Western culture, we’re told, is suffused with toxic masculinity. Traditionally masculine traits like strength, reticence and stoicism have degenerated into misogyny and violence, which now pervade our cultural norms and social systems. Public institutions, the media and members of mainstream society, so social justice leftist thinking goes, are riddled with these dangerous male attitudes.
Last year, toxic masculinity was blamed for almost all social ills, including the spread of Covid-19, the failures of male leaders to adequately tackle the pandemic, the crisis in men’s mental health, racial profiling and even the climate catastrophe. The concept is now taken as self-evident. For example, UN Women recently tweeted a list of “10 small actions” that could have a big impact on our societies, one of which was to “end toxic masculinity.” They also shared a map of “Equiterra,” a fictional world in which gender inequality no longer exists, featuring a “Toxic Masculinity Recycling Plant.”
But if we are going to describe toxic masculinity as the negative manifestation of male traits, some of our societal problems must be the negative expression of female traits.
Characteristics more common to one sex than the other certainly exist. Individuals vary, but men are predominately more aggressive, for example, and women are generally more empathetic. If a man or woman suffers from a psychopathology, these differences can manifest in distinct forms of antisocial behaviour.
We don’t speak of toxic femininity—and I don’t believe we should—but if we were to imagine the worst manifestation of typically female attributes, I think it would look a lot like today’s social justice culture.
No, Society Is Not “Toxically Feminine”
While it’s useful to recognise how traits can manifest differently between the sexes, it’s not at all useful to use them to vilify either sex. History bears testimony to the danger of demonising groups of people based on their immutable characteristics. Not only did this way of thinking lead to historical sexism against women (and continues to do so across the world), it also motivates anti-male attitudes today, giving rise to venomous trends like kill all men and men are trash.
I do not wish to argue that society is infected with toxic femininity, nor that all purveyors of social justice culture are female. Instead, I hope to add nuance to the discussion of toxic masculinity by showing that the line of reasoning many modern social justice leftists adopt and the methods they favour to bring about social progress correlate with typically female psychopathologies.
Looking at three key elements of social justice culture, I argue that our current zeitgeist—which normalises cancelling others, praises emotional reasoning and overvalues safety—aligns strongly with traits that are, in the aggregate, more predominant among women than among men.
In the current social justice milieu, those who commit a perceived moral transgression often find themselves at the mercy of cancel culture, a form of social exclusion in which the putative offender is cast out of society, with the loss of reputation and perhaps career. The heresies that can get you cancelled range from making an ill-advised joke online to insisting that biological sex is real. Consider the infamous 2017 case of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a distasteful joke to her 170 followers. Before boarding a flight to South Africa, Sacco posted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” While she slept, she was ripped to pieces by Twitter mobs and had been fired from her job by the time she landed.
In lieu of direct combat, a typically masculine strategy, those at the vanguards of these social assassinations avoid physical risk and exertion by simply expelling those with whom they disagree.
This is generally a female approach to antisocial behaviour. Rather than violent confrontation, women tend to engage in reputation destruction and social exclusion, seeking to destroy the status of their rivals rather than physically defeat them.
Several studies have suggested an evolutionary basis for this. In Stockley and Campbell’s interdisciplinary study of female competition and aggression, they suggest that females are wired to survive, compete for preferred mates and reproduce. They therefore target rivals through lower risk, indirect competitive strategies, such as:
refusal to cooperate with them, destruction of their reputation (so that others will also refuse cooperation) and, ultimately, exclusion from the group. Indirect aggression (the use of pejorative gossip and social exclusion) is women’s preferred aggressive tactic. Because harm is delivered circuitously and because it is executed simultaneously by several members of the community, it is a low-risk strategy.
This isn’t just a human tendency. In chimpanzee communities, for example, punishment often involves evicting an adversary from the social group. While male chimpanzees may compete for dominance within their communities, they ultimately seek to maintain the unity of their group in order to ensure victory over hostile surrounding groups. By contrast, female chimpanzees primarily associate with their offspring, and only form temporary alliances in order to oust newcomers or low-ranking community females.
Social exclusion is more costly for women than for men. Several studies have explored the benefits of indirect aggression as a female tactic, suggesting that “the strong bonds between women and their emotional interdependence make victimisation by indirect aggression a particularly painful experience, leading to depression and even suicide.” Women’s’ heart rates have even been shown to increase more than men’s in response to social exclusion. This strategy is therefore both utilised and experienced more frequently by females than by males. Cancel culture is therefore the embodiment of a predominately female aggressive tactic.
There’s also a tendency among the social justice left to rely on the phenomenology of lived experience to form assumptions. Lived experience refers to the personal narratives describing experiences of discrimination put forward by people of colour and members of other minority groups. There is, of course, a lot of value in listening to the marginalised. But this value fades when faulty conclusions are drawn from subjective experiences. For example, a person of colour may assume that a white man gave her a strange look because of systemic racism but maybe he was simply irritable with everyone that day.
