A term that that has been popping up on news feeds and television screens more and more frequently of late is “toxic masculinity.” It has been identified as the root of everything that is wrong with modern America—from mass shootings to the rise of Donald Trump to the recent slate of sexual harassment charges. It has been uncovered as the dark underside of the Jedi Order in the Star Wars movie franchise, and is said by some to be inherent in carnivorism.
The basic premise behind the phrase is that masculinity, taken to its natural conclusion, inexorably leads to boorish behavior and the systematic subjugation of the disenfranchised in general and women in particular. It is implied (or occasionally overtly stated) that it is only by eschewing normal male behavior and intentionally becoming more feminine that men can move forward and bring an end to societal ills.
It is important to acknowledge up front that the issues being raised by those condemning “toxic masculinity” are real. The constant revelations of sexual manipulation of men from different arenas and across the ideological spectrum are deeply disturbing, and the ferreting out of such behaviors—especially when those acting abhorrently are in positions of power—is a major step in the right direction.
But masculinity is not the problem, and the solution to what ails the culture requires men acting more like the men they were created to be, and not less.
The masculinity that has been promoted for at least a generation is a fraud. It decouples the idea of being a man from the very things which once used to identify it. Virtues like chivalry, sacrifice, duty, and honor have been either jettisoned or redefined in such a way to make them valueless. In their place, we have installed a “follow your bliss” mentality that places personal fulfillment above all other endeavors. We have “Jerry Maguire-ed” marriage into something intended to “complete us,” and view fatherhood as, at best, one of several equally valid endeavors, and at worst a hurdle to be either avoided or overcome.
When self becomes the primary defining factor of who a person is, it is not surprising that, in fulfilling personal desires, the ends end up justifying the means. Privilege comes with power, and if that privilege involves using others for personal gain, so be it.
True masculinity, on the other hand, places an emphasis on serving. The vocations of husband and father are held in the highest esteem, both of which command self-sacrifice. The adherence to a code of behavior—be it religious principles or societal norms of behavior—helps to suppress bad impulses and encourage virtuous behavior. And seeing one’s position as an opportunity to help and serve others, rather than a chance to use power to achieve some kind of elusive happiness, often leads to a deeper and longer lasting satisfaction.
The problems that face modern society are not sociological, but spiritual. In short, we have a sin problem. Sin does not discriminate according to position, income, or influence. It is present in all men and all women, from all races, nationalities and religions. And while the ways sin is manifested in men and women can and often do differ, the damage done—both to the individual and to society at large—is profound regardless of the perpetrator.
The long-term solution to so-called “toxic masculinity” is to replace the counterfeit with the genuine article. Boys need to be taught the duties and responsibilities that come with being a man, and societal structures need to support those understandings. In addition to condemning bad actions springing from a misplaced machismo, there needs to be an exalting of the good and noble values of real masculinity, and encouragement to embody those values. Leaders of any sort—be they parents, teachers, pastors, or bosses—should serve as exemplars of virtue, encouraging the same behavior from those under their authority.
Most of all, the prevailing ethos of self-actualization as virtue needs to be destroyed. As long as personal achievement eclipses morality, there will always be those who use others in demeaning and unsavory ways. (Christians, it should be noted, are as complicit as anyone to contributing to such a climate. The idea that marriage is intended primarily as a way of fulfilling oneself is toxic, and is rampant in Christendom. It leaves Christians without a leg on which to stand when opposing same-sex marriage, and also could help explain the skyrocketing divorce rate among evangelicals.)
Those who oppose “toxic masculinity” will argue that “boys being boys” is not a defense for demeaning, even violent behavior. And they’re right. The appropriate response, however, is not to make boys more like their female counterparts. Instead, we must commit to the idea that “boys become men,” and properly prepare them for that reality.