As commentators like The Atlantic’s Julie Irwin Zimmerman have observed, last week’s Covington Catholic controversy has served as a Rorschach test of sorts. Ross Douthat aptly described it as yet “another controversy algorithmically designed to tear America apart.”
Human beings have always been prone to confirmation bias, but that tendency has been severely exacerbated by our culture’s intense polarization and the “politainment” business model that profits from outrage, as Senator Ben Sasse points out. It’s also helped along by the psychological rewards of sharing our knee-jerk emotional reactions on social media, where our public displays of “virtue” can be immediately affirmed by our friends and followers.
One of the most serious problems with this phenomenon is that it keeps us from seeing potential points of agreement and collaboration with those on “the other side.” Think back to the social media outrage of the prior week, sparked by Gillette’s new ad. The ad, which was inspired by the #MeToo movement, calls on men to hold each other accountable and work together to end bullying, sexual harassment, and violence.
The Gillette ad angered many right-wing commentators. Karol Markowicz wrote at Fox that she hated the ad because it portrays men as “universal aggressors and rapists” at a time when “Men are constantly barraged with criticism” and “have been on a downward trajectory for some time now.” Yet, as Mona Charen thoughtfully put it,
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These images didn’t strike me as a reproof of masculinity per se, but rather as a critique of bullying, boorishness and sexual misconduct.
By reflexively rushing to defend men in this context, some conservatives have run smack into an irony. Imagining themselves to be men’s champions, they are actually defending behavior, like sexual harassment and bullying, that a generation or two ago conservatives were the ones condemning.
As distasteful as the term may initially seem to conservatives, the concept of “toxic masculinity” shouldn’t be alien to those who adhere to traditional norms of morality. In fact, the ideals promoted by those who decry toxic masculinity provide an opportunity for collaboration and agreement between liberals and conservatives.
“Toxic Masculinity” and Sex Differences
“Toxic masculinity” isn’t masculinity simpliciter. Rather, it’s the distortion of authentic masculinity. To put it in more traditional moral terms, “toxic masculinity” can be understood as a characteristically masculine pattern of vice, fostered by cultural mores and social pressures. Think of it as an inverse of what John Paul II called the feminine genius.
It’s true that some who use the term seem to imply that most men, historically speaking, have been sexist pigs enabled by patriarchal systems of oppression. The website accompanying Gillette’s new ad describes men today as being “at a crossroads, caught between the past and a new era of masculinity.” But, of course, there’s really more to the story, as appealing as that simple narrative of social progress and enlightenment may be. There have always been pigs, but there have also always been virtuous men. Our culture may have rightly rejected some harmful stereotypes, but we’ve also lost or watered down many of the character-forming institutions that used to help boys become good men. Skyrocketing rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births in recent decades mean that fewer and fewer children are being raised in their intact biological families, meaning fewer and fewer children are being raised by both their mother and their father. That has serious implications not only for these children’s long-term economic success but also for their psychological wellbeing, personal relationships, and interactions with the opposite sex.
So the progressive vision of history and social change that underlies the Gillette ad is likely to be a point of legitimate disagreement between defenders of second-wave feminism and those who see the out-workings of the sexual revolution as corrosive of human happiness and a healthy society. But we don’t need to settle that disagreement to admit that those who decry toxic masculinity are right about some very important things. The way we raise our boys is vital for the health of our society; it matters what we teach them it means to be a man. Too many young men have been taught (implicitly or explicitly, by the behavior of their fathers and peers or by more insidious influences, like pornography) a twisted, harmful version of masculinity.
Those who believe in traditional sexual morality need to fight this just as hard as we fight the idea that sex differences don’t exist or that gender is simply a social construct. Men and women are different, and they are complementary. Individual men and women may happen to possess more or less stereotypically masculine or feminine traits, but that does not negate each person’s given and essential identity as a man or a woman—it simply emphasizes the unique identity of an individual person with intrinsic worth and dignity. Similarly, the fact that some of the things we associate with masculinity and femininity are socially determined does not undermine the basic truth that men and women are different in meaningful ways. Biology and psychology continue to reveal the many ways in which this is true.
For both boys and girls, it is essential that same-sex role models—particularly but not only parents—demonstrate what it means to be a man or woman of virtue. Strong marriages and affectionate parents help teach children how to interact with members of the opposite sex in healthy, respectful, loving ways.
#MeToo and the Hollowing Out of Sex
Strange as it may seem, the current backlash against toxic masculinity—and the #MeToo movement that preceded it—reveal the deep insufficiency of our culture’s understanding of sex differences and the way we teach men and women to treat each other. As Elizabeth and Nathan Schlueter have argued here at Public Discourse,
Although Americans today are deeply divided about many things, the wrongfulness of sexual assault is not one of them. This is encouraging, but there is also something mysterious about it. Why do we treat sexual assault differently from other forms of assault, giving it a special and more serious legal classification? Why is it that some people can require years of therapy after being touched on their genitals without their consent but can quickly forget a much more painful punch to the face? Why is it that if someone touches any other part of our body without our consent it is not usually traumatic, but if they touch our genitals without our consent we feel personally violated? . . .
These experiences suggest that human sexuality is somehow bound up with the whole person in a unique way. It has a deeply personal meaning that we cannot simply construct for ourselves. If the meaning of sexuality is wholly conventional—if sex is merely a biological event—then the seriousness of sexual assault and ubiquity of sexual shame make no sense.
The #MeToo movement demonstrated the painful inadequacy of a sexual ethic based only on the bare minimum of consent, divorced from ideals of fidelity, loyalty, commitment, and self-sacrificial love. In a similar way, the subsequent backlash against toxic masculinity highlights—perhaps unintentionally—the consequences of pretending that sex differences don’t matter. When we don’t teach young men how to be good men, that doesn’t erase their desire to prove themselves to their peers. It just leaves a vacuum in which “boys will be boys” style “locker room talk” and objectification of women can easily masquerade as manhood.
The Gillette ad presents an opportunity for liberals and conservatives to find common ground in promoting virtuous masculinity. In doing so, we should neither deny the reality of sex differences nor cling to gender stereotypes that are harmful products of a particular era. Instead, we should teach both boys and girls to strive for virtue and to respect the equal dignity and complementarity of men and women.
Opposing toxic masculinity does not entail rejecting masculinity. Indeed, it requires just the opposite. Rejecting toxic masculinity should prompt us to promote authentic masculinity all the more. And that’s a cultural project sorely in need of champions.