Many acolytes of the social justice left now deny the existence of objective truth altogether, claiming that objectivity is a myth peddled by colonialists, white supremacists and engineers of patriarchy.
Receptivity to emotional experiences is, typically, a more feminine than masculine trait. Women consistently score higher on measures of empathy than men—that is, they’re better at feeling what someone else is going through. For example, when watching others in pain, women show higher activation in a sensory area correlated with pain than men.
Studies of young children and other animals confirm that these sex differences in empathy have a phylogenetic and ontogenetic basis in biology, and aren’t simply the result of cultural socialisation.
Women are also more open to negative experiences. They tend to react more strongly to “negative emotion-inducing experiences” than their male counterparts, retain a better ability to recognise and process negative emotions and tend to use more “negative emotion-related coping strategies,” such as cognitive rumination, to deal with events.
Females score disproportionately higher than males in the personality trait neuroticism, a characteristic correlated with negative emotionality. In a meta-analysis of 25 studies, women ranked consistently higher in rates of anxiety (d = -0.27) than men. These findings are especially robust, having been replicated across multiple countries and found using both self-report studies and implicitly-tested measurement modalities.
This isn’t a symptom of patriarchy. Sex differences in neuroticism are actually larger in cultures with greater socio-political gender equity, not smaller as would be expected if sex differences were purely the result of socialisation into traditional gender roles.
A range of evolutionary theories could explain this, including the hypothesis that “Women may be more sensitive to all the emotions of others because of their need (more than men) to attach with their children, or women may be especially responsive to negative emotions only because of the need to react to fitness threats more than men do.”
This isn’t to say that all women are more emotional or neurotic than men, or that stability and rationality are distinctively male traits. But, as a whole, women tilt more toward negative emotional reasoning, a cognitive distortion endemic to the modern social justice movement.
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff sound the alarm about the rise of safetyism in the US, particularly on university campuses. Safetyism, as they describe it, is “the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”
Safetyism lies at the heart of social justice culture, giving rise to concepts like safe spaces, trigger warnings, hate speech and microaggressions. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this ethos is leaving younger generations more fragile than ever, dramatically increasing their levels of anxiety, depression and suicide by positioning them as helpless victims.
Women as a whole tend to be higher in neuroticism, tend to be more fearful of pain, more fearful of crime and generally more risk averse than men. These fears aren’t just correlated with a higher risk of being victimised, as women tend to be more fearful of all kinds of events involving risk of physical injury. Studies also suggest that these sex differences can’t be explained by the stereotype that boys must be less risk-averse than girls, and are instead probably due to the “result of sexual selection [that] favoured risk-taking and status fights among males, and being cautious and protecting one’s offspring among females.”
Not only does the culture of safetyism promote risk-averse and fearful behaviour, it promotes excessive political correctness. Many on the social justice left are not just concerned with avoiding physical threats, but intent on shielding people from and suppressing supposedly violent language.
Political correctness is best predicted by the trait agreeableness. In an influential 2001 study, in which over 23,000 men and women from 26 cultures completed personality questionnaires, women scored consistently higher in traits agreeableness and openness to feelings, whereas men scored higher in assertiveness and openness to ideas.
Perhaps these rising cultural phenomena—extreme political correctness and aversion to physical threats—are symptoms of what Jordan Peterson terms “the rise of a form of female totalitarianism.” Simply put, as women gain more influence in the political sphere for the first time in history, it’s expected that typically female psychopathologies will also be projected onto the political landscape. “Given that females are human beings too, and we’re pretty much rife with pathology,” Peterson argues, “the probability that there will be a downside [to greater female influence in politics] … is extraordinarily high.”
In social justice culture, virtuous traits like empathy and altruism are often taken to extremes. Compassion for ethnic minority groups, for example, can become warped into the infantilisation of people of colour; sympathy for transgender people can become distorted into a complete denial of biological sex; and support for sexual assault victims can become mangled into dangerous mantras like believe all women. Not all of society’s problems are masculine in nature.
Towards Healthier Discourse
Just as some predominately male traits can turn toxic, a panoply of generally female traits can take on ugly forms and produce negative outcomes. While toxic masculinity may involve caring too little about how others feel, toxic femininity seems to involve caring too much. Empathy can lead to a denial of objective truth; indirect methods of aggression can turn into brutal cancel culture campaigns; and seemingly harmless maternalism can morph into overprotectiveness.
This year, I hope we abandon the narrative of toxic masculinity and stop blaming all our problems on masculinity. Healthy discourse should not pit the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.
Toxicity resides in individuals, not in groups. Certain traits may be more likely to exist in one sex than the other due to the average psychological differences between them, but what matters, ultimately, is how each individual behaves. In the end, all human virtues can become vices and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all progress.
