Before You Call Something “Toxic,” Consider This

Here’s the forgotten word that could avoid endless bickering and help build consensus.

The word toxic, as it’s popularly used these days, has its roots in the concept of “toxic mimicry,” first introduced by environmentalist and award-winning author Derrick Jensen in his book, Endgame:¹

I used to believe that civilization is a culture of parodies. Rape is a parody of sex. Civilized wars are parodies of indigenous warfare, which is a relatively nonlethal and exhilarating form of play, meaning civilized warfare is a parody of play. Abusive relationships are a parody of love. Cities are parodies of communities, and citizenship is a parody of being a member of a functioning community. […] Each of these parodies takes the form yet ignores the soul and intent of that which is being parodied.

But recently a friend convinced me that’s not entirely accurate: the parody doesn’t ignore the intent, but perverts and attempts to destroy it. Rape is a toxic mimic of sex. War is a toxic mimic of play…

Others picked up this concept and helped flesh it out:² ³

A toxic mimic is a destructive action, behavior, or thing pretending to fill a primary human need. Rape is a toxic mimic for healthy, consensual sex. Sugar is a toxic mimic for food. Addiction is a toxic mimic for managing feelings. A job might be a toxic mimic for contribution. Pseudo-self is a toxic mimic for authenticity. Some would argue that social media is a toxic mimic for connection.

Gradually though, the word “mimic” got dropped, giving us the shorthand we see today. Toxic masculinity. Toxic love. Toxic feminism. Toxic relationship.

This omission has been costly. The mimicry part served a necessary purpose.

Consider the phrase toxic masculinity. How many heated arguments have you seen arising in the wake of someone using this phrase? What makes it so polarizing?

The problem is that it simultaneously points to something real and deplorable, and throws under the bus the original thing being corrupted. Masculinity itself is now spoiled. The mimicry has succeeded.

When I see the phrase toxic masculinity, I can’t tell if the writer straight-up believes masculinity is toxic in general, or believes that masculinity comes in good and bad flavors. I’ve seen both cases. But most of the qualities or behaviors I’ve seen labeled as toxic masculinity don’t strike me, personally, as masculine at all.

This is maybe even more obvious with the phrase toxic love. Search for an article or social media post mentioning “toxic love,” and scroll through the comments. I’m betting you’ll see some variation of this exchange:
A: Excuse me but “toxic love” isn’t love.
B: Right, that’s why it’s called TOXIC love.
…continuing back and forth without resolution. It’s an argument that won’t get resolved. Person A sees an oxymoron at the core of the conversation. Person B feels the point is being missed or ignored.

How many of these arguments would never arise at all if people stuck with the original usage—the toxic mimic of love, or the toxic mimic of masculinity?

This allows consensus in a way the current shorthand can’t. It invites people into discussion of real problems with less semantic bickering.

How it helps:

  1. It names the problem without drawing the reader into a debate about whether the thing itself (e.g. love) is intrinsically problematic.
  2. It leaves the thing unencumbered. The more we speak of toxic love like it’s love, the more we’re forced to say healthy love to refer to love in the normal sense. No. I want to use the word love and have it be understood that I mean the “good” kind, the kind we normally mean. Toxic mimic languaging spares and protects the thing’s original meaning.
  3. It shows where you stand. It communicates that you’re not demonizing the thing. If you’ve legit lost hope in the idea of masculinity as something healthy, that’s cool… but then don’t hide behind toxic masculinity. Just call it masculinity and say what you have to say about it. Be that honest; it makes the conversation that much more likely to go somewhere.

Let’s revive the original usage of toxic mimicry. Test it out yourself. Wherever you’re tempted to say toxic XYZ , instead say the toxic mimic of XYZ, and see how it lands, see how the conversation goes. If it’s working well, adopt it as your new standard usage and encourage others to do the same.

Notes:

  1. Excerpt from Endgame: Toxic Mimicry (p. 163)
  2. Toxic Mimics and Other Deceits
  3. Toxic Mimicry — Clip from WeTheUncivilised

Copyright © 2021 by Ken Blackman. All rights reserved.

Photo by Adnan Khan on Unsplash

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