A Call for Moral Masculinity
Let’s start with some numbers. This winter I created a one-minute Gender Stereotypes in Society Survey to see if I could identify any trends worth further investigation. Of 83 participants, 47 identified as men, and 87% of them were under the age of 34. Here’s what caught my eye with the men:
- 38.3% of surveyed men agreed that gender stereotypes are mostly accurate, 42.56% felt they needed to live up to those stereotypes, and 87.24% said that gender stereotypes are harmful.
- 80.85% of men believed they could change gender stereotypes, but only 38.3% said they had been taught effective strategies to overcome them.
What does this mean? At least from this sample, my first hypothesis addresses the future of masculinity: a critical mass of men think that gender stereotypes are mostly accurate and feel the need to live up to them — despite believing they are harmful. If that remains true, men will perpetuate the status quo of toxic masculinity in our society. It’s worth noting that only 19.44% of women in this survey described gender stereotypes as mostly accurate and 94.44% described them as harmful.
My second assertion is this: an encouraging number of men think they can change gender stereotypes, but far fewer know how. To have any hope of sustaining a critical mass of men who disrupt harmful stereotypes, we need to teach more effective strategies. Currently, as role models, mentors, and adults, we are falling short — but I’m still in the hope boat. When we create a road map to moral masculinity that is easy to access and rewarding to travel, the scaffolding of toxic masculinity will become obsolete.
Why we are failing with “toxic masculinity”
Over the past couple of decades, countless researchers, activists, and educators have raised our collective awareness of the negative consequences of masculinity gone wrong. Today, “toxic masculinity” is a convenient way of packaging and labeling masculine cultural norms that harm society and men in general. We talk about it in conversations about systemic racism, social justice, gender equality, DEI, corporate greed. Yet, despite our proficiency in naming it, we continue to be frustrated by its stubborn persistence. Raymond Buscemi, Psy.D. says, “We haven’t yet found a way to create or sustain on a mass scale less toxic or even healthy masculinity.”
“Experts agree that to truly create a culture change, everyone in an organization must open their eyes to see the displays and subtle effects of toxic masculinity, and that leaders must set the example” (Althof, 2021). Yes, this is vital and true, but it’s not enough. Eyes are open. Effects are noted. However, culture runs deeper than what we see on the surface. Michael Salter (2019) explains, “The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy, it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture.” And as the roots run deeper, they also reach wider. Not all cultures are the same, and it would be naive to assume that gender inequality can be weeded out with a magic spray bottle (see image below).
We are failing against toxic masculinity because we have not convinced the critical mass that there is another, easier, better way of becoming a man. The unwritten man code still provides a sense of grounding and safety, and while there is a lingering scent of self-sabotage, that warning is overwhelmed by the allure of sex, drugs, and power. We’ve pointed out that toxic masculinity is like a fast and dangerous car with terrible fuel efficiency and a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint…but boy is it fun to drive. Am I right? Still, I’m in the hope boat.
Recently, we’ve come to question “traditions” and “rituals.” Why do we do what we do? Is this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it a way of protecting a social hierarchy? Are we making everyone feel like they belong? Is this really in line with who we want to be? These are all good and fair questions, but in our efforts to be “woke,” we have overlooked that human behavior is based on what we learned in the past. Without traditions and rituals that build upon what we have learned, we function less like fine art and more like an Etch A Sketch.
Consider this thought from Tim Winton:
We’ve scraped our culture bare of ritual pathways to adulthood. There are lots of reasons for having clear-felled and burnt our own traditions since the 1960s, and some of them are very good reasons. But I’m not sure what we’ve replaced them with. We’ve left our young people to fend for themselves…. In the absence of explicit, widely-shared and enriching rites of passage, young men in particular are forced to make themselves up as they go along. Which usually means they put themselves together from spare parts, and the stuff closest to hand tends to be cheap and defective. And that’s dangerous. (2018)
Here lies one of the keys that modern critics of masculinity so often miss. We talk about how violent men are, how insensitive, selfish, and domineering they will be, but we forget that after all of that we are left with little boys trying to figure out how the world will accept them as men. Their rites of passage — many of which take place in basements or under the cloak of darkness or elsewhere without any fully-developed frontal lobe in sight — are often a patchwork collage of experiences that create an erratic reflection of the masculine dreamscape. Can we do a better job of creating a road map for boys? Or are we going to leave that one to Google as well?
One of my mentors from the summer camp I work at — an all-boys overnight camp established in 1903 — taught me that leaders are tasked with the responsibility of replacing themselves. His words have always stuck with me, and not coincidentally, I consider my camp to be one of the few places that draws strength from tradition while also evolving to promote healthier masculinity. I have been involved with camp for 20 years — from a young camper to a senior administrator — and though it would be nice to say that my peers and I were the best leaders in history (“leaders” are our form of counselors), that would be a lie. The truth is our leadership gets better each year.
The steady improvement of the leaders is not because of the development of technology or the human brain. They grow stronger each year because they look up to role models as campers, study their mentors and learn how to lead, and carry on what works while adding what works better. The wheel is not reinvented every summer, but it is refined. To be fair, my camp is not innocent of toxic masculinity, but it’s also one of the only places where I have seen a group of men circle up, talk about their shortcomings, and pledge to hold themselves to a higher standard.
I say this not to boast but as testament to the power of aligning over a century of tradition with a model of moral masculinity. The young boys hoping to one day be leaders at my camp don’t want power, money, or sexual conquest. They want to be kind. They want to be brave, honest, helpful, and joyful. They want to be themselves in a place that feels like home, to be with people who fill them with confidence and love. I don’t know about the critical mass, but when I was 11 years old, I was convinced. I grew to learn that tears of joy are the treasure of life, not the trap.
Toxic masculinity is dangerous, and people are tired of it, but we can’t cancel men. Rather, we need to take on the responsibility of replacing ourselves with even better people. Building better culture requires us to identify the roots of hate, violence, and oppression, to discover our road blocks and to update our maps. There is a future in building pathways to moral masculinity, and men need to be frontline workers.
I’m a believer in mnemonics, and years of studying, reflecting, and learning led me to come up with my own road map for achieving moral masculinity — Break the Box, Cut the Schlock, Be a Beauty (BCB) — a three-part mantra to overcome harmful stereotypes, reduce bad habits and attitudes, and act with integrity, love, and kindness. I don’t suspect the whole world will jump on my band wagon, but I call on adults — leaders, teachers, coaches, parents, and men especially— to provide young people with effective strategies and meaningful rituals that lead to principled adulthood.
Imagine if schools, teams, and other organizations were as unwilling to sacrifice character as they are profit or performance? If there was a morality test that counted as much as the SAT? Or if an athlete’s work in the community was as celebrated as getting in a fight? Wait… you get the idea.
When it comes to boys, they need to see people who defy harmful stereotypes portrayed as role models, not exceptions. They need mentors who show them how to be vulnerable and ask for help, how to pursue passions with rigor while putting others first with compassion. Most importantly, boys need to know that they will be held accountable for wrongdoing but not punished for being themselves — for that, they should be loved, not lost.
I said I was on the hope boat, so I’ll finish with a canoe metaphor. The stroke isn’t all that complicated to pick up, but there are wrong ways to paddle, and you don’t get very far if you’re out of sync.