Stop the Toxic Labeling

Why Shaming Is Not the Solution

Toxic shaming - man behind hat

Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexel

About 150 years ago and lasting some decades, scores of women were labeled with a diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ which, as Mark Micale put it, described “everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women.”[1]

Fortunately, such a thing would be impossible today. What an outrageous idea! It doesn’t matter that some of the women’s behavior may, in fact, have been very challenging to deal with; it is clear that indiscriminately lumping together all kinds of behaviors into a single definition of pathology is not only unhelpful in creating a better environment for both women and men. Worse, it is completely dehumanizing the woman. In the end, the hysteria era was little more than a sanitized and tamed-down version of the inquisition’s witch hunt. Yet another strike of toxic masculinity!

Hang on a second. What did I just write?

Toxic masculinity.

I didn’t invent that term. In fact, I had never come across it before maybe 15 months ago. Now it seems to pop up everywhere. While I appreciate that algorithms are the modern mind filters, even my almost 80-year-old father has noticed it.

People Are Not Their Behavior

Make no mistake. I do know what violence against women looks like. I even know what it feels like. Better than I would have liked to know. I am familiar with sexual harassment, the arrogance of supervisors who believe that a woman fresh off maternity is a liability by default, and I have seen men with fewer qualifications get paid more than I. Certain structures and systems need to change to guarantee more equality; certain behaviors need to be adjusted, and the discourse about value is far from over.

But what the heck is ‘toxic masculinity’?

Fear and insecurity make a man bully other people.

The belief that his own worth is only relative to others is what makes a man put other people down.

A man’s own shame and anger, his projections, and his complete lack of coping mechanisms are what make him turn violent.

A deep-seated fear of not being in control is what makes a man impose himself on others.

None of that describes masculinity. Masculinity is neither good nor bad. It merely describes the totality of masculine traits, which again are neither good nor bad. The question is, in what context do they show up and how?

A man grounded in his masculinity knows who he is. His confidence is absolute: he knows his worth and value, independently from anyone else. He has no need to defend, attack or otherwise impose himself because he has found his space.

The Effects of Toxic Shaming

What happens when we create labels like toxic masculinity is very dangerous. It dehumanizes. Shaming shuts down all communication. It fails to address problematic behaviors and instead attacks (human) beings. It shames, generalizes, judges, and kills.

Men who feel grounded in their masculinity can come out the other end without too many scars. The many men who do *not* feel grounded in their masculinity, who have struggled with their own shame and confusion, the very men who are the most likely to demonstrate unfair, discriminatory, violent, or – if you must – toxic behavior, are the ones that will feel even more threatened, confused and shamed. Does anyone really believe that increasing somebody’s pain will make them better people?

Pain compliance may work in totalitarian regimes. It is not a sustainable solution to creating a more balanced, respectful, and safe environment for men, women, and children. Shaming people may silence them for a while. But shame is the seed of pain and violence. No love and compassion will ever grow of it.

What if we can go back (have we ever been there?) to believe that the vast majority of men (and women) have good intentions. That they want to connect with others. We want to feel safe, loved, appreciated, and respected. What we need to do is reach out and seek to understand, listen, respect, love, and appreciate. So that we see and meet each other as human beings again.

[1] Micale, Mark. “Hysteria and its Historiography: A Review of Past and Present Writings”. History of Science. 1989 p. 320

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