Conceptual hindrances to understanding “Toxic Masculinity”


As someone who is thoroughly opposed to the components of Toxic Masculinity, I wanted to take a moment to address conversations around it that I think might be less productive than they could be.

At root, I’m seeing a number of memes come up that are making analogies to Toxic Masculinity–say like the “Cheese Burger” meme I just saw on FB–that attempt to make the point that saying “Toxic Masculinity” does not mean that all masculinity is toxic–but rather that toxic masculinity is A KIND of masculinity that isn’t healthy.

The point that I would make here is not that I disagree with the conclusion–I totally believe that there are versions of masculinity that are super unhealthy–not only for everyone else–but also for the men who embrace them–but rather that the analogies being used here might be pretty easily discarded by some folks because the concept of masculinity is not necessarily the same KIND of concept as a hamburger–and thus the analogy is likely to be easily discarded by those who aren’t already convinced.

Just as health insurance and broccoli–while both nouns–are qualitatively different–masculinity as a concept is not the same as many other normal “things”–in that it isn’t just an object that can be further described by various adjectives in a straight-forward fashion–but rather it is–according to Wikipedia– ” a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men.” 

Being a set of things–but also a set of things that is grammatically structured as a singular noun–there are important differences here that may hinder easy adoption of the idea of Toxic Masculinity.  In particular–the notion of “masculinities” i.e. that there are many different kinds of masculinity didn’t really appear in public discourse until about 1990 . Additionally–its usage is still dwarfed by the singular “masculinity” by a factor of around 12-15x.

Thus–we have a situation where a pretty important concept is likely to be conceived of as singular–due to usage being primarily singular in nature as well as not having a plural until 30 years ago–but which is being employed to convey a really important point that requires a plural understanding of the word.

That is a hindrance.

It’s not a hindrance that cannot be overcome.

Fuck that.  It’s just a word.

But it seems likely to me to be a kind of conceptual stumbling block–especially for older or less academically inclined folk–that could easily be bolstering resistance to understanding–and that’s something we should at least consider and think about.

To use one concrete example–when you see someone start talking about “toxic homosexuality“–and then read what they say–it comes across pretty quickly that they seem to hate all gays–even when they make disclaimers.

Part of this–esp. in this example–is probably because they’re just assholes–but I do think the fact that homosexuality “is ‘an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions’ to people of the same sex. It ‘also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.’ “ which makes it–as a concept–structurally more similar to a “set of attributes, behaviors, roles…” than it does to a hamburger.

In the end–I want people to understand the problem with toxic masculinity.  It’s  A TRULY FUCKING SHITTY set of behaviors that has been damaging people for thousands and thousands of years.  We need to end this set of behaviors and replace it with better masculinities–say, for example, like those in the recent Gillette ad— but we should be aware of conceptual diversity in the minds of our audiences and be ready to ferret out where roadblocks are occurring so we can accomplish our bigger goals more effectively and efficiently. 

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#Medusatoo –The Patriarchy is fucking old.

The Patriarchy is old. If you go look at the story behind this great image below (that is going around in memes..)–it’s the story of Medusa–but re-imagined with her cutting off Perseus’s head.
(Statue by Luciano Garbarti–his website is here: )

Why do that? Well–in the original myth recounted by the famous Roman Poet Ovid, Medusa is punished by Athena for the crime of being beautiful and having been raped by Poseidon in Athena’s Temple.

Athena–apparently offended that this beautiful woman dared to be raped by Athena’s uncle in HER temple–strips away Medusa’s beauty–turning her hair into snakes and making her so terrible to look upon that people are turned to stone. She is then exiled by Athena.
Later–again with the help of Athena–a man is sent to kill her—the “Hero” Perseus–who decapitates her and then uses her head as a weapon.
Think about that for a second. Think of the entire story–how we are fed the notions about evil women, about how beauty=good, ugliness=evil, and that jealousy and violence against women in all ways is done by males (and some females who enable them), but who we should look up to and celebrate as powerful.
The Patriarchy is old. Let’s topple that fucker already.
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Relationship trees

An old high school acquaintance just posted something that she had heard from a friend–namely that “grief accumulates”–and that made me respond with the following:

“For a long time now, I’ve thought about relationships between two people as being like a tree growing between them–and when things go well–the tree grows fruits, etc… There are storms (fights) that can damage the tree–and small spats are like losing small sticks or leaves–but something important is that the growth or decay of the tree is cumulative… it has a history.. Too many fights–too many limbs lost–and the tree dies–or worse–is unhealthy and decaying for decades.

