The Vice of Toxic Masculinity

Here are some virtues:
Others might make somewhat different lists. (A longer list is HERE, though it leaves off prudence, health/vitality, empathy, and resilience.) Some things to notice about virtues:

They are individual goods -- that is, they make the lives of those who exemplify them better.

They are also social goods -- they make society better, and it is a task of a society to cultivate and encourage the virtues among its members.

Many of the virtues themselves represent a balance, a "middle way" between opposing vices. Temperance/moderation is the general virtue of steering between extremes, but several of the virtues represent a middle way between specific opposite vices. Courage, for instance, is a balance between paying no attention at all to appropriate fear (thus being reckless) and being wholly governed by fears.

Other virtues are susceptible to being taken to an extreme and becoming a vice. In these cases, the virtue needs counterbalancing from another virtue. Too much humility can make confidence difficult (and vice-versa). Same for patience and assertiveness.

Not all good qualities are virtues. Attractiveness, I think, is a good to the individual, but it isn't a virtue and isn't the sort of thing that society needs to think about how to encourage.

Virtue is nonpartisan. William Bennett's 1993 Book of Virtues briefly made it seem as if virtue was the exclusive province of conservatives -- and right-wing support for Donald Trump in 2016 has (also temporarily, I presume) made it seem that conservatives have abandoned concern with virtue. In fact, any influence between one's political leanings and which virtues to regard as most important is slight. Talking and thinking about virtue is how a society collectively works out and expresses its hopes for its children, and the virtues I've listed are recognized across the political spectrum.

Virtue and Gender

The virtues on my list constitute good qualities for both women and men, and most of them are as prevalent (or scarce) among one gender as among the other. Possible exceptions -- virtues that, perhaps, are not equally prevalent -- include empathy, which might be, on average, better developed in women, and assertiveness and confidence, which might be, on average, better developed in men. It's unclear whether there's any biological basis for this difference or whether it is wholly a product of differential socialization. In any case, empathy is nevertheless a virtue for men, even if often more developed in women, and assertiveness and confidence are nevertheless virtues for women, even if often more developed in men.

Unfortunately, popular ideas of "masculine" and "feminine" have fostered the idea that the virtues appropriate for boys and for girls are different. The West has a long history of promoting different virtues to boys than to girls: "virility" for boys, "chastity" for girls, for instance (neither of which is on my list). This has been a problem. The advance of gender equality will require a broad commitment to raising our boys and girls alike to strive to hold themselves to standards of virtue that are not sex-specific.

This does not, of course, mean that we deny or ignore gender differences. Testosterone, we know, makes a difference. Raising or lowering anybody’s testosterone level, male or female, has affects on mood and on what gets attention and doesn't. Testosterone also seems to increase preoccupation with one’s status. Studies, however, “refute the preconception that testosterone causes aggressive, egocentric, and risky behavior.” Testosterone “can encourage fair behaviors if this serves to ensure one's own status.” (Science Daily, 2009 Dec 9)

Toxic masculinity, then, is not the fault of testosterone. It's the fault of an ideology of masculinity that encourages boys to be domineering. Domination is not a virtue, but, in fact, a vice, and the measure of the toxicity of any concept of masculinity is the extent to which it encourages dominating behavior.

Dominance undermines and counteracts virtue. I am convinced that, indeed, dominance is the one evil at the root of all social ills. The rise of agriculture 12,000 years ago gave rise to a dominant class and put us all in service to whatever was hierarchically above us. Women are to serve men, the poor are to serve the rich, people of color are to serve whites, and the Earth and all its nonhuman species are to serve humans. (I write of this in more detail in two posts HERE and HERE.)

The task of replacing domination with compassion and empathy – and with the virtues generally -- will not be easy. Domination, vicious as it is, has persisted because in some sense it has "worked": it has allowed individuals, particularly males, to get ahead. We are up against entrenched toxic masculinity: deep patterns that train boys to be dominant. Misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and domestic violence are all about establishing and expressing dominance. The bullying and aggression that men learned as boys, and that plays out in adulthood in misogynist impositions, is the product of a notion of masculinity that is truly toxic.

Showing feeling connects us with ourselves and others, and thereby facilitates virtue development, but toxic masculinity stifles emotional expression as incompatible with domination. Boys taught to dominate become emotionally stunted men: damaged people inflicting damage on others.

In the history of the West, male concern with status manifested as an interest in "honor." Honor is perhaps too old-fashioned to be revived as a significant influence on culture today, but its opposite, shame, is as powerful as ever. Rape culture will end when men -- much closer to universally than at present -- understand sexual aggression as shameful.

Whether the influence of boys' testosterone is channeled into aggression and dominance or into, say, fighting for social justice, is up to us. A society that expects and rewards its boys to be strong in pro-social ways, that won’t tolerate sexual aggression, can get what it expects.

As one writer about masculinity suggested: we don’t want to be sheep, but that doesn’t mean we have to be wolves. We can be the sheepdog – protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Maybe sheepdog isn’t the best metaphor – it seems to retain hierarchy – but the point is that we don’t have to diminish characteristically male energy. We do need to channel it in virtuous directions and stop rewarding the vice of domination.

Western culture has been lousy at teaching boys what to do with the energies and interests that testosterone nudges upward. The #MeToo movement is helping dismantle the structures that for so long have rewarded aggressive dominance. That’s a very positive development for the prospects of happier, healthier, more complete men.

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