Today we hear terms like ‘fragile men’ and ‘toxic masculinity.’ If you are a young man you will hear those things not only out in the world, but even sometimes in school. This leads to the danger that young men will start believing that these are true descriptions of masculinity. There are a lot of problems with conducting debate based on hate speech and exclusion. But the biggest is that this new, hyper-aggressive stance towards masculinity constructs a straw man, a monochrome version of traditional masculinity that isn’t the real story.
They tell us to believe that there is a traditional ideal of masculinity that viewed women as inferior property and admired men who slept around, or who treated women as objects. We’re told that society encouraged men to bully anyone weaker and get what they wanted through force. Men did not allow themselves to show emotions or even feel them. Unrepentant aggression was the name of the game.
Who They Say We Are, And Who We Really Are
Except that this simple view of masculinity was never really what our society promoted. It’s closer to the traditional view of a boy or an immature man who had not yet taken his place in society. We have etiquette books and records of advice to boys and men going back centuries. The main ideas haven’t really changed – men considered it good to be kind to women and children, protect people from being bullied, and to pursue healthy long-term relationships instead of sleeping around.
Men labeled other men who bullied women or weaker men, who talked crudely, treated women poorly, or slept around, as lower-class men or overgrown boys. To put it another way – think of Mad Men. Men like that were not respected as masculine ideals in the 1960s. Most of the country at that time would have seen those characters as overpaid, immature man-children. Compare it to the way we see Silicon Valley bro-grammers today.
In a time where men and boys are struggling to retain employment in the workplace or meaning at home, this kind of simple hatred is not the solution. Teaching our boys that they are inherently bad or dangerous does not help. People always absorb negative stereotypes. The problem is that phrases like ‘toxic masculinity’ or ‘fragile men’ are intentionally dehumanizing terms. Not everyone who uses them thinks of it that way, but the fact remains that people created terms like this to be polemic weapons in order to verbally box in opponents.
The Problem With Negative Expectations
‘Toxic masculinity’ treats men like a disease or a pollution. ‘Fragile men’ negates any possibility that men who disagree with a view being expressed are real adult humans. It implies that disagreement with the speaker is proof that something is wrong with them. To disagree is to show you are broken and incomplete, immature, or otherwise incapable of seeing the speaker’s obvious wisdom. Phrases like these are very deliberately designed so the user can paint people who offer opposing points of view as dangerous monsters.
Instead we need a positive message – that men and masculinity have equal value to women as a positive force in society. Living up to an expectation is a more powerful motivator for any person than avoiding mistakes. People absorb the stereotypes we give them about yourselves – so a negative stereotype means that person will always believe they are trying to overcome some inherent inferiority in themselves, and that their real nature is (in the example of men) aggressive, predatory, oppressive. Men will less easily overcome this because it means every thing you do that’s good is going against your nature and takes effort.
Whereas a positive expectation means that we can be inherently heroic, generous, brave, protecting, and so on. That expectation should be based on the positive values of manhood – such as the strength and courage to protect people that need it. The self-control necessary to help other people with their fear and emotions in times of crisis. The decisiveness and confidence to provide direction and security when asked to do so. If we believe and teach our sons to believe that they have something to offer the world, it changes the default – doing the right thing will be easy with development and practice.
We don’t want to teach the developing generation that they are inherently dangerous, scary, sexist, and oppressive. We need to teach our boys based on the masculine virtues they can aspire to develop.