If we are to address the challenges presented by American masculinity, we need to start by stating what we hope would be obvious: masculinity is not toxic; our culture’s narrow, conformist, violent, bullying, man-box version of it is.
Being clear in this way serves an important purpose. Language that critiques men’s culture (toxic culture of masculinity) is received differently than language that critiques men’s personal sense of self (toxic masculinity). Culture is a construct, formed and shaped by all of us. It represents not us as individuals, but a collective agreement on how we should behave. No one’s entirely happy with culture, so people are more curious about and open to cultural critiques.
A term like toxic masculinity, even if we sense some truth in it, doesn’t invite us to distinguish between ourselves as individuals and the culture we are caught up in. Which is why I always prefer to talk about culture, shifting the focus to where powerful generative change is possible while potentially reducing reactivity. And it’s a conversation that works. As more and more men come to understand we are all victims of man-box culture, change is accelerating.
Men are coming to understand that they are facing an epidemic of isolation forced on them by our culture of male emotional suppression. The man-box teaches us from birth to hide our emotional expression, our need for connection, our empathy, and our relational acuity, taking on the stereotypical performance of male disconnection. In this way, generations of our young sons have been systematically bullied and shamed into isolation and conformity.
The result? AARP estimates 42 million Americans aged 45 and up are chronically lonely. The health impact of this level of social isolation is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It increases the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, depression, and a raft of other illnesses. Social isolation is literally killing men, and the women who love them, by the millions.