The word itself is changing, doing its damndest to evolve out of the definition that has contained it for centuries: “The qualities typically associated with being a man.” That simplistic view is far too minimal to encapsulate the full emotional spectrum of what it is to be a man in today’s society. It is the reason so much is ignored or misunderstood when it comes to our role as men in creating and understanding a holistic masculinity.
The word “typically” that prefaces masculine in the definition is an indicator of just how outdated the definition is. Just because a behavior has been typical of men, does not by any means make it acceptable. Our “typical” behavior has allowed us to make great gains in status but has also absolved/prohibited us from developing the skills we need to help cultivate a society that respects and honors gender.
And while there are individuals and organizations working hard to expand the definition of masculinity, there are also those who see this expansion as a threat. Narratives have arisen that see any evolution of men beyond the typical definition as negative. It is the “end of men” or an “attack on manhood.”
These derogatory narratives make it seem as though the #MeToo movement, if left unchecked, would manacle all men under the tyranny of women. But that presupposes the equal rights of women, and those who are more gender fluid, must be paired with a forced social impotency of men.
And nothing scares men more than impotency.
What these narratives miss is the changes taking place meant to expand the awareness and understanding taking place within men. There are certainly men who feel they haven’t done anything wrong to begin with. And to them, these changes might feel scary. But there is no perfect man who hasn’t done wrong. Viewing one’s self as faultless enables a binary view of masculinity; the toxic behavior of those called out in the press… and everybody else.
While there are certainly no shortage of stories highlighting “Toxic Masculinity,” Tony Porter talks about the danger of the term on his site “A Call to Men.” He says:
If we allow men to separate themselves by saying, “I’m not that bad – look at them – those guys are the ones with that ‘toxic’ behavior,” we are missing the greatest potential for change. We men have work to do.
We are a culture in love with classification and separation, as soon as we call out somebody else as toxic we are saying we are non-toxic. However non-toxic doesn’t mean healthy. There is so much more to a healthier masculinity than an avoided toxicity.
While greater systemic change is indeed needed, the changes all men can make on a daily basis are much smaller, much clearer. It starts with the way we speak in private forums.
There is a dichotomy in all of us. We behave one way in public and another in private. The conversations we have with our friends are different than those we have with strangers. And this will always be the case. It is human nature.
But if we are to change for the better, if we are to institute a larger cultural shift in how we as men treat everybody, then we have to pay more attention to the private elements of our performed identity; especially the way we describe women, when no women are around to hear us.
There is no siloed self. Every part of who we are influences every other part. Holding open doors in public does not entitle us to tell sexist jokes in private. I am not naive enough to believe men will speak to each other with the decorum of Victorian Gentlemen when they get together, but we cannot allow the bottom to drop out of our standards when the casualties of our conversation are out of earshot.
This is not an accusation but an observation of men, including myself. What language and behavior have we all taken for granted? How have I myself spoken to and about women in ways that were inappropriate or wrong? The gradual passage of time sheds a sometimes embarrassing light on my past selves. We are not villains who make mistakes, but fallible, and likely to fail again in our future interactions. But the key is not to look at any one person, including ourselves, as entirely good or entirely toxic. This is a request to all men to level up who we are. How do we all make things better?
If you are a man with a family who meets his responsibilities it can be easy to think, well, what more do I need to do?
No man can raise his hand and honestly say he hasn’t done wrong. But no man should be able to stand by and watch others do so.
What has been seen as typically masculine has not necessarily been healthy. And so to strive for a healthier masculinity means letting go of the typical. Not shunning it mind you. This isn’t about limiting what a man should be, but expanding what a man can be. Whether in the form of language, behavior or just consciousness.
To improve how we as men think and behave, it does us no benefit to rank our own behavior against others, but rather, to compare ourselves to the way we were yesterday. Are we more patient? Are we more inclusive? Is our language less abrasive?
There are no immediate answers, only questions that can move us forward.
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