Toxic Disingenousness and the "I Know You Are, But What Am I?!" Response

by Neil H. Buchanan

In three recent columns, I examined American conservatives' recently intensified bullying of weak and vulnerable people.  At one point, I wrote that "toxic masculinity explains a great deal of the actions and views of today's Republican Party."  The simplicity of that conclusion honestly surprised me -- as I put it there: "When I finished writing the first of those columns, I thought: 'Wait, is that really all there is?  Did I honestly just rediscover that toxic masculinity is toxic, and that it has poisoned the American (and global) right?'" -- but it would have been dishonest to avoid that conclusion merely because it was so obvious in retrospect.

After the third of those columns ran, I received an email with the subject line "Toxic Masculinity" that began with a friendly "Hello Professor Buchanan" and jauntily continued (in its entirety):

Just a note about your recent posts. Certainly toxic masculinity is a real phenomenon, and it certainly causes real problems. But it has always struck me as a sort of toxic-masculinity the tendency for some men to, with a peculiar righteous zeal, invoke toxic masculinity in diagnosing social problems. As if doing so makes them more evolved and enlightened: the moral preening of the neo-alpha, the “manly men” of coffee shops and feminist circles. There’s something parasitic and grossly indulgent about this. I’m not claiming that this is what you’re doing, but, while reading your posts, I couldn’t help but think about how easy it is to cross the line from a constructive invocation of toxic masculinity to something more vain and parasitic.

Thanks for your time,

Let me be clear that I absolutely, completely believe that this email was written in good faith and not at all disingenuously, so much so that I will refer to the person who sent it to me as GoodFaithEmailer.  After all, he led off by agreeing that toxic masculinity is a real thing (before proceeding directly to the inevitable "But"), and after laying out his critiques, he helpfully added with all the sincerity in the world that he was "not claiming that this is what" I was doing.  Which settles the matter, because he wrote that he was only saying that "reading your posts" made him think those thoughts.  So it is not I who was showing an unseemly form of peculiar righteous zeal.  It is only other people who would write what I wrote that might be described in that way.

GoodFaithEmailer signed off with his first name followed by his full name, along with his professional return address and credentials.  This was helpful, because otherwise I would have assumed that the email had been sent by an especially precious, self-impressed 10th Grader with an overused thesaurus.  I am not saying that that is true of GoodFaithEmailer, but rather that his email could not help but make a person think that it was written by a peculiar kind of adolescent who panics when called out for his immaturity.  Luckily, GoodFaithEmailer did not say what he said about me, and what I am saying here is not about him.  We are all just friends discussing why other people who call out toxic masculinity are or are not neo-alphas.

So let us consider the content of that not-at-all disingenuous email.  Is calling out toxic masculinity merely another form of toxic masculinity?  Are toxic masculinists rubber, while I'm glue, so whatever I say bounces off them and ... well, you get the idea?  Oh wait, I should again be careful to say that I am not glue, only that people who argue what I have argued can easily cross a line and become glue.  Again, I believe it when someone says that they are not saying anything about me, and I expect everyone to believe that I believe it.

OK, now we can ask about the substance, such as it is, of the concern trolling expressed in that email toward people who are most assuredly not me.

A colleague at another law school recently told me that she had had a conversation with a colleague who was absolutely incensed by the idea that he or any other conservative would be called a racist.  "Calling someone a racist is absolutely the worst thing that you can say to anyone," he told her.  My colleague asked whether, perhaps, saying racist things to someone might be worse.  "No."  What about calling someone the n-word?  "No, being called racist is worse," even though her colleague would not in fact use the n-word.

So what exactly is the claim?  That being called out for being horrible is worse than being horrible?  Or, per GoodFaithEmailer's framing, that calling out someone for being horrible is merely a version of being horrible in that same way?  To put the question back into the context of my columns and GoodFaithEmailer's assertion, what exactly is toxic about the "sort of toxic-masculinity" that is expressed by being more evolved and enlightened?  Who is being harmed by that supposed toxicity?

After all, the complaint about toxic masculinity -- as I made abundantly clear in my writing -- is that it involves the strong harming the weak.  The governor of Florida berates some nervous high school kids in an attempt to look "strong" to his target voters.  He and other conservatives target trans kids (possibly the most marginalized group in society today) with legislation that makes their difficult lives even more difficult.  Women lose control over their bodies, in part because some men (and their enablers) believe that we should return to a time when women were at men's rarely-tender mercies.  Racial minorities are told again and again that they are not the rugged individualists that Real Men are.  (Why blame systemic racism, after all, for one's own failings?)  People die in mass shootings because Real Men see themselves as Reagan-style cowboys, "protecting the women and children" by exposing them to unspeakable violence.

