by Norman M. Brown Ph.D. |
Toxic Masculinity has become a polarizing cliché since the early 2000s. Men who don’t understand what it means are outraged., Women who don’t understand it either can feel vindicated in disliking men as well as hopeless about ever having a fulfilling intimate relationship with one of them. For It has been often misinterpreted as something toxic to society and the planet, like a congenital disease that men carry through life just because they are men, similar to “testosterone poisoning.” And in fact “testosterone poisoning” was a folk expression made up from research, including some studies that found winning athletic teams in football and basketball had higher concentrations of testosterone in their saliva than losing teams and others recording spikes in spousal abuse during the Superbowl.
Toxic masculinity is less intensely warlike but much more widely damaging to men and all their relations—be they human, animal, plant or mineral—than testosterone poisoning. “Toxic masculinity” names a cluster of personality traits and behavioral guidelines that boys are brought up with that are unexamined but thought to be natural in many modern societies. They were presented in 1997 in Terrence Real’s book I Don’t Want To Talk About It that focused on a widespread but hidden depression among men showing up as withdrawal, cynicism, lethargy, and unpredictable outbursts of anger and violence. But the childrearing practices that generate it have existed for a much longer time. In fact many anthropologists trace their central tenets back to prehistoric times, when hill-dwelling herders in the Middle East and other parts of the world began to invade the territory of agriculturalists because their superior skills in warfare enabled them to dominate over the gentler farming societies. These nomadic invader societies were organized into militaristic hierarchies with men as the leaders, because obedience and weapons skills were more effective for maintaining dominance over producers of food and other goods of value for living than the more collaborative partnership patterns of agricultural societies.
But there is a really big problem with warlike societies, and with might makes right as a general way of life: any group who feels a need and expects to dominate and hold onto power over others can keep on fighting in any way that works for them until they win over all the people around them—or they are imprisoned, enslaved or wiped out. On a nationalist or tribal level we can recognize this in the persistence of the Viet Cong—or Vietnamese peasant communists—until they defeated both pre-WorldWar II France and postwar America. In Afghanistan this shows up in the Taliban mountain people’s ability to outlast both the Soviets and NATO because they have a coherent and passionate identity and way of life and they won’t stop fighting to the death against the infidels and foreigners.
In modern societies where warfare and/or intense competition for resources and wealth is normal people believe that the basic personalities of men and women are what current popular scientific language calls “hard-wired,” that is biologically inborn. But when we turn to psychological and anthropological writings by Princeton emotion theorist Silvan Tomkins (1911-1991) between the 1960s and 1980s a much broader biopsychosocial understanding emerges of how the variety of societies around the world are actually structured.1 We will introduce some of his many systemic insights in the next blog.
1. Silvan S. Tomkins “Ideology and Affect” in Exploring Affect. The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, (ed. E. Virginia Demos) (1995). New York, Cambridge University Press Pp. 160-163.