Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom suggested Americans address toxic masculinity as a way to end the male-dominated tragedy of mass shootings. Liberals nodded their head furiously while a typical right-wing response was to “rethink single-mothers-by-choice and gay marriage.” Both sides are missing the point. Extremist shooters are neither the product of traditional masculinity or the erosion of the family — they are a product of entitlement.
The problem with the phrase “toxic masculinity” is that it pathologizes traditional masculine traits, some of which are actually positive. Promoting the idea of toxic masculinity leaves no room for discussing positive masculine traits like courage, respect for women, and service to one’s community. But more than that, the trope of toxic masculinity obscures the fact that traits like aggression and dominance do not in themselves lead to violence.
The thing is that aggression and dominance can be crucial traits to draw upon. It was aggression and dominance that helped the allies win World War II. It is aggression and dominance that makes popular sports so wildly entertaining and lucrative. And when it comes to protecting family members from threat, a little aggression and dominance is a good thing to have,
Where these traits go astray is when they are combined with a sense that the world has become deeply and personally unfair. A full six years ago, in his almost prophetic book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, sociologist Michael Kimmel named this state of male-being “aggrieved entitlement”. Through conversations with extremists, Kimmel found that men (particularly white men) can become embittered and violent when they feel their presumed power, influence, and deference is unfairly challenged. That’s bad news for in an economy shifting away from jobs men have traditionally enjoyed, or in a culture championing family and social structures that move men away from the center of influence.
But the answer in addressing aggrieved entitlement doesn’t lie in turning back the clock so that social and economic structures realign with how white men believe they should be treated. We’ve been in that place, and it was ugly — filled with racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Those things are all getting better, albeit in small incremental steps.
Damning masculinity as a whole, by labeling it toxic, doesn’t help aggrieved entitlement either. In fact, it’s more likely to exacerbate the issue.
The answer is in giving men a chance to embrace the positive traits of masculinity that benefit society. And those traits are plenty. Consider the masculine ideal of fatherhood. Men should be encouraged to be good, guiding fathers, whether to their own children or as a mentor to children who need positive male role models. And as a society, we should encourage fatherly guidance and care by offering men at least three months of fully paid paternal leave.
But there are other positive masculine traits we should be encouraging too. At one time, masculine men were expected to respect women. But for many men, that respect has dimmed with a shift in gender roles. Sadly, it appears that the respect was contingent upon female fealty. What we should be doing is encouraging men to respect and support women’s choices as a masculine trait — part of what makes them a good man.
The same goes for traits like courage and service. These traits don’t have to be framed by some kind of male warrior aesthetic. It takes a kind of masculine courage to stand up in the face of bigotry, racism, and misogyny for instance. And masculine service can mean more than picking up a gun and fighting a war. It can also mean helping to care and feed and grow your community.
As a society, we should agree that these traditionally masculine traits should be championed and that they have worth and importance. Gavin Newsome should stop talking about ending toxic masculinity and start talking about how to promote positive masculinity. And those on the right should stop trying to double down on an idea of masculinity that we’ve evolved away from. Talking about masculinity as toxic, or suggesting it should be unchangeable, both work to promote a sense of “aggrieved entitlement.” And the more that feeling grows, the less safe we are.
It time to think about masculinity in a new positive way to make our country safer and more healthy.