I think you could apply the same metaphor more broadly though–and think of all of your relationships together as being like a tree–and when one is lost–it’s like losing a branch…

Too many limbs lost all at once is painful and damaging.. there is an absence there —the social canopy is rent open–and then only time can try to fill up…

But even if it does fill the space–it will never be as it was before–because the scars of lost limbs will still be there..”


In this current moment, we are always going to exist as a summation of things that have happened to us and that we have made happen.  This is our continually changing and growing origin story.

It helps to define us–but never totally defines us–because we still have options for the stories we are still going to write.

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Hard & Soft Sciences–or perhaps the Simple and Complex Sciences..

My good friend Brent and I have had an ongoing discussion for many years about perceptions and labels for the sciences–i.e. the the natural and the social sciences.   In our society, the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology,..) are preeminent–and they also often are called the “Hard Sciences” in comparison to the squishy “Soft Sciences” of the social sciences (Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, …).

These labels have a history going back into the 19th century, and part of the meanings associated with the labels come from the notion that the mathematical rigor, testability, and overall durability of the results in the natural sciences is what made them “hard”–they provided stark, clear results that could be relied upon.

This hardness, of course, stood in contrast to–while co-creating–those “squishy” soft sciences whose results were so fleeting, and changeable.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Hard Sciences are seen as superior to the Soft Sciences in terms of cultural credibility and status.  Although the Hard Sciences themselves didn’t really become culturally powerful until WW2–when they were credited with all of the power of creating the first Atom Bomb–it’s clear in the history of the social sciences –which was one of my prelim fields–that there’s been a century long attempt by the Social Sciences to model themselves more and more on the Hard Sciences in order to be seen as serious

To many–this may seem natural and right–because when you look at the results of physics–it WORKS.   It seems so solid compared to research in something like psychology–which appears to be overthrown regularly and reinterpreted with a swiftness that often makes it seem more like a fad than a science.

At this point, I would stop and agree with the above to an extent. It is true that when you do physics work, the results you get are more controlled… less variable.  They stay put more. ( I love physics, I might add…. )

And that’s as fine as it goes.  But I would also like to point something important out–and that’s the fact that one of the essential traits of the hard sciences is that the objects of their study are–in many ways–relatively simple.

While this is most true of the hardest of sciences–physics–and becomes less true as you move to the more complicated chemistry and the very messy biology–the STUFF that they study  is simple in that it is just stuff.   It is matter–and quite often–it’s abstracted matter or mathematical models of small amounts of matter.

Atoms, Quarks, neutrinos, etc.

Or it’s huge masses of matter that you cannot actually grasp–stars, black wholes, galaxies–but when it’s this kind of physics–it is always just simplified accounts of it.

While working with this kind of stuff is certainly hard, it is important to note that this stuff is always just an object of study.

It is never a subject.

Think about it–what if atoms could have moods.  What if the same types of atoms–say Oxygen atoms—communicated with other atoms differently as English-Speakers do?   Or if how they related to other atoms changed over time based on laws that other atoms could create or remove at will?

What if atoms COULD LIE?

In a sense–just dealing with atoms is simple.  Chemists do have it harder–as they work more with molecules/compounds/mixtures—and biologists have it even harder.

But OHMYFUCKINGGOD–what about scientists studying subjects who lie to them–sometimes without knowing why–who change their minds, whose backgrounds are never exactly the same and who can learn to change their behaviors.  Who may change their responses to people based on cultural assumptions that vary from place to place?

That shit is REALLY FUCKING COMPLEX–and it makes coming up with results a lot more complicated.

