on razor’s edge

Last week I suddenly found myself mad online. It may be the quintessential 21st century emotion. Something will “randomly” appear on your social media platform which causes almost an immediate, negative reaction. This reaction generates a click, which generates a hot take, which generates even more clicks. There is a Henry Ford level of efficiency that has come to characterize the click-harvesting industry.

What I was reacting to was a viral commercial put out by Gillette. You’ve likely heard of it or seen it. In case you haven’t, you can watch the whole thing here:

By now, we are about three outrage cycles past this commercial. The Henry Fords of the click-harvesting industry don’t let us ruminate for very long on any given outrage. But I’m still trying to think about how I feel about this commercial. I must admit that insulted was how I initially felt when I first saw it. I felt condescended to, defensive, and irritated. I didn’t chose to feel this way, but hardly ever do we chose our emotions. But why? Why did I feel this way. In a previous post, I commented on The Coddling of the American Mind. One of the things that the authors advise in that book is that we learn to not simply trust that our emotions are always telling the truth. Instead, we should interrogate our emotions. We should ask why we are feeling a certain way, and perhaps that will lead us closer to the truth. And so, why was I (and many others) feeling insulted by this commercial?

I’m the problem.

Well, there are a number of answers. The first, and most obvious answer, is that there is a non-sanctified part of me that is prone to defensiveness, that is looking for a fight. However, there is no objective reason to feel personally attacked or insulted by the message of this or any commercial. That’s probably true about most of the things that spark our outrage online. Our first take is mostly fueled by defensiveness and hostility, so taking some time before commenting (if at all) is usually the wiser choice.

As I thought about how I felt about this commercial, I had to admit that my problem wasn’t really with the commercial itself. The commercial itself isn’t really all that objectionable (with one notable exception). The problem is that things like this come with a context. Context is an important principle of interpretation. You can’t understand a given text without understanding the literary and historical context that surrounds it. What is true about interpreting a text is also true about interpreting a cultural artifact like a commercial. A lot of disagreements on stuff like this happen because people are responding to different levels of context. Upon reflection, there were at least three contextual things in culture that were affecting my interpretation of this particular commercial.

Masculinity is toxic.

“Toxic masculinity” has become a cultural buzzword over the last several years, but even more so since the height of the #metoo movement. It is clear that the commercial wants us to be thinking of this context as we watch a montage of talking heads worrying about the growing male menace. (Incidentally, one of these talking heads is Ana Kasparian, co-host of the Young Turks, who has said any woman who voted for Trump is “f***ing dumb.” While I didn’t vote for Trump, this doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the pure intent of the commercial.)

But is “toxic masculinity” a thing? Well, sure. Depending on how you define it. Do men sometimes act like pigs towards women? Do men sometimes use power to abuse or manipulate? Do men sometimes emotionally isolate themselves from those they should care for? Do men sometimes encourage bad behavior in each other? Do men sometimes “go toxic?” The answer to these questions and more is obviously “yes.” And on a purely objective level, there shouldn’t be anything insulting about a message that says, “Guys can do better, and we can help each other do better.”

But you can’t really blame a person for hearing “masculinity is toxic” every time “toxic masculinity” is evoked. There isn’t a lot of good news involved in being a man today. 2.2 million fewer men than women will go to college this year. Nearly 5000 men will die on the job this year compared to less than 400 women. The APA, in their much discussed guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys, put a fine point on the struggles facing men today:

But something is amiss for men as well. Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims. They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school—especially boys of color.

Many men today are out of place and out of sorts, alienated from public and family life. All the while, virtually every significant portrayal of masculinity in the public imagination is negative. In our intersectional climate, Dove would never make a commercial worrying about the effects of toxic femininity, but men, on the other hand, are a problem that must be fixed. It’s not that the APA or Gillette were wrong. It’s that their prescription for what is wrong misses the point.

You’ve seen statistics like these before. 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes, 5 times the national average (US Dept. Of Health/Census). 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes, 32 times the national average. 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes, 20 times the national average (Center for Disease Control). 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes, 14 times the national average (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26). 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes, 9 times the national average (National Principals Association Report). Yes, we have a masculinity problem. But it is not a problem of too much, but of too little virtuous, masculine presence.

Some people need to choose whether they want to “smash the patriarchy” or actually help to make things better. Relentlessly lecture a man about how toxic he is and you will likely produce three kinds of men none of which will be particularly useful. You will get either geldings who apologize for their existence, monsters who embrace all of the worst stereotypes of masculinity without apology, or boys with arrested development who decide that becoming a man is too hard or confusing so it’d be better just to remain a child.

What we need isn’t more lectures about toxic masculinity. What we need is more examples of masculine virtue. In the wake of the Gillette commercial, a small, family owned watch company made a commercial that went viral. The owner of the company made the commercial as a tribute to his own dad. It struck a cord with people because it wasn’t lecturing men about “being bad” but was extolling the virtues of masculinity.

Corporate virtue signalling.

