During the Soviet era, the notorious Sherbsky Institute in Moscow was well known for categorising dissidence as a form of mental illness characterised by illusions of grandeur, pathological obsession with ideas of justice, and distrust of accepted social values. They claimed to identify the neuronal disturbance that causes such pathology and, as expected, proposed drugs to cure it. Is this just a memory of the dark old days of Communism? Not quite – is exactly the same not happening today? In a recent public statement, The American Psychological Association proclaimed ‘traditional masculinity’ toxic – here are the exact words which somehow entered the public space without blushing out of shame.
Traits of so-called ‘traditional masculinity,’ like suppressing emotions & masking distress, often start early in life & have been linked to less willingness by boys & men to seek help, more risk-taking & aggression – possibly harming themselves & those with whom they interact.
A careful reader cannot miss the mixture of ideology and neutral expertise: a strong ideological gesture of excluding phenomena considered unacceptable is presented as a neutral description of medical facts. Under the guise of medical description we are imposing new normativity, a new figure of the enemy. In the old days of heterosexual normativity, homosexuality was treated as illness – remember the brutal treatment to which Alan Turing any many others were submitted. Now it is masculinity itself which is medicalised, turned into an illness to be fought – we should not be surprised if chemotherapies to cure toxic masculinity will soon be available.
In justifying this diagnosis, APA refers to power, patriarchy, and oppression of women – but all this cannot obfuscate the ideological brutality of the operation. Let’s not forget that we are dealing with APA, the psychological wing of the medical establishment, which means that we are dealing with nothing less than a shift in the mainstream ideological hegemony.
The contours of this shift become clear the moment we take a closer look at the list of features supposed to characterise ‘toxic masculinity’: suppressing emotions and masking distress, unwillingness to seek help, propensity to take risks even if this involves the danger to harming ourselves.
What is so specifically ‘masculine’ about this list? Does it not fit much more a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, one has to suppress emotions, one cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing myself to harm? I know many women – as a matter of fact, more women than men – who, in a difficult predicament, didn’t succumb to the pressure of their environment and acted like this. Obviously, in our age of politically correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger. What is replacing courage?
Let’s make a brief detour. One of the few convincing arguments for the notion of toxic masculinity was offered by George Monbiot in The Guardian.
‘Why do so many men love Jordan Peterson and hate the Gillette ad? If they’re truly strong they don’t need to prove their virility.’
In short, if men are truly strong, why did so many of them (including Piers Morgan who had a Twitter meltdown) react in such a panicky way to the APA warning about toxic masculinity? Wouldn’t a strong man just dismiss attacks on masculinity as the complaint of a weakling?
Incidentally, the same goes for the anti-immigrants’ populist panic. When Angela Merkel extended the invitation to refugees to come to Germany, her act exuded trust that Germany can do it, that it is strong enough to retain its identity in accepting refugees. Although anti-immigrant patriots like to pose as strong defenders of one’s nation, it is their position which betrays panic and weakness – how little trust they must have into the German nation when they perceive a couple of hundred of new immigrants as a threat to German identity? Crazy as it may sound, Merkel acted as a strong German patriot while anti-immigrants are miserable weaklings.
Signs that weakness is the key to the most brutal displays of toxic masculinity abound. Let’s just mention the serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez at the border with Texas: they are not just private pathologies, but a ritualised activity, part of the subculture of local gangs (first gang rape, then torture till death which includes cutting off breast nipples with scissors, etc.). They target single young women working in new assembling factories – a clear case of macho reaction to the new class of independent working women. But what if such violent reactions point to the violent core of masculinity itself which openly explodes when its reign is threatened? True, but one should for this reason not reject the type of a strong person ready to take risks, one should rather desexualise it and, above all, look into what is replacing it.
Years ago, Alain Badiou warned about the dangers of the growing post-patriarchal nihilist order which presents itself as the domain of new freedoms. The disintegration of the shared ethical base of our lives is clearly signalled by the abolishment of universal military conscription in many developed countries: the very notion of being ready to risk one’s life for a common cause army more and more pointless if not directly ridiculous, so that armed forces as the body in which all citizens equally participate is gradually turning into a mercenary force. This disintegration affects differently the two sexes: men are gradually turning into perpetual adolescents with no clear passage of initiation that would enact their entry into maturity (military service, acquiring a profession, even education no longer play this role).
No wonder, then, that, in order to supplant this lack, post-paternal youth gangs proliferate, providing ersatz-initiation and social identity. In contrast to men, women are today more and more precociously mature, treated as small adults, expected to control their lives, to plan their career, etc.
In this new version of sexual difference, men are ludic adolescents, out-Laws, while women appear as hard, mature, serious, legal and punitive. Women are today not called by the ruling ideology to be subordinated, they are called – solicited, expected – to be judges, administrators, ministers, CEOs, teachers, policewomen and soldiers.
A paradigmatic scene occurring daily in our security institutions is that of a feminine teacher, judge or psychologist taking care of an immature asocial young male delinquent. A new feminine figure is thus arising: a cold competitive agent of power, seductive and manipulative, attesting to the paradox that, as Badiou puts it ‘in the conditions of capitalism women can do better than men’. This, of course, in no way makes women suspicious as agents of capitalism; it merely signals that contemporary capitalism invented its own ideal image of woman, a figure which stands for cold administrative power with a human face.
To fight these new forms of subtle oppression, courageous individuals of both sexes who are ready to take risks are needed more than ever.