& Saki Benibo
Last month (Feb 2019), former president Barack Obama held his most recent My Brother’s Keeper summit. During this conference, directed at young Black men and boys, Obama took the time to offer advice to his audience. This “advice” manifested as condescension filled with veiled classism, casual antiblackness, and dog-whistle homophobia.
Despite this, several high-profile male celebrities and activists, such as actor Terry Crews, sang Obama’s praises for his “tough love” pseudo-paternalism. Since that day several authors have laid out detailed critiques of both Obama’s words, and Crews’ subsequent (and increasingly blundering) attempts to validate/justify those sentiments. However, what is often missing is a critique of the underlying logic in which men like Obama and Crews operate.
How is it that men who are seen as mentors, leaders, examples, and overall “Good Men” can hold such reductive views on maleness and masculinity? The answer lies in concept of “toxic masculinity,” and how its application obfuscates the central logics of masculinity, as a whole.
Toxic masculinity, a term which was not all that common in mainstream circles until approximately five years ago, has gained prominence in the public intellectual sphere. Male speakers and celebrities from Winston Duke and Terry Crews to Steph Curry and Barack Obama have all added their commentary on the curse of “toxic masculinity,” how to divest from it and be “good men.”
More recently, “good men” have taken to mentoring and teaching young boys and other men how to be better men. They hold conferences, panels, meetings, public forums, and even filmed discussions, all for the purpose of pulling the current and next generation away from the clutches of “toxic masculinity.” Surely, many of them mean well. They may honestly think that they are doing the right thing; the best thing. But these efforts are deeply, fundamentally flawed.
In addition to the often performative motive of these men’s words and actions, there is generally a misunderstanding of the inherent logics of masculinity, both historically and presently, to begin with. “Toxic masculinity” is always framed as a series of behaviors, performances, and superficial beliefs—where if you change them, or rather the ways in which men perform them, you somehow “change the man.”
When “good men” seek to rectify this logic of masculinity, at least on an individual level, such behaviors, performances, and beliefs are reduced to patterns that are associated with women and femininity. Their speeches are filled with platitudes like “let boys cry” and “real men have feelings” to allow men to express a (slightly) greater range of expression and emotion. The logic follows that if a man embraces these expressions and behaviors, they supposedly serve as an antidote to his past. His masculinity is, thus, no longer “toxic.”
In these forums, popular social justice sentiments such as “society doesn’t allow men to be emotional,” which are true on the surface, are often discussed by “good men” at length only on the surface level. Rarely do they ever mention who upholds these societal structures that disallow anti-heteronormative expression. The societal structures that don’t allow men to express themselves in healthy and vulnerable ways—within the confines of heterosexuality, masculinity, and manhood—are the same exact societal structures that allow men to rape and kill women and non-cishet men with impunity.
At the core of this problem is the concept of “toxic masculinity” in and of itself, and the seeming obsession with reductive and insufficient terminology. “Good men” cannot go a month, a week, or a day without name-dropping these habitually performative and liberal buzzwords (often plagiarized and watered down scholarship from women, non-men, and/or LGBTQ folks) that give a facade of intellectuality and emotional intelligence. All the while parading themselves as do-gooders and “betrayers of patriarchy,” without actually doing the work to materially and structurally improve the world for the victims of patriarchal violence. These “good men” are so clueless that they don’t even realize that what they are describing as “toxic masculinity” is actually “hegemonic masculinity.”
Hegemonic masculinity was coined by Raewynn Connell in the 1980s as a way to discuss dominant concepts of manhood and masculinity within a given society. Connell is a white trans woman who has since 1985 broadened her study from “masculinity” to “masculinities” to more fully encompass non-white/western expressions of masculinity. But her original conception was very much a white western perspective. Connell states that hegemonic masculinity usually manifests as system of socialization under which men dominate women (and non-men), as well as subordinate men deemed as lesser. This is often done through performances of violence, compulsory heterosexuality, emotion constriction, and displays virility. Sound familiar? This is a simplified definition, and Connell’s work, as well as the work of other gender scholars, theorists, writers, and activists are readily available.
But the important takeaway from Connell’s work is that the dominant form of masculinity, the very concept of masculinity itself, is hegemonic. Domination is rooted not only in the overt acts of violence and performance, but is the core, the center, the root, the default of what hegemonic masculinity and manhood are as structural entities. What is often described as “toxic masculinity” is not the aberrant or deviant form of true “masculinity” itself, or “good masculinity.” It is the default. Within that framework, there is no actual split between toxic and non-toxic masculinity.
Of course, there are racial implications when it comes to the conversation of masculinity and patriarchy as a whole. Its most dominant forms, as we know it, is absolutely a white supremacist construct. And with that, racialized and colonized people do not experience or benefit from gender, patriarchy, and masculinities as white people do. It was not intended or created for us. It is crucial that we recognize this nuance. But that doesn’t negate the material reality that many of us do align ourselves with these gendered and sexual structures and hierarchies. Non-white men often go out of their to prove their “manhood” in violent and oppressive ways (specifically against the women and non-cishet men in their communities). While that can be explained by the ways we’re all socialized under white supremacist patriarchy, an explanation is not an excuse.
Saying “toxic masculinity” is like saying “toxic whiteness,” “toxic capitalism,” or “toxic police state.” It’s redundant. If a system or structure is created for the purpose of maintaining power through the subjugation and domination of the most vulnerable and marginalized of our society, then the system or structure as a whole is the issue. Hegemonic masculinity, the most readily available and operational cultural context of masculinity and manhood as we know it, is a system of domination. Masculinity itself is inherently toxic.
