continued from Vol. 109: On Toxic Masculinity (Part 1)

Last week we began a two-part series on an important and often disturbing trend: an upswell of communities dedicated to claiming, promoting, defending, and recruiting for an emergent and worrisome concept of masculinity. In that volume, we turned a spotlight on major expressions of toxic masculinity, particularly in the online communities known as “The Red Pill” and “Incels.”

As we wrote last week, the current phase of the age-old conversation about masculinity is taking shape at the convergence of multiple cultural currents, many of which we have been tracking for several years here at Culture Briefing. In this week’s volume, we’ll name three of these currents and offer some thoughts about the kind of response they invite from each of us. This list is, of course, incomplete, but it represents an attempt to follow through on one of New City Commons’ primary goals: to distinguish the weather from the climate, culturally speaking, and to understand how the two are connected.

Because the communities we examined last week are largely online communities, it makes sense to begin by situating them in the context of our increasingly internet-mediated social lives. As longtime readers know, we’ve discussed the effects of this shift in many previous briefings. In Vol. 31, we wrote about how handheld devices interrupt the kind of sustained personal engagement through which we recognize the full humanity of others. Our tech-induced state of “continuous partial attention” diminishes our capacity for empathy (a point Nicholas Carr makes near the end of his excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains). In Vol. 88, we wrote about how social media—which are designed to encourage habits of usage bordering on behavioral addiction—have a “crowding-out effect” on the kind of regular human interaction necessary to sustain friendships, exacerbating loneliness and depression. (Awareness of this crowding-out appears to be spreading: to take one example, Tristan Harris’ “Time Well Spent” initiative, featured in Vol. 88, has grown into a “Center for Humane Technology,” whose website gathers resources and proposals on how to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests.”) Way back in Vol. 17, we highlighted Sherry Turkle’s conviction that what is fundamentally under threat in a society saturated with personal technology is the practice of conversation. Authors like Carr and Turkle bring into focus both the power and the limitations of online communities: they powerfully form identity and habits, but too often stop short of cultivating true relationships and respectful conversation—which is precisely what’s needed to counter the most worrisome ideologies being incubated in the “manosphere.”

This bring us to another current we’ve traced in previous briefings: shifting cultural norms surrounding language, or, as we put in Vol. 2, “the question of who holds the power to differentiate the utterable from the unutterable.” It’s clear that pent-up frustration with these changing norms is part of what fuels Red Pill and communities like it. Unfortunately, this frustration is often expressed through obscene and demeaning memes mocking liberal and progressive ideals (not exactly productive public discourse). Jordan Peterson, whose growing cultural influence we noted last week, has given a more articulate voice to one version of this frustration, notably in a widely-shared interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News. Without either endorsing or condemning Peterson himself (and with a strong condemnation of Peterson’s more aggressive online advocates), Conor Friedersdorf cites the interview as an example of “an unfortunate trend in modern communication”: “First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.” This readiness to take maximum possible offense and respond with indignation or mockery is a version of what Alan Jacobs calls “in-other-wordsing.” When this strategy is used (as it is across the ideological spectrum) “to win political or social or religious battles,” something more important is lost: the possibility of understanding and empathy.

It’s also important to recognize that online communities like Red Pill feed on and exploit a very real sense of loss—even despair—among those left in the cold (or underwater) by a changing economic climate. We’ve addressed aspects of this change regularly over the years, including the downsides of flexible work, temptation of overwork, the crisis of underwork and the proposal of universal basic income. But to understand the sense of existential loss these shifts can create, it’s helpful to return to Allison Pugh’s “What Does it Mean to Be a Man in the Age of Austerity?” highlighted in Vol. 34. Pugh’s question for a society that has long understood masculinity as bound up with utility is simple: “If work is what it means to be a man, what do you do when work disappears?” The urgency of this question leads some men to online communities that are all too happy to answer it with alluring theories and manifestos. In more extreme cases, it can become a driver of what Angus Deaton and Anne Case call “deaths of despair”—particularly in under-resourced, overlooked, and forgotten places.

But what of masculinity itself? Can conversation, understanding, and empathy bring us any closer to a shared understanding of what it means to be a decent man in the contemporary West? A step in the right direction may be to reflect on a simple question: What are men looking for when they log onto a Red Pill forum—and why? The tragic irony of toxic online communities is that what they claim to offer—conversation, understanding, empathy, relationship—are precisely the moral capacities that are most depleted, endangered, and ultimately inaccessible within their walls. These things are accessible, however, in any number of ordinary real-life interactions—with neighbors, coaches, teachers, ministers, co-workers, parents. Toxicity and cruelty should be identified by name—but it’s equally important to resist the temptation to double down on today’s most pervasive strategies of public speech. To paraphrase an oft-quoted line of Martin Luther King’s, shame cannot drive out shame any more than darkness can drive out darkness—only light can do that.