Introduction: My Father
It’s 1983, and I’m 11 years old. My father usually sits across from me and my two siblings, who are 7 and 8 years old. Usually, we’d be at a Carl’s Jr., a burger joint that was popular on the West Coast, but not so much elsewhere as far as I know. My father always bought us a soda, not a meal, and then we would sit and talk. And once we had finished our soda, that was it until the next month or so. This was what my father thought bonding after a divorce looked like.
Of course, being that young, I knew I wanted more but didn’t know how to express my needs. I just sat across from him, listening to him talk. And my father’s choice of topic was usually his Master’s thesis. He would talk about light and optics, and there was also some connection to electronics — because he was really into electronics — so much so that he eventually worked for Panasonic.
As an 11- year-old, you can imagine just how overflowing with knowledge I was about light optics and electronics. Those topics came up a lot when I was playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends or watching cartoons like Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. I don’t recall my father really talking about how he felt, or asking us how we felt. He might have asked us how we were doing in school, but honestly, I don’t remember that either.
I only remember coming to one conclusion: For my father to pay attention to me, I had to ask the right questions. If I wanted my father to love me, I had to be really smart — smart enough to talk about light optics and electronics. I worked hard throughout my life to be smart enough to earn his love, although most of my adult life I was entirely estranged from my father.
Without realizing it at the time, that was my first encounter with toxic masculinity.
Toxic Masculinity: Outrage & Shame
Now, I admit that the phrase “toxic masculinity” might seem inflammatory. It’s a term that rankles because for some people it seems like an attack on all men. I want to be clear: I am not here to vilify men. (I am, after all, one of them.) Nevertheless, to talk about men or masculinity, one cannot ignore that a national conversation is already taking place about the most toxic and abusive forms of male behavior.
It wasn’t that long ago during the Kavanaugh confirmation that we saw Dr. Christine Blasey Ford pour out her soul on national television only to see then-Judge Kavanaugh have a temper tantrum filled with partisan venom, to see Lindsey Graham angling for an Oscar nomination (category: angry melodrama), and the rallying of a lot of angry white men to protect another angry white man. We see it now with white extremists — white men who feel very angry and attack grocery stores and synagogues. We see it in the rampant amounts of sexual abuse that #MeToo has exposed; the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world are finally being held responsible.
Before going any further, though, it’s worth spending a moment talking about the ways we react to toxic men. Fueled by outrage, the primary response is to condemn and shame — these are bad men, they’re toxic. Don’t get me wrong: Men should be held accountable for their behavior. If you abused someone or committed some horrendous act of violence, of course you should be held responsible. So I’m not here to suggest that the outrage and shame are misplaced.
But as justified as these responses may be, there’s a problem with them. First, outrage is exhausting. Outrage gives us this initial jolt; it gets us moving. But in the long-run, it’s a terrible fuel. It’s the amphetamine of emotions. At some point, you come crashing down, and you feel burned out.
Second, shame doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It doesn’t actually stop men from misbehaving. It only stops the ones who are called out. Kevin Spacey isn’t working as an actor, and Matt Lauer is off the Today Show. Shaming stops you from behaving badly, but it doesn’t necessarily change your underlying mindset; it actually just keeps it in check.
Shame isolates and makes you want to hide, but it doesn’t generate the kinds of empathy and understanding, remorse and compassion that leave to authentic shifts of the heart. Calling out men in this way can be a necessary antidote to particular instances of abuse, but it’s not going to solve the problem of why men get that way in the first place. Shame and outrage don’t actually lay the groundwork for creating men differently.
Third, shame and outrage ultimately treat toxic masculinity as a kind of “bad apple” problem. We say to ourselves that there are a lot of men in the world who are not Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Larry Nassar. Lots of men don’t actually physically abuse women or attack other people. In fact, the very premise of the bad apple — it’s a few bad men whom we need to get rid of — actually distracts us from seeing the real picture.
I’m sure some of you are saying — there is a difference between your father and these men. Yes, there is a big difference in their actions and the harm they inflicted. It’s true — not all men are Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or Larry Nassar or Dylann Roof. These are the egregious examples of toxic masculinity.
But we have to confront the question: What if my father and these examples share some underlying core issue? In other words, What if all men are toxic and some just manage it better than others? If that’s the case, then blaming the bad apples just doesn’t get us anywhere close to a solution. Instead, we overlook the fact that the men in our lives like my father happen to manage their toxicity a little or a lot better than the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
Emotions as Emasculation
To understand why men might all suffer from the same core issue, and where the solution might actually lie, it’s helpful to look at a study in the 1950s called the “Robbers Cave” experiment. A recent New York Times article, discussing political partisanship and polarization in our country, described the basic elements of the study:
a group of fifth-grade boys — all white, middle-class and Protestant — were divided into two groups at a summer camp in Oklahoma. Within two weeks, they devolved into insulting and threatening each other, to the extent that the experimenters had to intervene. Their arbitrarily assigned group identities were enough to stoke open conflict among them.
Some of you might question whether this is limited to men. In fact, there’s nothing unique to men about this basic structure. The reality is that we all share this same basic structure of thought, which allows us to see others as others, and to see them as threats or as less than, as something to be vilified or to be mistreated. We spend our lives learning to overcome this tendency to treat others as others. But the basic structure of our minds is to see the different and unfamiliar as other, and to generate social divisions — the self that finds its identity by seeing itself in opposition to some other.
What makes this kind of structure of mind especially toxic for men is that they are deprived early on of certain emotional responses our sense of separation from each other and the possibility that others will be threats to us. We teach men that they have to be strong and stoic, that they can’t actually share their feelings about feeling threatened, alone, scared or any other natural emotion that might emerge in response to a world that seems threatening. The message men receive early on in life is that if you express vulnerability, then you’re not a man.
If you don’t believe me, consider yet another New York Times article that described how a middle school adviser began to work with her students in which 11 middle-school boys were asked to decide if a particular emotion belonged inside or outside the “man box” — “a figurative container of masculine stereotypes.” The middle school boys quickly determined that “trust, sadness, tenderness, patience, fear, insecurity, confusion, feeling overwhelmed and joy” did not belong in the “man box.” As the Times article recounts, the adviser asked if they were surprised to know that they had just eliminated 80% of human emotions. The boys were not surprised, it seems. And I’m not surprised to hear this. This is what happens to all men. Frankly, as a gay man, one of the great blessings it brought was the freedom to express more emotions. After all, once you’re already told that you’re “not quite a man,” the barriers to emotional expression are a little easier to topple.
Men are told to be self-sufficient, strong, self-sacrificing, and brave. Again, these are laudable, wonderful qualities. But they aren’t allowed to engage with other feelings. In fact, and this is a really important point, at a very early age, shame is the mechanism that gets rid of these emotions. Men have tenderness, vulnerability, authenticity, and fear shamed right out of them. In my opinion, the primary emotions that most men can share, especially with other men, is (1) anger and (2) the satisfaction that comes with winning. But tenderness, vulnerability, or fear? As those middle schoolers understood without hesitation, those are considered weak, not manly.
The truth is that men are actually quite fearful because they’ve been raised to see a world full of threats in which they are not allowed to acknowledge that they are afraid. The result is that men are actually quite fragile, because men live in a world that pretty much tells them at every turn, you’re not a man, at least not a real man. So much so that to even acknowledge that you feel like less than a man is a sure sign that you’re not a man. Men live in a tiny world of emotional restraint, and it’s actually quite a painful place to inhabit.
The Search for Power
I’m not asking you to feel bad for or pity men, or worse, to somehow give them a pass. But it’s critical to understand what’s really going on beneath the surface. When you do, you can begin to see why men engage in a lot of despicable behavior. Men develop what I like to call “empire-building egos.” When they cannot express that they are afraid or feel less than man, their only outlet is to conquer the world. They do that either through acquisition of power and money or, when that fails, through violent outbursts and attacks. In a world where you are told there are threats and you can’t be afraid of them, and if you do, you’re not a man, the only thing you can do is swallow your fear and conquer.
In the face of emasculating fear, men search for power. If they can acquire power, they can convince themselves that they are men. And those who have power got it by behaving in certain ways that they can’t just now stop — they fought for their place, and now they must defend it. They only know how to express the pursuit of power — the satisfaction of wielding power over others — as empire-building egos who are out to conquer, and who worry that whatever they have acquired can be lost or taken away from them. All of this is driven by fear, fear of not being enough (of a man) and not having enough (power).
The men who don’t find their place in the world and also don’t have any way to express their emotions are led to express themselves in far more abusive and violent ways, often through domestic violence. The most extreme cases are the angry white men responsible for domestic terrorism — men who are isolated, have very little material success, and seem to be ostracized and alone, without any emotional support at all. They have failed to fulfill the masculine ideal of acquiring power. In the face of that enormous pain and fear, they resort to angry outbursts at those they blame for their predicament.
In this way, both the domineering man who acquires great power and the angry, disaffected man who resorts to violence have in common this deep-seated toxic belief that they’re not really men and can’t express the emotions that this false notion conjures up. Their difference is how they have managed that toxicity.
The simple truth is that when men can feel, they can heal. We heal toxic masculinity by teaching men the full range of human emotion. Men can heal the core wound that leads to toxicity by giving them permission to feel, and to feel openly, with vulnerability, because, for so many men, life means choosing between emotions or masculinity.
That doesn’t mean we stop holding men accountable for their abuses. This is not a defense of toxic masculinity; it is a diagnosis that seeks a different solution. But it means that holding them accountable isn’t enough. The normal responses of shaming, blaming and exiling the “bad apples” don’t really get to the core problem. We need to create a new model of masculinity.
To create that model, we have to recognize that all of us, men and women alike, to one extent or another, carry within us the seeds of toxic masculinity. All of us have learned to push aside our feelings, particularly fear and vulnerability, and attempt to carve out a space in this world where we feel safe. All of us, at one point or another, have tried to acquire power to gain a sense of control in the face of our fears of inadequacy.
We also share this model of masculinity where only some emotions are permitted, which we reinforce through how we talk about and relate to men, a model of masculinity. In short, we all have to recognize the extent to which we have a certain model of masculinity programmed into us. If we don’t own up to this need to exorcise this old paradigm and create a new model, we are doomed to create men in the same mold.
To start, we need a new story about what it means to be male in this world — not limited to the stories of achievement or success or power. We need to champion men who have changed . . . who have recognized their toxicity, made amends, and committed to a different way of life. We need to espouse role models of men who are tender, vulnerable, and empathic — and espouse them as male role models. We all need to learn to be a bit more vulnerable and bit more tender, and to reduce our own tendency towards toxicity — isolation, judgment, withdrawal, and abusing our power.
We need to start teaching boys at an early age about their emotions, because they will be the next generation of men to dominate and bully their way to the top if another path is not shown to them. Can you imagine a world in which young boys and men easily access their emotions and find themselves willing to say, without difficulty, “I’m anxious. I’m scared. I love you.” Teaching men a new emotional vocabulary, to help them embrace the full range of human emotions, will enable them to deal with the fear and anxiety that comes from living in a world of separation and threats.
All of this can happen with small, incremental changes that we need to make a part of child-rearing and education. Parents, and fathers especially, need to be courageous around gender norms. Take this example of a father who defended his 5-year-old son and defied other parents and his son’s teachers to allow him to express himself by playing with nail polish! (This is precisely the kind of shaming that starts early with young boys and tells them “you’re not male if you do this ….”) Parents needs to encourage their schools to build programs like the one referenced in the Times piece in which boys learn to express their feelings and explore their emotions early on, well before they absorb the message that certain feelings are “outside” the “man box.”
If you’re an adult male, begin to work on your own relation to your emotions and masculinity. Look for groups or online communities where men are learning to open up and acknowledge their feelings, and to explore a different way of relating to masculinity. If men are willing to look and to take the courageous step of starting the inner work that they have denied themselves for so long, they will find that there are many other men out there willing to do the same. As a society, however, we need to encourage this on a much larger scale.
Conclusion: My Father’s Language of Love
Ultimately, this entire endeavor is about teaching men a new language of love. Because men are denied access to vulnerability, trust, tenderness, compassion, fear or loneliness, they actually struggle with expressing love. All of those qualities are the foundation for being able to develop intimacy and love with another human being. What happens, then, is that men learn to speak love in other ways. Showing up as smart, self-sufficient, and powerful are the ways that men learn to express their love in a world of threats and insecurity.
Later in life, after my father had passed, I learned just how much his father, my grandfather, had belittled him and his intellect. He thought he needed to be smart to be loved. And so that was his language of love — his currency for affection. When I recognized that about him, I was able to look back on our episodes in a fast food restaurant, talking about electronics and optics, as a way of him expressing his love for me and my siblings. From there, I was able to forgive him and truly release him for the emotional pain he had inflicted; he hadn’t been taught another language of love.
That is the true solution to toxicity: allowing men to feel so that they can come to love, unencumbered by old social mores that tell them that to feel vulnerable, tender, and compassionate is incompatible with being a man. We do untold emotional harm to men when we teach them this lesson, and that harm that comes back to haunt all of society. It’s time to teach men that boys do, in fact, cry — and that they’re no less a man because of it.
- I offer these as examples without endorsing them as I have no personal experience with either one.