Over the weekend, a disturbing video of a group of boys from a Catholic School in Covington, Kentucky catapulted Twitter into one of its regular nervous breakdowns. The video appeared to show the boys surrounding and taunting a lone, elderly Native American man as he chanted and played a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The Indian was a veteran; his demeanor was stoic and dignified. The boys were loud and rowdy, the kind adults routinely cross the street to avoid. They were also—with one or two exceptions—white. A few were wearing MAGA hats. They had just come from the annual anti-abortion March for Life.
In other words, the video could have been scripted by a gender-studies professor from Middlebury, staged by the director of Gillette’s viral ad on toxic masculinity, and given an official seal of approval from the American Psychological Association, the august organization whose recently published guidelines elaborating on the evils of “traditional codes of masculinity” made waves a few weeks ago. There it was: toxic (white) masculinity, for all to see and deplore.
Or so it seemed. As it happens, the video had been substantially edited to leave out some details that, while not fully settling the matter, provided a good deal of mitigating context. If you missed the miserable affair, you should see the accounts given by Rod Dreher or by Robby Soave. For now, let’s consider how “toxic masculinity,” now a cultural meme embraced by the academy, much of the media, psychologists, and even corporate boards, has itself become toxic.
To understand fully why the “toxic masculinity” concept is pernicious and not, as proponents would have us think, a helpful corrective to male malfeasance, consider that it is based on several related and erroneous premises. The first is a Blank Slate theory of sexual identity, the idea that men and women have no inborn preferences, interests, and urges that might reveal themselves in different kinds of behavior. Instead, it’s society—or, rather, patriarchy—that writes instructions on the human tabula rasa about the right way to be female or male. Those rules are designed for the benefit of the powerful, namely white males, and are completely separate from biology.
The Blank Slate theory then leads to a second error. To explain why men are in fact more likely to, say, assault their landlord or, less dramatically, to stare at a woman’s breasts without allowing for innate tendencies, blank slatists have to paint a garishly degraded picture of American society and its supposedly pathological gender norms. Only toxic elders passing on the rules of a vicious, woman-hating society can account for the existence of rapists, cat-callers, bullies—and those Covington Catholic boys.
You can see these two errors working overtime throughout both the now-infamous Gillette ad and the APA Guidelines. In one scene of the ad, adult men see several boys, presumably their sons, pummeling each other on the ground. Do they pull the boys apart and tell them to knock it off like actual fathers do? No, they shrug “boys will be boys,” a passé phrase that no one today, except in ads and articles warning about toxic masculinity, utters unironically. In a similarly chimerical characterization, the APA states that “Boys are encouraged to push down any emotion other than anger.” The passive voice—a favorite device of the authors—lets them avoid explaining who tells boys to avoid all displays of emotion other than anger and what exactly they say. It can’t be teachers and parents; encouraging their male students or children to be angry would be like teaching their pit bull to bite. Fortunately for the APA authors, they don’t need to elaborate on the guilty party. “Toxic masculinity” already tells us all we need to know: it’s the patriarchy.
Now you could argue—and I have—that contemporary American society has not done a great job of taming and channeling juvenile aggression or of developing young men and women into the best they can be, to use the words of the Gillette ad. But “toxic masculinity” goes much farther than that. It evokes a society dedicated to creating and stoking the raw male desire for dominance. I’m hardly the first to point out that males engage in more violence and dominance behavior than females in every known human society, as well as in every primate troop. When the authors of the APA guidelines get to the section on bullying, however, they locate its cause in “constricted notions of masculinity emphasizing aggression, homophobia, and misogyny,” that is, in social teaching. Bullies make an appearance in the Gillette ad, too, with a pack of out-of-control, taunting boys followed by a shot of a mother comforting her child. The ad ends with the robotic chanting of “boys will be boys” by a line of Stepford men standing rigidly in front of their charcoal grills, spatulas at the ready. The patriarchy passes on its toxic secrets to young males, the ad implies. The only good news is that patrimony does include grilled hot dogs.
The ad’s writers miss the possibility that “boys will be boys” is not guidance or an excuse; it’s a warning. Far from encouraging boys’ aggression, the American “patriarchy” tries in its own crude way to squelch it, as any decent society must do. That’s why the country is awash with anti-bullying programs and public-service announcements. Despite the violence of Hollywood, that industry’s creatives also join in. The muscle-bound, macho bully preying on the weak is a stock villain in American movies: think of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future or Sack Lodge, played by a young Bradley Cooper in the Wedding Crashers. Sack is the APA’s stereotypical “constricted” toxic male: he hunts, plays football, wisecracks about women’s bodies, and cheats on his girlfriend. But here’s a Cliff’s note for the APA: he’s the bad guy.
All of which takes us back to the social-media stoning of the Covington Catholic School boys. Looking through the distorted lens of “toxic masculinity,” a Twitter mob doubled down on its first impression of aggressive, smirking, nasty boys, even after new videos emerged showing that they themselves had been taunted. “Someone taught these young people . . . to behave the way they did,” Atlantic writer James Fallows tweeted, because 16-year-olds trying to keep face in front of their friends during an awkward encounter would never, ever lob a lame or even cruel joke unless adults taught them to. The irony is that some of the male Twitter crowd seemed to need a psychologist to help them manage their own out-of-control toxic masculinity. “Honest question,” religion scholar (!) and television personality Reza Aslan asked to the tune of over 20,000 likes. “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” “I just want these people to die,” wrote Erik Abriss, a contributor to New York. Others “doxed” the boys’ families and have made threats to their safety.
That’s the problem with “toxic masculinity.” It’s contagious.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons