed, controlling, unfeeling, all-around-unresponsive person.” The definition seems sensible enough, but obvious questions come to mind: what are these specific attitudes, mindsets, and boundaries that constitute toxic behavioral tendencies? Is the problem so endemic, and simplistic, as to say that millions of men are indoctrinated with a singular idea of how to “embody their gender”? Is this singular idea really so pervasive and common and accepted that it also has millions of women believing they should submit to “a violent, sex-obsessed, controlling, unfeeling, all-around unresponsive person”? Somehow this seems hard to believe.
In fairness, the article identifies a loose collection of “toxic” stereotypes associated with conventional notions of masculinity. For example, it claims: “[s]tereotypes that can be included under the umbrella of toxic masculinity include exclusive interest in sex, necessary disinterest in ‘frivolous’ things like sugary drinks or personal hygiene (lest one be thought to be materialistic, and therefore feminine), unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own emotions or those of others, lack of desire to be a parent or be in a serious relationship.” But does a man’s behavior become toxic when he exhibits only one of these behaviors, or all of them, or a subset of them? If he is sex-obsessed, but not indifferent to personal hygiene, has he nonetheless draped himself in the cloak of toxic masculinity? If he is less prone to expressing or acknowledging his emotions, should we conclude not that he is an introvert or a creature out of the relatively more laconic culture of New England, but rather that he is an unwitting victim of attitudes about masculinity that convince him he needs to “man up” and not be open with his emotions? If he strives to manage, but not repress, his emotions, should we conclude not that he is fond of Stoic philosophy but that he has been victimized by the prevailing culture of toxic masculinity? The questions abound.
Social justice ideology is relentlessly dedicated to the eradication of historical and cultural norms that sustain oppression and marginalization. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this. In practice, however, complications arise because the nuances and situational intricacies of lived experience are not easily pigeonholed into ideological frameworks focused on historical and social “power structures.” This is not to invalidate or delegitimize the entire social justice movement, or its overarching goal of dismantling oppressive “power structures”. But it is to express skepticism about the extent to which social justice activists really know as much as they claim to know about the causes and effects of oppression, marginalization, and cultural “norms” like “toxic” masculinity.
Given the immense diversity in the experiences of men, not only in America but around the world, it is not at all clear to me what “boys will be boys” or “be a man” mean. The Gillette commercial has only added to the confusion by conflating a basic message about human decency with a vague notion about how masculinity contributes to a culture that encourages bullying and catcalling. Maybe it does, but maybe it does not. The case has not been made to me. In fact, as Mona Charen argues, while the behaviors currently being associated with “traditional masculinity” have always existed, they “went mainstream with the Sixties counterculture.”
Nonetheless, “everyone, left and right, who values decent behavior should be able to agree that encouraging men to be non-violent, polite, and respectful is not anti-male. It’s just civilized.” In the meantime, the Gillette commercial comes across as little more than another example of condescending “woke” capitalism trying to ride the wave of social justice ideology and bank its brand on fighting a vaguely-defined idea that obscures, rather than clarifies, the nuances of lived experience by men.