ToNic Masculinity

Commentary, Culture Wars, Philip Carl Salzman

One of my department’s brightest students was seriously intellectual and widely read, always taking an active and constructive part in seminars. The student was approached by two others who complained that the student took up too much space and time, and should step back. No professor ever advised such a thing to this fine, straight A student. But the student was male, and his excellence was seen as toxic by the two female students who complained. The feminist view is that males should “step back” to make way for oppressed females.

“Toxic masculinity” is a phrase much in the news recently, following the publication of the American Psychological Association’s “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” The APA, strongly influenced by feminist theory, takes the view that masculinity, as it is taught and learned, is harmful to men themselves and to women. Specifically, “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” But, they argue, with gender sensitive therapy, and the social construction of a healthy masculinity for future socialization, “toxic masculinity” can be eliminated.

However, from an anthropological, evolutionary perspective, masculinity might not be so easy to reform. During almost all of the two million years of human existence, women and children stayed back in the camp while men went off to hunt for food to support their families, relying on sticks and stones for weapons. Men’s stoicism, tenacity, intrepidness, and competitiveness served their communities very well, for, without these traits, humans might not have survived at all. These traits emerged from natural selection, and to a substantial degree are hard wired in men, just as are men’s superior visual-spatial skills. It is well established in psychology that women are more interested in people, while men are more interested in the material world.

In more recent times, the last 10,000 years, men invented agriculture, architecture, civic politics, art, education, scholarship, and, more recently, men invented science and technology. How much of that would have happened without men’s interest in the material world, stoicism and tenacity in the face of obstacles, intrepidness facing challenge, and competitiveness? Of the 908 Nobel Prizes awarded, 52 went to women, primarily in “peace,” literature, and medicine, while 856 went to men, primarily for physics, chemistry, and medicine.

Today, the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs are done by men. Fishing, logging, flying, roofing had the highest rates of death, while drivers have the highest absolute numbers. In the U.S., in 2017, 306 women died in occupation related deaths, while 4,761 men died in occupation related deaths.

For having invented civilization, and keeping it running, we should celebrate “toNic masculinity,” as Janice Fiamengo suggests. It is not necessary to disparage masculinity in order also to celebrate the qualities and contributions of women, or to encourage social equality of the genders. The illiberal feminist narrative of evil masculinity is neither accurate nor helpful in advancing social justice. Let us all, as beneficiaries, be grateful for toNic masculinity.