Friday, February 5, 2021

Is toxic masculinity a bullsh*t concept?

It is far more effective at attaching a negative adjective to masculinity than in helping to understand human behaviour.

I am using bullshit in its technical philosophical sense — statements made for rhetorical effect regardless of how factually accurate they are.

About violence

To understand the problems with toxic masculinity as an analytical concept, it is useful to start with looking at something that is highly patterned by sex: violence. Especially as the patterns of violence by sex are regularly linked to toxic masculinity.

A Swedish study found that 0.1 per cent of the population made up a fifth of violent crime convictions, 1 per cent made up almost two-thirds of violent crime convictions and 4 per cent were responsible for all of them. The offenders were overwhelmingly (87 per cent) male.

So, clearly violence is correlated with being male, right?

Wrong. Yes, violence is disproportionately male, but only 7 per cent of males were in the convicted-of-violent-crime group. Something that pertains to only 7 per cent of a group is not significantly correlated with membership of that group.

Conflating being disproportionately x with being correlated with being x is done all the time. Including, of course, by a lot of feminists.

If there is any group that the violent offenders are more than 7 per cent of, especially if such a group also includes the 1 per cent of women who were violent offenders, then membership of that group is going to be more correlated, potentially far more correlated, with being violent than is being male.

As it turns out, completely unsurprisingly, certain personality traits (often aggregated into the Big Five of Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Neuroticism, or OCEAN) are way more correlated with violence than is being male. Given that no personality trait is only male, and no personality trait applies to all males, this is more or less bound to be true.

Once you starting asking about personality traits and behaviour, then biological sex becomes something that may generate patterns, but is not likely to be significantly causal.

Being of a sex changes the constraints one is facing. This, on its own, is enough to generate patterned behaviour.

As a general pattern, the small gamete sex (males) is likely to be more violent than the large gamete sex (females). This is for the obvious reason that violence is usually less risky for the small gamete sex than it is for the large gamete sex. The difference in the pattern of risk produces differences in the patterns of behaviour.

If the small gamete sex is also larger and stronger than the large gamete sex, this tendency to be more violent will be strengthened further. Amongst Homo sapiens, men are, on average 7 per cent taller and 13 percent larger than women: while women, on average, have 52 per cent of the upper body strength and 66 per cent of the lower body strength of men (in part due to male spines being more rigid and providing a better lever for strength) while women generally both have, and require for health, proportionately more fat as a share of body mass than men.

Given these biological realities (even without considering the risks of pregnancy and the constraints of child-minding), of course physical violence among humans is going to be disproportionately male. Of course aggression by human males is going to manifest much more as physical aggression than will aggression by human females.

That does not mean that men are more aggressive then women: actually, the two sexes are about equally aggressive overall. It is more the patterns of aggression that differ, due to the differences in risk patterns, with male aggression tending to be more physical and more overt while female aggression tends to be both more relational and more camouflaged.

Ask someone who went to a girls’ school whether they have ever experienced or witnessed toxic female aggression.

The patterns of aggression differ by sex, but they are not entirely separate. There is physical aggression from women and relational aggression from men. It is their relative distribution and ways of manifesting that differs. Those patterns of difference can also vary, depending on social circumstances. A result of us being so much the cultural species.

Arguing that biological sex matters is not remotely the same as postulating some deeply and pervasively essential differences between men and women (apart from the small-gamete, large-gamete distinction).

About domestic violence

While all this is enough to raise large questions about the concept of toxic masculinity, including tying any pattern of negative behaviour specifically to being male, it is worth looking at the use of descriptive terms in a particular arena of violence: domestic violence. There has been a strong (feminist) push to conflate domestic violence with intimate partner violence. In response, the term family violence is being adopted as the more general category.

Treating domestic violence as if it specifically means intimate partner violence is rhetorically very useful, because what form of domestic violence does conflating it with intimate partner violence leave out? Violence against children. And why is it useful for feminists to reducing the salience of violence against children? Because it is more often perpetrated by women than men.

This is partly because women have more opportunities to commit violence against children than men do. But it is also that children are generally smaller and weaker than adult women. That there is a pattern of (some) women engaging in violence against those who are smaller and weaker than they rather gets in the way of valorising women in general and deprecating men in general. Or otherwise essentialising violence or aggression along male-versus-female lines.

Acknowledging that intimate partner violence itself has two general patterns (1) violent men and women hitting each other, and (2) intimate terrorism, where one partner terrorises the other, also gets in the way of postulating some deep causal gulf between male and female. Especially as, while the pattern of intimate terrorism is wildly disproportionately a male partner terrorising a female partner, the reverse also occurs, just much more rarely. Much of the public discussion about intimate partner violence is, however, framed as violence against women, essentially writing any violence against men out of the social script.

Toxic aggression

Both men and women, both boys and girls, can and do engage in toxic aggression. While such aggression has patterns by sex — that is, the distributions differ by sex — no form of it is purely limited to a single sex.

The questions then become, is there any useful element of the concept of toxic masculinity that (1) is not about a form of toxic aggression, (2) is reasonably specifically tied to being male or to masculinity and (3) is to any significant degree characteristic of or, or caused by, either? Or are we, at best, dealing with a small sub-group of males who, due to specific personality traits and/or beliefs, choose to manifest their masculinity in particular ways?

