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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Toxicity

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the phrase Toxic Masculinity, but toxicity isn’t limited to the male gender.  I’ve titled this post ‘toxicity’ because increasingly we observe toxic behaviors among both genders, and it is often linked with generational, political and social factors that are more evident today than ever before.

 

So, what are those behaviors?  Displays of aggression or even cloaked violence especially in moments of perceived conflict are nothing new, but in present times they can appear as a more passive/aggressive expression. Men and women pictured cradling their AR-15s are not suggesting they are target shooting enthusiasts—they are sending a clear signal about their intentions even in the absence of any expressed hostility.

 

Bullying and its kissing cousin, dominance, are another form of toxicity.  It can be explicit, mocking people who are perceived as weak or disabled, as a former President has done, or more often it takes the form of micro-aggression.  Denigrating others with humiliating names or invented words, like ‘woke’ or DEI, that suggest inadequacy is common these days, especially in political circles.  Sleepy, little, crooked, moonbeam, slow, meatball, slippery, flakey, birdbrain, ditzy are just a few names that political figures have been called in an attempt to alter public perception and suggest weakness or flaws in character. It is more than juvenile silliness—the message is clear, I am the Alpha and you –the subject of my abuse –you are nothing.

 

Speaking of ‘The Alpha’, this notorious concept which is perhaps the most extreme example of toxicity stems from a gross misunderstanding of the behavior of pack wolves. It has become a byword for the uber male, and to a degree female that are highly competitive, physically and sexually aggressive, emasculating and lacking in empathy or outward emotions other than anger. A very flawed research study examining the behavior of captive wolves found a pattern of pack behavior suggesting the existence of a single dominant male controlling a group of ‘betas’, submissive followers. It turns out, however, that wolves in the wild do not behave this way but form cooperative social structures, they are not at all submissive to one another.

 

Displays of overt emotion of any kind other than dismissiveness, pride and anger are a clear sign of toxicity. And not to belabor the point, but these are not exclusively male behaviors either, although the cult of Alpha-ism has permeated mainstream society and all manner of ‘boot camps’, online courses and videos tout their ability to teach a young male audience how to be more manly, dominating and sexually powerful.  The subtext, however, is about avoiding loss at any cost, lest one becomes the bullied, the submissive or underling.  The inner sense of doubt regarding one’s self-worth is a characteristic feature that is pushed down and sublimated resulting in would be alphas’ narcissistic, and sociopathic traits.

 

The prevailing wisdom, and a large volume of study and writing on the subject of toxicity has focused exclusively on the male form.  Our language and social conventions emphasize an internalized view of manliness: strong, calm, unemotional, tough, and dominant.  We expect young boys to ‘Man Up’ in difficult or adverse circumstances, we tell them not to cry, or complain and in TV shows, movies, and literature we point to male figures who epitomize this view of masculinity.  Toxic individuals disparage our current President for a picture depicting him kissing his son, and others of him weeping at the loss of another, and kneeling in prayer. The message is clear—real men don’t do such things.

 

Men and women alike have shown similar disdain for women who are strong, hold positions of power, or are competitive describing them as ‘dykes’ or ‘butches’, de-feminizing them or suggesting they are secretly males.  Toxic men and women believe females should know their place as wives and lovers—behind the scenes, submissive and weak.  It does not fit the narrative when women rise to power, gain wealth or position, or in any way exhibit powerful traits. 

 

Witness a traffic stop between a female police officer and most men and women and you’ll see first-hand the degree to which ordinary citizens are uncomfortable with the idea of women who hold any degree of power over them, and the condescension, even abuse they are likely to exhibit that would never be the case in the presence of a male officer.  Go to a Maga rally and watch the women as well as the men who applaud, laugh and cheer when a woman is disparaged.  The volume and emotional tenor greatly exceeds the same treatment for men.  Female judges, representatives at the local, and federal level have all experienced this same dismissive, denigrating attitude—while some have simply joined the ranks of their male counterparts so as to avoid the negative perceptions.  Better to howl at your sister than be seen as one of them.

 

There is little doubt that toxicity is on the rise.  But it is not the sole province of a patriarchy. It is rather the product of cultural and social conditioning fueled by political animus, and a search for identity that has been perverted by opportunistic, self-interested public figures and media alike.  If we have any hope of stemming toxicity it begins at home, and it begins with parents rejecting stereotypes, encouraging boys and girls to express their feelings and helping them to channel emotions in a healthy self-affirming direction.  It is up to us to instill examples of acceptance, empathy and tolerance—of cooperation and collaboration rather than dominance and submissiveness.  It is our job to encourage excellence for its own sake and not for winning a prize. 

 

Years ago, I was in a room full of school superintendents who were discussing the design of a better High School curriculum.  As the discussion went around the room each man and woman expressed their thoughts on what should be included or removed until the final speaker, a newly hired superintendent running the largest school district of the group spoke.  Quietly, addressing the room he said: “Tell me what kind of people we want them to be and then I can tell you what we need to teach them”. 

 

If we do not want toxic people in our society, it’s our job to raise children that will not become them.  Tell me what kind of people we want—that will tell us what we need to do.

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