This comment highlights the problem with feminism. It interprets the world from a feminine (only) perspective, hence the name. Historically it documents and elucidates the problems that feminine existance (only) believes itself to face, as interpreted from a feminine-only perspective. The only way it can achieve this is to begin with the *assertion* that feminity is the only victim and, given that the “opposite” side of society is male, masculinity must, by elimination, be the only problem. To think more dialectically about the world than this would automatically undermine the definition of feminism and render the word itself meaningless, and all would be lost! The only way that feminism can avoid self-contradiction is to maintain the child-like mantra that the problems of feminine aspects of society (and/or the individuals within it) are never their own (or even just “the roll of the dice” sometimes from individual to individual circumstance), and… Read more »
Excellent article, have been creating shocked faces with these arguments for quite some time.
One thing. We tend to see empathy as _positive_ but have to realize that it scales terribly. Empathy is a _spotlight_, on a small scale it only obscures a little but on the large scale it obscures way more than it highlights. If you only focus on a fraction of the larger problem you’re bound to make really bad decisions.
Women’s higher level empathy in politics and public space is often worn as a badge but I regard it is pathological.
Toxic masculinity is not “a negative manifestation of male traits,” it refers to a harmful cultural landscape which normalizes violence and pressures EVERYONE (including women) to conform to traditional gender roles. It is a critique of a CULTURE and not of men themselves. Articles like these spread disinformation and only further contribute to the breakdown of our political discourse. I urge you to change course and look more closely at what toxic masculinity actually means. This article is a start: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html
I think this article will, literally, be cited as all that went wrong with Western culture in the 21st Century. It started with liberating females in the early 20th Century and ended with being oppressed by them in the early 21st Century.
And it may take another 50 or so years to work it out but I think the truth is that both male and female prefer male leadership in the end
I’d just like to add to my earlier comment today that most writers seem to largely highlight the Agreeableness trait’s active, helpful, “good team player,” “lend an extra hand” side, I myself have always been a bit more focused rather on its passive, tolerant, accepting, forgiving, non-judgmental, conflict-avoiding, “cut some slack,” “it takes all kinds to make a world,” “maybe he’s just having a bad day” side–maybe because I myself for many years had to endure a stressful job where bossy, judgmental co-workers constantly yelling at me for my difficulty multitasking and my supposed “slowness” and “inattentiveness” were the bane of my existence, and my workday was bearable only because of the easy-going, good-natured, considerate, friendly, kind-hearted co-workers who were willing to overlook, ignore, or good-humoredly laugh off the little things for which my bossy co-workers were always “on my case”! And, by the way, my work did not involve… Read more »
To clarify my responses to Karl’s 03/02/2021 comment as well as also to Heike’s earlier 27/01/2021 comment: The Agreeableness personality trait is usually described by psychologists as including a number of different facets or sub-traits, variously described as “Trust, Morality, Altruism, Cooperation, Modesty, Sympathy” or as “Trust, Straightforwrdness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-Mindedness.” Agreeable people are generally described as “warm, friendly, and tactful,” with an “optimistic view of human nature” and inclined to “get along well with others.” They are said to be “popular,” to “make friends easily,” and to be “trustworthy, altruistic, modest, empathetic, and cooperative.” Other writers note that they are “helpful, kind, considerate,” “care for others in need,” “display sensitivity,” and that they are “altruistic and supportive,” “trusting and forgiving,” “prefer to collaborate rather than compete,” and are “non-judgmental” and “give others the benefit of the doubt.” Downsides of Agreeableness in the business and organizational (e.g., military) worlds… Read more »
I am female, and I definitely feel like female backstabbing has been a much bigger problem in my life than things like stupid male coworkers hitting on me inappropriately. I also think there are lots of things that women do, on the whole, somewhat better than men (multitasking, organizational systems, and diplomacy, for example) – but worshipping the stereotypical traits of one gender while demonizing the other is obviously not a good road to be on. I also wonder if there is another example that could be added to the above list. Recently, as SJW demands have grown increasingly minute and esoteric (acronyms are racist, for example) I have wondered if it relates to the possibility that women may be more controlling than men in relationships. Link: tinyurl.com/4t6g9f8e To my mind, bizarre requests of this sort (No acronyms! Because they mean you don’t love me, er, I mean they’re racist!)… Read more »
Highly agreeable people are agreeable to people in their in-group and to neutral people. On the other hand, they can be very protective and can viciously attack perceived threats to protect those under their care. Don’t get between a mama bear and her cub.