In summation- I think there are a couple of important take home messages here:

1. One could say that an equally valid way to talk about these sciences is to talk about the “Simple Sciences” (natural) and the “Complex Sciences” (social).  This might frame these two different approaches to studying reality in a way that complements and balances the Hard vs Soft labels that we’ve had for so long.

2. One of the key differences that make the complex (social) sciences so difficult is that they have to deal with diversity IN THE MOST SERIOUS WAY POSSIBLE.  There is genetic diversity (also in Bio), experiential diversity, cultural diversity, intellectual diversity, and the last three kinds of diversity all “mutate” with a rapidity that would drive even the most complex simple scienstist (i.e. a biologist) batty.

3. Social Scientists have to take diversity in the subjects that they study seriously, or else they are going to miss so much.  Reflecting on this, having people in these complex sciences try to be more like the simple sciences–where they don’t have the same issues–can only really hurt them.  When psychologists try to pidgeonhole people in super-controlled experiments and try to turn them into human atoms–they are not going to get a lot of useful stuff. And attempts at “replication” in these ways are going to be mostly futile–because the numbers of variables that really at play are in the 1000’s at the very least–and most are just abstracted out of existence and ignored to do this work.

3. Similarly–aspiring to the mathematization of these Complex sciences so that computers  (big data!) can just come up with calculated correlations for people is going to lead to “garbage in, garbage out” type of situations more often than not.

4.  Since I’ve studied the history of engineering pretty in depth, I would also note that for all the disdain that engineering has from the sciences–how tacky, mundane, and impure engineering is compared to the abstractions and elegance of science–the same kind of thing is going on here.

Engineers don’t deal with idealized atoms connected to 3 other atoms–they deal with trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of different kinds of atoms thrown together in no discernible pattern that are interacting via imperfect, random, and “flawed” surfaces that make calculations and formulas impossible unless you’re just trying to get statistical and measured results–rather than calculated answers.
For this–engineering is disdained–but it’s in the acceptance of the diversity of matter and working with the matter as it is–rather than how you want to idealize it–that actual things are created.

And now.. I’m spent.  Time to do some push-ups.

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When equality becomes privilege

It is my experience that a lot of people have issues with the word, “privilege” when it comes to explaining the everyday experiences of inequality and of violence in our society.  I also would agree that “privilege” is not the perfect word for this kind of phenomenon–but I’m not sure there are any better words–and so it might just have to do. (One can look at John Scalzi’s great explanation of straight white male privilege here.  If you haven’t read it already, it will likely be the best thing you read today–and much better than what’s here.. )

As it stands–the word actually originally meant “private law”–in the sense that being “of privilege” meant that the regular law didn’t apply to you–only a kind of “private set” that was usually easier, less strict/harsh/etc..

Nobility had privilege–because regular laws that applied to all the peasants–didn’t apply to them.

What we see today is that not even REGULAR LAWS apply to minorities or women–that they don’t even get that. Most of the regular laws do apply to cis-het white males–but none of the “bonus” evil–like killing PoC–happens to them nearly as often.

So what this means is that the “regular laws” that we think govern society, DON’T. They have become a kind of “private law” that only some people get to enjoy.

Edit–Actually what’s going is that many are FINALLY NOTICING that what is presented as “regular laws” do not apply to everyone–that they are actually just “private laws” for some–and in reality–IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY… (edit required because of my own privileged position here that I hadn’t realized when I first wrote it.. ).

And that’s deeply, deeply disturbing. Because it means that what is generally considered to be just a “even ground” for everyone–isn’t and really, never has been… it’s always just been a reduced to a set of privileges that only some get to enjoy. (Note–for rich straight white males–there is EVEN MORE privilege… )

This needs to be fixed. If we, as the privileged–don’t want to hear this word be used–then we need to change society so that these basic, regular, laws actually apply to everyone equally.

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Understanding Complexity

This post came from a response to a friend’s posting of this article about Trump, but it also relates to many thoughts I’ve had before about how we understand reality.. and how we do not.

In specific–it deals with the need for all of us to grok complexity and act on that understanding more often.