What is the even minimally equivalent toxicity among those who describe and condemn such toxic masculinity?  My recollection of James Bond movies is hardly perfect, but I have the distinct sense of having watched multiple films in which the villain swirls an expensive brandy while telling our hero that "we're the same, you and me, Mr. Bond."  Why?  "We both believe in things, and we're willing to fight for them.  What is so different?"  The hero responds, in essence, that the villain is being villainous.  (The Bond character is, of course, its own stew of toxic masculinities, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this column.)

Yes, that is a judgment about who is right and who is wrong, but that is exactly the point.  Bullies pick on the weak, and when other people say, "You're picking on the weak, and you should stop it," that is not preening or being neo-alpha.  Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor.  A person who takes from the poor to give to the rich is not merely a Robin Hood who would be unwelcome in coffee shops and feminist circles.

It takes a particular kind of emotional fragility to respond to being criticized by saying that, well, "the people who are criticizing me are just being vain and grossly indulgent."  This is, in fact, what bullies are -- snowflakes who think that being socially condemned for being awful people is so unfair.  Indeed, this is even more silly than usual, because the objection is not merely that the bully does not like being criticized.  No, the objection is that the people doing the criticizing might look good in society's eyes for doing so.  How dare they!

There is more than a strong whiff of the classic abuser's response here: "Look what you made me do!"  In that mindset, the people who respond to bad behavior bring the wrath of the abuser on themselves.  When Donald Trump calls on his supporters to "PROTEST" and then warns that there will be "death and destruction" if he faces the consequences of a lifetime of acting as if he is above the law, he says that the people who are trying to do the right thing are to blame when anything goes wrong.

This is, in short, a procedural objection to a substantive criticism, a minimally dressed-up ad hominem attack.  "You said that I'm being a jerk, but rather than admit that I'm being a jerk and owning it, or explaining why I'm not being a jerk, I'll just say that you're enjoying this a bit too much."

There is a particularly narrow notion of charity that says that true charity can only be anonymous, because otherwise the act of charity is ultimately a showy and selfish attempt to gain social approval -- except that even anonymous charity is itself definitionally selfish, because a person who engages in such acts can only have done so because he wanted to do so, which means that he got something out of it.  But even on the most superficial level, so what?  Standing up and trying to say or do something about toxic masculinity might evoke some positive responses from people who understandably admire those who stand up for weaker people who are being harmed.  And that makes standing up to toxicity toxic?

Again, GoodFaithEmailer did not call me personally parasitic.  In fact, he did not do so twice.  But whoever he is calling a parasite is, at worst, someone who knows that facing the risks of punching up is sometimes rewarded.  Maybe we would somehow say that a person who engages in socially positive behavior, but who is oblivious to the likelihood that it will bring praise, is even more admirable than the person who thinks, "You know, if I do this good thing, people will notice and say that I'm good."  Maybe we would want to even more strongly exalt a person who says, "I actually hate it when people notice me and praise me, but I'll endure it because I care so much about the injustice that I am willing to confront it."  I guess there is some sort of hierarchy there, but none of the options are at all toxic.

I will even take the opportunity here to ask for public approval for not calling out GoodFaithEmailer by name.  There are times when a terrible argument is offered by someone with public standing who deserves to be shamed personally, precisely because the argument comes from someone who will use that public standing to continue to be taken seriously in other contexts, if he or she is not directly exposed.  That is not the case here.  I readily acknowledge that I want to be recognized and praised for my restraint.

On the other hand, maybe I need to think about how much fun I am having in writing this column.  I am not writing more than 1800 words in response to a good argument that calls for a thoughtful response, after all.  I am being self-indulgent, convincing myself that -- because I know that GoodFaithEmailer is not in fact a smartypants high schooler -- it is acceptable for me to pile on, to some extent merely because I find it amusing.  In that sense, yes, even a person who decries toxic masculinity might enjoy the opportunity to respond just a bit too much.  Apparently, I have not become the gentle man that I want to become.

And again, just as GoodFaithEmailer assured me that he was not saying I was doing what someone very much like me would make him think they are doing, I have already said that I am not insulting or attacking him in response.  But if some other defender of toxic masculinity is upset by what I have written here, I can only respond to that other person in language that he will understand:

Man up.  Nut up.  Shut up.  Take the L.