The rhetorical value of the term toxic masculinity is obvious. It ties a negative adjective (toxic) to masculinity, it encourages the attribution of causality to being male and/or being masculine (as if it is what happen when masculinity “goes too far”, so masculinity is to be treated as potentially toxic) and it discourages attention to any analogous female behaviour.

So, it is excellent rhetoric, and it is excellent rhetoric regardless of its analytical soundness.

Given the above considerations, toxic masculinity is looking like a bullshit concept.

One reason toxic masculinity is excellent rhetoric, is that there is male behaviour based on a sort of hyper-masculinity that we are familiar with, and which is widely (often intensely) disliked. But, of course, it is disliked by a lot of men. That general dislike of such behaviour among both men and women gives toxic masculinity much of its rhetorical power.

Cultural phenomena

An objection to the above considerations is that the notion of toxic masculinity is not about violence and aggression as such, but pertains to a cultural phenomena.

One of the perennial problems of cultural analysis is that culture, and cultural patterns, can easily be turned into analytical “silly putty” — able to redefined to fit any analytical hole. Especially as culture itself is infamously so variably defined.

The overwhelming majority of human societies have had presumptive sex roles, driven by how expensive human children are to raise. This has led to very strong patterns of activities that could be done while minding children being presumptively female and activities that could not be done while minding being presumptively male. This is usually driven much more by relative risk and level of constant attention required than by strength.

Hence, in foraging societies, women generally gather, but they will hunt small animals, such as lizards. Meanwhile, men generally hunt, but they will gather more risky-to-get things, such as honey. In hoe-farming societies, women generally farm, as that can be done while minding the kids. In plough-farming societies, men generally farm, as ploughing cannot be done while minding the kids. And so on.

This very long history of presumptive sex roles probably has something to do with why Homo sapiens are so cognitively dimorphic. A recent study found that around 70 per cent of men have a mix of personality traits that no woman has and around 70 per cent of women have a mix of personality traits that no man has. Only 18 per cent of us are in the personality-trait-bundles overlap group. (An earlier study found even higher rates of cognitive dimorphism.)

We are, in fact, as a species more cognitively dimorphic than we are physically dimorphic (apart, from the mammaries-ovaries, testes-penis, small gametes versus large gametes pattern). Different patterns of risk-management behaviour, and associated interactions, can be expected between men and women, with both continuities and variations between cultures.

Dealing more with physical risk, men are likely be more drawn to philosophies such as Stoicism, or analogous outlooks. Declaring such stoicism to be toxic masculinity is just silly.

We live in the only societies in human history largely without presumptive sex roles. Thus, any implicit or explicit pathologising of the notion of presumptive sex roles is, analytically, pretty silly.

Similarly, tying any phenomena to masculinity that also manifests among women is pretty silly. it is, for example, fairly clear that the breakthrough for queer emancipation was a major shift in attitudes among women. The strictures against homosexuality being part of a moral order that raised the social exchange value of sex.

It is, after all, generally hard for any broad cultural patterns to persist, or to change, without significant numbers of both sexes “buying into” the persistence, or into the change. Hence second-wave feminism was as successful as it was because lots of men agreed with the goal of expanding opportunities for women.

Strictures against homosexuality have a complicated relationship to masculinity and patriarchy, because in some societies, the celebration of masculinity extended to celebration of male beauty and eroticism. They could be highly patriarchal societies (e.g. Ancient Athens) or rather more gender egalitarian societies (e.g. Sparta). If we are dealing with patterns that are specific to some culture or set of cultures, toxic masculinity is clearly a misleading label.

Unless we are dealing with attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are specifically male, are specifically tied to masculinity in general and are not tied to specific cultures (and would therefore have a specifically cultural source, not a generally masculine source) toxic masculinity is a misleading term.

It would also be helpful if the concept was, at least to some degree, quantifiable. How general is the pattern? If it is very much a minority phenomena, then it will be tied to something else more strongly than it will be to masculinity.

There is also a problem of context. Something that might be functional in one context may be much less so, or even dysfunctional, in another.

Drawing causal connections between specific behaviours and cultural patterns is also notoriously difficult. Especially as manifestations of cultural patterns can vary markedly between individuals within the same culture.

So, are we dealing with a well-defined concept, that is usefully quantifiable and tied to careful causal analysis?

Not really, we are dealing with something much more motte-and-bailey like. That is, there are discussions of toxic masculinity that have all the sophisticated trappings of careful analysis (the motte version) that defenders of the term point to. And then there is the much more blunderbuss rhetorical uses of the term (the bailey plays).

Any objection to the latter will be referred to the former. But the tying of toxicity to masculinity makes the concept of toxic masculinity ideal for such rhetorical games, given that the boundaries of the concept are so unclear. Or, at least, easily shifted. Especially as masculinity itself can mean or imply (1) to do with being male or (2) to do with conceptions of masculinity.

If the concept of toxic masculinity was part of a general taxonomy of masculinity, it may be of some interest. As a stand-alone pathologising tag, not so much.

So, yes some men choose to manifest their masculinity in particular, unfortunate or destructive, ways. Certain cultural milieus may encourage or discourage that. But it is not their masculinity that is driving that.

Ultimately, the giveaway is that toxic masculinity is a stand-alone pathologising tag. Part of a more general pattern of conflating disproportion with correlation and so treating disproportion as characteristic-of or specific-to.

So, toxic masculinity: rhetorically powerful, yes; factual or analytically useful, not so much.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

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