As I child I rarely cried in public, even when experiencing physical pain. This wasn’t because I didn’t feel the urge, but rather that I knew it would lead to inevitable taunting from my friends. There is nothing natural about the suppression of tears, but boys are conditioned from an early age to resist and mistrust their emotions. We are rewarded for being cold.
This is the meaning of toxic masculinity. It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with socialisation. Yet whenever I argue with male friends about this subject, I am called a “cuck”, a new term favoured by the alt-right which is meant to demean us for not being “man enough”. I’m not for a second suggesting that my friends have sympathies with the alt-right, but it just goes to show how far the discourse of bigotry and hate has spread into mainstream culture.
As a university student I was involved in the student union, and part of my role was to refrain from alcohol while my peers got drunk. I spent most nights with boys who seemed determined to squander their loans on shots of cheap vodka, helping them into taxis or intervening in alcohol-induced rows. Most of them enjoyed themselves, of course, until the crushing reality of the hangover hit them the next morning. There’s something to be said for sobriety.
But beyond the slight smugness I felt at having a clear head, this role afforded me the opportunity to see the realities of lad culture up close in a way that most have not, particularly women. One of my best friends has always said that he finds watching girls get drunk to be hugely embarrassing. If only he could see himself on those late night binges, perhaps he could have a little more self-awareness.
There is something undeniably ugly about men when their defences are down, when they forget to perform in the acceptable manner and instead tap into their base natures. I despise everything about the alt-right figurehead Jordan Peterson, who has done so much damage to gender relations over the past couple of years, but he is right about one thing. When it comes to men, there is always the threat of violence lurking behind the smiles.
As I have argued, this is not biologically ingrained. Baby boys are no more likely to cause trouble than baby girls. We learn these behavioural traits because that is what is expected of us. “Man up,” they tell us, which is another way of saying that we should harden ourselves, make ourselves less human. Worse still, we all know this. We just don’t want to admit it.
Last week I got into an altercation with a group of mates who simply refused to accept the existence of toxic masculinity. They took it as a personal slight. My point was that in order to improve ourselves we needed to recognise why we behave the way we do. And I wasn’t for one second suggesting that I was immune to boorish behaviour. I’m a straight male, so even though I’m a person of colour I still have to acknowledge the kind of privilege I’ve experienced in my life.
But my friends were having none of it. One of them accused me of endorsing a kind of “original sin” doctrine, which is probably a rehashed argument he heard in one of the Jordan Peterson lectures he watches online to make himself feel smart. It’s frustrating, because I’m coming from a position of compassion. I see my male friends destroying themselves, and those around them, and all because they’ve swallowed society’s poisonous notions of what it means to be a man.
I desperately want us to be better than this. But we can’t leave this struggle to feminists or gay men. As straight guys in a heteronormative world, we have a collective responsibility to call each other out for our excesses, to unlearn the bad lessons from childhood. It will take hard work, but I fervently believe that the struggle begins with us. And if that makes me a cuck, then so be it. It’s a badge I’m prepared to wear with pride.