This gets to the second problem that I had with the commercial. Historically, it was the role of mediating institutions like churches, schools, and especially families to define and enforce the virtuous life. As these mediating institutions have lost power in American life, I suppose it was inevitable that major corporations would fill the void for defining virtue. We are so consumerist, it’s only natural that we would start to look at our consumer goods not only for happiness but also for goodness.

We should always remember that the main purpose of any company is to make money. I can’t help but become cynical about virtue as a marketing strategy. “You will not only get a clean shave if you buy our blades. You will be a good person!” Using virtue to manipulate a person into buying your goods IS EXACTLY WHAT SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE COME TO HATE ABOUT THE CHURCH. We might as well admit that marketing agencies are the new priesthood.

Some would say, “What’s the big deal? There are worse messages a company could put out there.” Sure. I agree actually. The Gillette ad is in a different moral universe than the old GoDaddy ads. But I can’t help but wonder about what our virtue is rooted in other than a profit motive. Is the good loved by Gillette because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by Gillette?

What makes a man?

This leads to my last point. What is the nature of true masculinity? If there is such a thing as toxic masculinity, then surely there is such a thing as virtuous masculinity. And it has to be more than simply “be a good person” because in that case it would be inconsistent to single out masculinity. Just call it “toxic humanity.” We extol the fundamental equality between the genders, but does that mean that men and women are the same? Doesn’t the commercial assume that a non-toxic man will look different than a non-toxic woman? Or does it? What does it even mean to be a man? Unfortunately, we are confused on these questions.

The most obnoxious scene in the commercial was of a group of out-of-shape dads grilling in the backyard. It is a stereotypical image of a middle-aged man. And they are pathetic. Powerless. They are anesthetized. Passively they are observing the horror of two boys wrestling on the lawn, writing off the outrageous violence to a case of “boys will be boys.” With apologies, my first (non-sanctified) thought when I saw that scene was “screw you.” What is so wrong with boys wrestling? What is so wrong with “boys will be boys” that we have to banish it from our cultural lexicon? And if you don’t know the difference between boys wrestling with each other and boys harassing and bullying each other, may I suggest you spend more time with boys. Despite the good intent of the commercial, you aren’t really going to find much of a positive definition of manhood there.

When it comes to the question of “what makes a man?” (or woman?) you are either Platonic or Aristotelian. The Platonic answer says that there is an ultimate ideal of Manishness. We can then judge a person’s Manishness by how much they conform or don’t conform to this ideal. I would argue that a Platonic understanding of gender is a catastrophe. What would the ideal man look like and who decides? The ideal man in the 10th century would undoubtedly look different than the ideal man today. Even the manliest Ron Swanson today would likely be regarded a weakling by most of our ancestors. And how do we identify the ideal man when various cultures across the world sometimes have very different definitions of masculinity? And all of you “biblical manhood and womanhood” people should be careful about making the claim that this is all answered for us in scripture. It is clear that scripture identifies differences between the genders, but you’d have a hard time making a consistent case that scripture tells us what the ideal man for all times and places looks like.

On the other hand, an Aristotelian view of gender would say that rather than looking for an ideal man, we should focus on those things that men generally have in common. In my opinion, this is a much better way of approaching the question. There are certain things that men have in common physically and dispositionally. I’ve talked a lot about virtues in this post. For me, it comes down to virtues that ought to be common to men in all times and places, virtues like courage, loyalty, justice, temperance, steadfastness, honor, etc. A virtue is manifested by different people in different ways. The man working a desk job and the police officer may both manifest courage, but in very different ways. You don’t have to go hunting or do hard labor or change diapers in order to be a “real man.” You are a real man when you are living out masculine virtues. I worry about the culture of “toxic masculinity” excising vices like bullying and in the process we also remove the attendant virtues of courage and risk-taking in men. We excise the vice of emotional distance and in the process we also remove the attendant virtue of steadfastness. Removing vices without protecting virtues has a castrating effect on masculinity.

But all of this is controversial to say. Talking about gender can be a dangerous thing. It is controversial to talk about differences between men and women and those things that men have in common. Some radicals among us even challenge the notion that men must share a certain biology! And when it comes to virtue, I can hear the complaint rising up as a question: “Can’t women manifest these same virtues?” Well, sure. But I would also ask the question, “Are there no virtues that are uniquely or stereotypically feminine?” It’s not an insult to say that there are differences between the genders, and it shouldn’t be embarrassing for us to admit that masculine and feminine virtues are good and healthy things. No, It’s only an insult when we chose to isolate vices and dismiss virtues. It’s only an insult when we use those differences as wedges to demean or dismiss the other gender as toxic.

2 thoughts on “on razor’s edge

  1. I agree with your concerns about taking our moral cues from corporations who are selling us things. There are plenty of better ways to figure out how to be a man in a positive sense.

    That said, I didn’t see the Gillette commercial in the same light you did. In addition to the assertion that “We believe in the best in men” there was a clear call to positive masculinity within, not merely a deconstruction of the negative. A father sets an example for his son by standing up for the bullied. A young man steps in to prevent another guy from harassing a woman. The assertive protection of the vulnerable is the heart of the positive side of masculinity, and I think Gillette nailed that.

    It would, after all, have been bad for business to just tear down men. You want to associate the product with good feelings, not self loathing.


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