As stated before, resources and information on hegemonic masculinity are readily available. They are especially accessible to celebrity male millionaires, for whom no academic paywall is too high. So why don’t the Barack Obamas and Terry Crewses of the world ever discuss it?
One reason is that they are desperately preserving their own ontological security. “Good men” still prize and value their masculinity. Their manhood depends on it. So instead they cling to the concept of “toxic masculinity,” rather than addressing the structural reality of [hegemonic] masculinity, in and of itself. Self-proclaimed “good men” still continue to find solace in the structural advantages (socially, economically, and politically) that are inherent in the ownership of manhood and masculinity. Creating an unfounded, erroneous, and mythological dichotomy between [hegemonic] masculinity and “toxic masculinity,” allows them to preserve a view of themselves as good. The mere existence of such a dichotomy is deliberate.
This “good men” versus “bad men” paradigm stems from the same “not all men” logic that ultimately benefits no one except men.
To complicate their views of masculinity past that dichotomy would require them to actually defy the inherent logics of the status quo in a substantive way. Too often these “good men” operate with incredibly harmful, simplistic, and surface level liberal politics. If they were to learn more and listen more to those “beneath” them, they would have to radically rethink their politics. They cannot maintain their identity, and platforms, if they do not aim at the lowest common denominator and present their basic (often incorrect) knowledge as the keys to the universe.
“Good men” think that by simply pruning the branches bearing bad fruit, a tree can be saved. They don’t see, or care to even look, that the problem is at the roots. The tree needs to be dug up and burned, but these men insist on hacking at branches and celebrating the fruit that is slightly less terrible, but still potentially deadly. The reality is, the perniciousness of these “good men” discussing the violences of this falsehood and perceived dichotomy of “toxic masculinity,” as opposed to the fictitious notion of “healthy masculinity” (most often disguised simply as respectability politics), is almost never categorized, or simply called what it actually is: patriarchy and patriarchal violence.
It is nothing more than arrogant and inefficacious to subject young boys and men to the teaching of masculinity as an individual struggle that you can simply opt out of through a minimal change in behavior and personality patterns. This supplants truly interrogating masculinity and manhood as an hegemonic structure that only exists to maintain gendered and sexual hierarchies and dominance.
What is being taught by these “good men” is shallow, reductive, or straight up incorrect nonsense about respect or “true” masculinity and manhood. There are no substantive discussions of gender or sexuality, or the ways in which it intersects with race and class. What boys and men learn is a less overt, subtle expression of hegemonic masculinity that maintains their dominance as men.
For “good men,” the opposite of “toxic masculinity” is a benevolent and respectable patriarchy. Both are damaging, but the latter is dangerous because it masks itself as an alternative or reprieve.
At the end of the day, these programs (summits/panels/speeches/discussions/what have you) create “good men” who are nice, but not kind. Men who have baseline emotional intelligence, but lack basic empathy. Men who will say and maybe even performatively do the “right” things, but will relinquish none of their structural power.
Because he is a “good man” who is trying, any rebuke seems unreasonably harsh or unforgiving. Liberal notions of just simply “acknowledging” and “being aware of one’s privilege” is seen as substantial and “good enough” for “allies” to do toward the fight to end sexual and gendered oppression—when in reality, it does nothing materially to end structural oppression.
When women and non-cishet men ask for more than the barest of minimums from self-proclaimed “allies,” we are framed as unreasonable and impossible to please. The misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are still there, but repackaged in righteous indignation or non-apology under the guise of “still learning.”
Men like Barack Obama should serve as a lesson for us all on the evils of the socially and physically attractive, chauvinistic, charismatic, and respectable patriarch—the “good man.” Obama’s greatest crimes, as the figurehead of an imperialist white supremacist capitalist empire (as bell hooks would describe it), included the escalation of the constant war and terror on marginalized communities, globally. Barack Obama spent his entire eight years in office destabilizing, terrorizing and bombing Black and brown people overseas, pardoning and protecting terroristic, murderous, and racist cops for inherently anti-Black surveillance and law enforcement institutions, domestically. He then continued this patriarchal legacy by patronizingly lecturing young men about “toxic masculinity,” as if war and imperialism aren’t two of the most crucial, drastic, and flat-out ruthless forms of masculinized violent expression, historically and presently.
“Good men” don’t keep us safe or liberate the victims of patriarchal violence. More than anything, “good men” are in the way. There is no “healthy,” “good,” or “non-toxic” masculinity that does not simply just present itself as in performative, faux-feminist, and exploitive opportunistic ways.
The focus on “toxic masculinity” does nothing to dismantle, or even deconstruct masculinity. Rather it is a soft rebrand; an aesthetic band-aid over a gaping wound.
Ultimately, “good men” and their political ideologies—if you can even categorize them as such—are utterly useless at best, and minacious at worst. There needs to be a radical transformation regarding not only how we discuss sexual and gendered oppression, but also how we end said structural oppression. How we address masculinity must go beyond surface level notions of turning young boys and men into benevolent patriarchs, and bring greater focus to the structural entities that generate gendered oppression
Betraying masculinity and manhood—as structural entities that subjugate and other non-masculine and non-men—and the inherent traits that come with it entirely is the first step to us ending patriarchy. If those with structural power, are committed to the eradication of patriarchal violence, women, nonbinary people, and non-cishet men—not opportunistic “good men”—need to be at the forefront of the social and intellectual struggle toward a better, more radical future.
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