Along these lines, teaching people to deal with complexity seems to be a core need for the future. Complexity-in a sense–shows up in so many of the things that go by other names and that I and many others find important.


Diversity (complexity of people)

Democracy (complexity of power)

Critical thinking (complexity of ideas and perspectives)

Diplomacy (complexity of relationships)

Pluralism (complexity of society and culture)

And I’m sure there are more.

If there’s one thing that I’ve observed that seems pretty consistent in people who found Trump appealing–it’s that they don’t like complexity.

Because they don’t like it–they tend also to associate it with evil/badness/inefficiency/whatnot.. and to rectify this–they seek simplicity and if you can make your appeal based on simple answers to complex questions–they will latch onto it.

Attempts to bring evidence to refute these kinds of beliefs is also usually doomed because by doing so–you’re inherently trying to show that the situation is more complex–which makes you “evil/wrong” from the outset.. (as is your evidence and any attempt to bring evidence…)

How do you solve this? Well.. I’m working on that. I tend to think that the short-term and long-term solutions are very different (OMG, LOOK I JUST CANNOT GET AWAY FROM COMPLEXITY!).

Short term fighting is about presenting equivalent “simple” alternative answers (GODDAMN IT, I’M NOT GIVING UP THE UTILITY OF THE WORD ALTERNATIVE..) that come from our set of values and that hide the complexity beneath them.


The left’s answer to simplistic right-wing messaging:

a) We want Liberty, Justice, and Equality FOR ALL!

b) We want good jobs, good schools, and good opportunities FOR ALL!

These are simple responses/messages that resonate with the core american ideals… and they frame it in a way that makes opponents come across as “No, we want liberty and justice for Some??? ”

More of this kind of thing would be the short-term approach.

Long term is to organize and take over all of the “low-level” positions of power–school boards, city councils, state governments–consistently–so we can build up the systems that explain and teach complexity.

The more people are at ease with complexity–the better off we will be.

To conclude, I have a quote I’ve appreciated since I first discovered it in the early 90’s.  It is:

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.”  It’s from Alfred North Whitehead and I always liked the juxtaposition in it.  The more extended version of it is:

“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’ “

We need not be natural philosophers to embrace this.  Or maybe rather we should all embrace being natural philosophers–at least partly–to deal with the kind of complex world we live in.

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The Resonance of Exclusion

“Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.”

—Tyler Durden

I think the fight club quote (and it’s one of my favorite movies) is instructive for how the message of “we little people are the ones who you must not dismiss” resonates with so many of us.

The fascinating thing is–fight club–and esp. project mayhem that follows out of it–is that it is a textbook model for how to start a fascist organization.

I never realized that until years after I had seen the film and someone mentioned that it was taught in classes about fascism.

What’s important here–is how easily this message resonates–how it helps create group solidarity–esp. against an evil “other.”

It is also exactly the kind of thing that Trump used to get votes.  His entire campaign was this kind of thing–but the evil other were minorities, “urban folk” (both white urban liberals and minorities), “elites”–a nebulous group meaning anyone you think is “above you” in some way that you dislike.. and others.

Anyway.. if you think about it–the end message of Tyler Durden is destruction of the current order–something that so many of Trumps followers have claimed they wanted –you know.. “to shake things up!”

Of course–they don’t really mean it.. I mean–they don’t want the roads gone.. or their medicare or social security gone… They’re just mad and want to fuck things up.. 

.. and that’s one of the central lies/lessons of fight club–Tyler says something (at one point) like.. “self-improvement is masturbation.. Self-destruction, on  the other hand..”  –> which points to this idea that we need destruction to make things right..

But destruction is actually pretty easy.  We live in an entropic world.. things tend towards decay and destruction naturally.. and it’s pretty easy to join in with these processes to break things.

It’s MUCH harder, on the other hand, to create.  To build.  To teach.   To maintain.  To grow.

These things work against the natural entropic tendencies in the world–and they require patience, refinement, and constant dilligence..

And they are often therefore draining and also flawed.

This is the twist.

We can be better than this.

And in being better–we will win.

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