We Need to Talk About “Sustainable Masculinity”

My latest article, originally published at The Good Men Project.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff always starts his explanation of framing with the following challenge: “Don’t think of an elephant!” Now I know with 100% certainty that when you read the statement “don’t think of an elephant!” the only thing you can do is to think of an elephant, right? Lakoff then states that “when you negate a frame, you activate the frame.” In other words, you have to mobilize an idea if you want to critique it, and in doing so you repeat the idea and breathe life into it, even if your objective is to kill it off. What does this mean for masculinity?

One of the most common frames at the moment for masculinity is “toxic masculinity.” I think we can all agree that the vast majority of people—whatever their political persuasion—do not want to experience “toxic” masculinity. Any sane person wants a world that is free of violence, domination and abuse that enables the wellbeing of men, women and those who resist such categorizations. But if we take Lakoff seriously, every time someone negates “toxic masculinity” they activate it. This results in a mantra-like repetition in the minds of everyone: toxic masculinity, toxic masculinity, toxic masculinity. What is the effect of this?

Language builds reality, and the repetition of language consolidates reality. While constant repetitions of toxic masculinity may come with the intention of ending it, there is a real danger that it does the exact opposite: remember the old phrase “give a dog a bad name”? Advocates of the toxic masculinity critique (or at least some of them) remind us that the modifier “toxic” clearly implies that not all masculinity is toxic, and that there is a difference between critiquing forms of masculinity and men in general. This distinction is probably too fine for most to appreciate, and we must remember that people typically respond to such critiques through feeling rather than thinking. In short, there is a danger that men respond to critiques of toxic masculinity not with some new insight into their behavior, but with a deep reactionary feeling that actually compounds that behavior.

More generally, well-meaning progressives and academic types repeatedly make a strategic error: that highlighting a problem is the same thing as providing a solution. It is not. If you knock down a house you are left with a pile of rubble. It then takes a lot of hard labor to clear that rubble way, which results in an empty space. It then takes a lot of skilled work to construct a new house. The toxic masculinity critique simply knocks down the house and then puts out its hand expecting the keys to a shiny new abode. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.

Following Lakoff, we need to first find a frame for masculinity that we are happy to activate and repeat on a daily basis. This is why I propose we start spending less time talking about toxic masculinity and more time talking about “sustainable masculinity” (for those familiar with my model The Five Stages of Masculinity, this is part of the shift from Stage 3 to Stage 4). Note, this does not mean that we ignore problems associated with masculinity, rather we get the balance right between positive and negative framing, and identifying problems and providing solutions.

Sustainable masculinity implies a range of behaviors and understanding regarding masculinity that enables everyone to live in accordance with their values in a way that does not negatively impact upon others. For the most part this is going to look like the kind of masculinity that progressives typically believe is implicit in their critiques: namely a nurturing and supportive masculinity in which both men and women are treated fairly and with respect. Such a sustainable masculinity can function indefinitely without exhausting people, culture and resources.

But we also need to acknowledge that sustainable masculinity has to allow room for types of masculinity that progressives do not necessarily like. For example, if someone believes that the bible is a good model for masculinity, and they simply hold this opinion without actively imposing it on others who do not agree, that too is sustainable. If someone embraces toughness and rejects sensitivity, and they simply hold this opinion without actively imposing it on others who do not agree, that too is sustainable. You get the picture.

Sustainable masculinity therefore provides both a positive frame for masculinity as well as genuinely accommodating diversity. I do not necessarily have to like your idea of masculinity, but as long as you do not impose it upon me, that’s fine. This frees us of the authoritarian nature of current gender politics, whether it be a conservative dictating that men should be tough or a progressive dictating that men should be sensitive.

If you don’t think that the shift to sustainable masculinity is the way forward, consider this. Take two young boys and perform a year-long experiment on them. Have 365 conversations with one of the boys focusing on toxic masculinity, and 365 conversations with the other boy focusing on sustainable masculinity. Which boy is going to feel better about themselves? Which boy is going to be more solutions-focused? Which boy would you rather play an integral role in building the future?