This article is a very good presentation of some thoughts I have had for some time. I think it is time for a wider circulation of this point of view particularly in view of the increasing ascendance of the alt-right and the current impotence of the progressive side of politics to not only counter this trend but to reclaim the middle ground. The cancers of political correctness, identity politics, cancel culture and virtue signalling have emasculated the progressive side of politics leaving a consequentially alienated demographic to turn to the alt-right. In former times, those on the losing side of economic changes would have been natural candidates for inclusion in progressive causes. Ironically these days, such folk are instead included in the ‘basket of deplorables’. Extrapolating from the ideas presented in the article, a further observation could be drawn about the toxic feminisation of the left side of politics being… Read more »
Pint is, never confuse femininity and the general feminist movement with the socialist version of feminism, which is just one of their myriad “social justice” issues aimed at destroying the “white, male supremacist,. capitalist West”, and has nothing to do with females per se.
Never mind of course that the world’s most powerful anti-humanist institution is the Pentagon death machine. Its world-wide “culture” of death now encircles the entire planet. Brought to one and all with its 700 known military bases, and its military presence in almost every country. The best early critics of this “culture” of death were the members of the Frankfurt School. The deeply humanist Erich Fromm being my favorite – he wrote the (at the time) the best selling book The Art of Loving. Other early critics were Jacques Maritain and Jacques Ellul, both of whom were Christians. Then there is also Lewis Mumford who was deeply humanist in his concerns. Another modern critic (among many) was Neil Postman, especially via his book Technolopy. At another level both 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley were early critics of the then (already-in-place) anti-human “culture”. Huxley also… Read more »
Women are stupid. But not all of them (I suspected it for a long time), as we can see here 🙂
My best wishes to an intelligent, brave, and beautiful Freya India Ager! Enjoy your life!
IMHO, an excellent and well balanced article!
Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, no matter what the gender, orientation or other dimension with which we choose to label it. Are we going to have toxic heterosexuality or toxic homosexuality next?
The reasons I like Jordan Peterson’s discourses are that he constantly asserts we MUST take responsibility for who are and how we show up in the world. Then we can take responsibility for putting a roof over our head and food on the table. Then perhaps a relationship and children.
I see the human shadow projected all over the place, especially on the world stage and politics. Until we own all of who we are and embrace (as Jung called it) The Undiscovered Self, projection will continue, the ‘enemy’ will always be ‘out there’ and peace will be a pipe-dream.
Years ago (like, the 1980’s) I attended a “Women in Science” conference at my university. The presenters and most of the audience were women from various scientific fields. I found the atmosphere strange in a way I couldn’t understand. I came home and my wife explained it. “These are women. Women love to talk about their feelings! That’s what they are doing.” It was a new idea to me, but it made sense. So I began to think about it. If women go to a scientific conference and talk about their feelings, what do men do? Well, obviously, men go there to compete. To show off their antlers. Neither activity is inherently more productive or useful in itself. However, if the rules of the game are such that the way to prove you have the biggest set of antlers is to create something even more useful to society that what… Read more »
What a thoughtful well argued essay. It provides hope for our future direction.
Freya India Ager writes that “Political correctness is best predicted by the trait agreeableness” citing “an influential 2001 study, in which over 23,000 men and women from 26 cultures completed personality questionnaires, women scored consistently higher in traits agreeableness and openness to feelings, whereas men scored higher in assertiveness and openness to ideas.” I myself would have thought that “political correctness” or “wokeness” is rather a sign of DISAGREEABLENESS!! Seriously, I always thought the “agreeableness” trait to refer to an easy-going, tolerant personality type that is ready to accept, overlook, and shrug or laugh off other people’s foibles and imperfections, reluctant to condemn or criticize anybody for anything, and afraid of conflict, “making a scene,” or getting someone in trouble. High-agreeableness people, I always thought, are inclined to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, to cut everybody quite a lot of slack, to make excuses and find exculpatory reasons… Read more »
Besides being a great essay, I thought the writer male. Not sure why.
Possibly the best thing I have read in the last year. Very persuasive. Can’t wait to read what you write next.
Can’t we all just agree that men and women are equal in our propensities to be just, just awful?
There is most certainly ‘toxic’ feminism, and ‘toxic’ pro-femininity and anti-masculinity. Here’s my peer reviewed cross-disciplinary science review paper: Misogyny has no scientific basis of any kind: the evidence is of of philogyny — and misandry. (2018) New Male Studies 7(2), 26-42. Abstract No published science paper demonstrates misogyny exists. Data on both implicit and explicit gender attitudes shows males substantially favouring females – philogyny – or, at worst, gender neutrality. This is hidden by elision with the wider notion of sexism; but there’s no evidence for hostile sexism, and hypothesised benevolent sexism is fatally flawed in operational definition. The mode whereby sexism supposedly causes harm — stereotyping (stereotype threat) — has been debunked; likewise inter-sexual dominance, removing any theoretical basis. Possible male harm by control is belied in women being found the controlling party. Misogyny / sexism in being defined circularly is unfalsifiable, therefore non-scientific conceptualisation: ideology itself actually… Read more »