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.