The Real ‘Toxic Masculinity’

We’ve all been hearing plenty about “toxic masculinity” these days, and never from people who trouble to tell us what strong, virtuous, and noble masculinity might look like. That should not surprise us. If someone should use the phrase “toxic Judaism,” we would not expect from him a wistful description of gentle, intelligent rabbis studying for many years each phrase of the Scriptures and all the centuries of commentary thereupon, or a call for Jews to return to their heritage. We would expect rather a sense that all Judaism is more or less toxic, and the less of it a Jew might have, so much the better. In other words, we would expect sheer bigotry.

And yet I can see a paradoxical use for that phrase, “toxic masculinity.” Many drugs, we know, are medicinal in small doses but toxic in large doses. The reverse applies here. Masculinity is the drug that is dynamic, creative, and protective in large doses, but querulous, selfish, irresponsible, and dangerous in small doses. And we find it to be so in some rather strange places.

Let me explain. I recall many years ago a study which showed that prison inmates with lower levels of testosterone tended to get into fights more often; and feminists, not known for thinking past a single move on the chessboard, concluded that it therefore proved that testosterone had nothing to do with aggressiveness. Of course it proved no such thing. Every boy knows that the bully is never the strongest kid in the class. The bully is the one who feels his weakness or inadequacy and takes it out on boys who are smaller than he is. The more manly you are, the more you will command simply by your presence. No announcement is needed.

A man’s man does not raise his hand in anger against a woman. He despises men who do that: he considers them to be less than the mud on the sole of his shoe. Women, for their part, are attracted to strong and virile men for the protection they will afford them, because women are vulnerable—smaller and weaker than teenage boys, even when they are not bearing a child or taking care of an infant or of small children. To use the old poetic image, she is the fruitful and “marriageable vine” that clings to the tall and strong but otherwise barren elm.

We may find “toxic masculinity,” then, wherever there is toxic aggression but without manliness, without the sense that power is to be used sparingly and always for protection of the weaker, without the strict accountability that the man demands of himself, blaming himself first for things that go wrong, while giving credit to others when things go right. The more masculine you are, the more confident you are that you need not prove your manhood by swagger, by picking on the weak, by pumping yourself, and by stiffing those who have assisted you.

Which brings me again to the recent court decision against Oberlin College, awarding more than $40 million in damages (later reduced to $25 million) to a local business, Gibson’s Bakery, for defamation and tortious interference with business. As I have discussed them at length before, I won’t go into the details of the controversy here. I wish, instead, to note a troubling feature of the controversy.

The three principal actors on the side of Oberlin—the president, the chief legal counsel, and the person who was most of all to blame, the dean of students—were all women, “woke” women as one commentator called them. The plaintiffs were male. Several quite moving photographs of four generations of Gibson’s are to be found: great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and son.

Perform a thought experiment. Switch the sexes. Can anyone imagine, even in our addled time, that three men in charge of a massive institution would ever set that power in motion to destroy a business run by four generations of women? Everyone in the nation would rise in detestation of such a thing. But the point is rather that it would not happen. Imagine that a student had gotten caught trying to steal a bottle of wine from a bakery run by a woman, and that it was a woman who lay on the ground being pummeled when the police arrived. I find it hard to believe that a male dean of students would not have gone to visit the bakery in person to apologize, and to assure the woman that the school would do all in its power to see to it that such a thing would not happen again.

But there it was—“toxic masculinity,” that is, aggression without manliness, and it came from the women in charge of Oberlin.

I have seen the same phenomenon elsewhere in academe, aplenty, but not only there. It is endemic in bureaucracies, whether in politics, business, or the churches; wherever you find indirection, ambition without plain dealing, enclaves of those whose accomplishments are mainly to batten on the accomplishments of others, or to stifle them when they show the mediocre to great disadvantage. This sort of toxicity you will find among both sexes.

One more point. It is not just that the women of Oberlin did an egregiously bad thing to Gibson’s Bakery. It is that evidently it never occurred to them to do the right thing, which in this case would have been the manly thing. It never occurred to them to protect the bakery.

A good woman will fight for her man. But she will not fight for somebody else’s man. Why should she? Of what anthropological or biological benefit could that ever have been? I say it with some disappointment. Women, as a sex, do not protect men, as a sex. Men are on their own. If women, as a sex, wished to protect men, would they, for example, insist upon becoming Marines and fighting in combat, with at best the strength of healthy 15-year-old boys, putting their male comrades to needless risk? Would they tolerate schools which have for decades been failing boys so signally? In confrontations between men and women, would they not lean toward taking the man’s part?

You’re on your own, buddy. That goes for your sons, too.

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Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.