While I am aware of the nuances of the phrase “toxic masculinity”, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the concept. At this point, some might believe that my discomfort is because I am a man and thus feel threatened by any questioning of my male privilege. However, this is not the case—I can distinguish between criticisms of bad behavior by males and general attacks on males simply for being male. My lack of comfort with the concept stems from two main sources. The first is my approach to ethics and the second arises from pragmatic considerations. I will look at the first in this essay and the second in the essay that follows.
While this oversimplifies things considerably, I approach ethics in terms of universal principles. One implication of this approach is that I hold that if something is wrong to do, then it is wrong for anyone to do. I am, of course, aware of the principle of relevant difference: that a difference in treatment or application of a principle (and so on) can be justified by there being a difference that warrants the variation in the treatment or application. For example, some argue that while it is wrong for members of one ethnicity to “put on the face” of another ethnicity, there are exceptions. One illustration is that is acceptable for Michael Che to “go undercover” as a white female liberal, but the idea of Colin Jost going undercover as a black girl is utterly unacceptable. The moral justification for this rests on the relevant differences between a black man putting on “white face” and a white man putting on “black face.” These differences are connected to the history of racism and power differences. Naturally, people do disagree about whether these differences are truly relevant, but a case can certainly be made that they are. In such cases of relevant differences between ethnicities, it makes sense to reference ethnicity when discussing ethics—after all, there would thus be a difference in the ethics. The same sort of reasoning can be applied to sex or gender issues. For example, some argue that male comedians would be sexist if they used the same sort of humor as female comedians who do routines about the failures and defects of men. In such cases, the ethics of a joke would thus depend on the gender or sex of the person telling it and the target of the joke. Using these examples, it would thus make sense to talk about toxic (immoral) white comedy or toxic (immoral) male comedy—because the whiteness or maleness of the comic would thus be essential to the wrongness of the comedy. But what about toxic masculinity, considered as moral misdeeds and moral vices?
In the case of the set of moral misdeeds and vices that are said to constitute toxic masculinity what seems to matter is the ethics of the behavior itself, its consequences and so on—rather than on whether the actions are predominantly done by men. To illustrate, while sexual harassment is predominantly done by males, the moral concern is with the wrongness of sexual harassment and its consequences. After all, while most sexual harassment is done by men, it is not restricted to men and its wrongness does not stem from men doing it. It is, after all, equally wrong for a female to engage in sexual harassment. To focus on toxic masculinity would seem to imply that the vices and moral misdeeds are wrong because they are the misdeeds and vices of males, which would seem to be an error.
One reasonable counter is to argue that while the general misdeeds and vices that make up the evils of toxic masculinity are not limited to males, focusing on males make sense because males are the main offenders. Doing so, one might argue, does not exclude focusing on similar misdeeds by females—it is just that there are less to worry about.
Another reasonable counter is that the vices and misdeeds of males that are grouped under the label of “toxic masculinity” are male in character because of the masculinity part—that is, they are vices and misdeeds that do arise from a concept of maleness and thus it is appropriate to use the term. This certainly has considerable appeal and could counter my initial concern. As such, in my next essay I will focus on my pragmatic concern.