Toxic Masculinity is Killing Our Children

In addition to a gun problem, we have a man problem.

Like so many Americans, I feel depressed beyond belief in the wake of the Parkland massacre. I’m bereft, empty, stunned silent by images of slain children. And while now is the time to discuss policy-oriented solutions to combat gun violence (advocating for better gun control measures and not voting for NRA-backed politicians being the most obvious, of course), today my heart is tied up in thinking about another kind of solution. Today, my heart is aching for boys. Because in a world where men have long been responsible for the vast majority of gun-related deaths, murder-suicides, mass shootings, and domestic violence incidents, something has been broken. Something distinctly male.

As defined by modern psychology, the term “toxic masculinity” is used to describe the harmful, patriarchally-constructed attitudes that are attributed to the male gender role. These attitudes include unemotionality, bullying, aggression, and most pertinently, the normalization of violence. Feminists of all stripes have been articulating the dangers of toxic masculinity for many, many years now, and yet we’re still raising men to be killers and violators and rapists and shooters.

Men are socially conditioned to perpetuate violence; the statistics on sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse, and murder speak for themselves in this regard. This social conditioning starts in infancy — from an early age, boys are discouraged from exploring their emotions and expressing themselves as they see fit. In other words, boys are punished for displaying the breadth of their emotionality and their humanity, which unsurprisingly leads to feelings of isolation and, in many instances, cases of violence.

Terrorism is a natural byproduct of toxic masculinity. When we raise men to assert dominance and power through acts of physical and emotional aggression, we create the culture in which violence is allowed to flourish. We also criminalize empathy and compassion and sensitivity; we call these values weakness, then we call that weakness “feminine”. We don’t teach men to talk about their feelings. We ridicule them for having feelings in the first place. It’s taken me 30 years to recognize when the men in my life are talking about feeling sad and afraid and ashamed, because those words (Sadness, Fear, Shame) are never uttered.

This oppressive cultural scaffolding we’ve created is on shaky ground in 2018, and it will fall apart. Soon enough we’ll live in a world that doesn’t stigmatize little boys and men for having emotions and feeling empathy. But it starts at home. It starts with telling the boys and men in your life that it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to feel what you feel without lashing out. It’s okay to feel sad and alone and vulnerable and afraid. And it’s okay to name those feelings. Because that is the human experience, and there is nothing inherently shameful about being human.

It’s also necessary to our survival as a species to practice empathy — the real kind, where you’re able to truly see someone’s wounds and imagine their heartache and understand their actions. We don’t encourage boys to be empathetic. Think about how lonely and sad that is. There is such awful, stark loneliness in not being taught to feel compassion for other humans, in being told again and again to bury your feelings. Therein lies the risk for retaliatory violence, sometimes in the form of mass school shootings that result in dozens of dead kids.

Men and boys everywhere are hurting. Toxic masculinity is killing our children. It’s up to all of us to fix this.