Rus Ervin Funk

Last week, I discussed the need for us to be willing to be disturbing.  This blog is an attempt to get more concrete about how we can be effectively disturbing…in this case, disturbing to and about toxic masculinity.

Many authors of defined the ways that first candidate, and now President Trump has both modeled and promoted a form of masculinity that is toxic, harmful, and dangerous.

These expressions of masculinity are not exclusive to men, nor are these qualities necessarily unhealthy or harmful in and of themselves.   What is toxic is when these are the only qualities that men express (or are allowed to express).  Before we are men, we are human beings.  As human beings, we have a full range of behaviors and emotions at our disposal.

And this configuration of “masculinity’ has proven toxic not only to men ourselves (men who are limited to this expression of manhood tend to die younger and be more unhappy in their lives) but also to our relationships, to our communities and to the world as a whole.

As an adult who is also in the midst of living with and helping to raise a young son (who is currently 7), living in a way that disturbs toxic masculinity is a constant struggle.  With Mr. Trumps position as President and his unapologetic and extreme representation of toxic masculinity, my work and my living to disturb toxic masculinity has taken an even more pressing urgency.  My child will grow from a boy, to a tween in this environment.    And that scares me.

I’m also Irish American, and as such, have white skin; and am raising a son who also has white skin.  Part of what is at play under President Trump and his brand of toxic masculinity is also a toxic whiteness.  One of the struggles for me, as a parent, raising a son through a lens of justice and peace and love, is, as James Baldwin said, Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”  Kiernan may not be in a position to listen to President Trump, but he is in a position to imitate him, and how the President of the United States models masculinity and white-ness has an effect on the possibilities available to Kiernan… and the possibilities that Kiernan sees as legitimate.

What follows is a short list of ten ways that those of us who are (or who identify as) male can disturb the environment of toxic masculinity we find ourselves in.

1)      Feel

Toxic masculinity teaches us that “real men don’t feel” (other than happiness or anger).  But denying our feelings is not only toxic for us (increased levels of depression, alcoholism, isolation, mental illness and distress, as well as physical ailments are all associated with denying our feelings), but is also harmful to our relationships, our friends and families, and our communities.

Feeling what we feel and expressing those feelings:  frustration, joy, sadness, fear, anxiety is a way to model that we, like all human beings, have a range of emotions and is a way to disturb toxic masculinity.

2)     Laugh at yourself

Toxic masculinity teaches us to take ourselves seriously – and to make sure everyone else also takes us serious.  But being serious invites us to miss out on a lot of opportunities and life, and taking ourselves too seriously leads many of us to deny or minimize our flaws.

Acknowledging our flaws and finding the humor in the flaws we have disturbs the notion of toxic masculinity that we are always (or have to be always) right.

3)     Be accountable

Toxic masculinity teaches us to not be accountable, and (as modeled by President Trump), un-apologetic about our behaviors and actions.  It is defined as un-manly, and/or a sign of weakness, if we admit mistakes, apologize and/or make amends.  While it may be “un-manly” (depending on how one defines manhood), it is not demonstrative of a healthy human being.  We all make mistakes.  We all do harm (even when we don’t mean to).  Some of the elements of accountability include:

a) Take responsibility for your actions

Follow through, explain your decisions and actions

b) Acknowledge any harm you may have caused, or the ways you didn’t follow through

c) Apologize when you’ve done something that has caused another harm (intentionally or not)

d) Make amends when you can

e) Be forgiving

A part of accountability also includes forgiving those who have done us harm, and forgiving ourselves when we have done what we have been accountable and made amends.

Being accountable disturbs toxic masculinity.

4)     Be goofy

Toxic masculinity prescribes a seriousness (nearly constant seriousness) that limits and denies our true humanity.  A part of our human nature is goofiness.

One way to disturb toxic masculinity is to embrace our own goofiness.

5)     Touch and be touched – physically and emotionally

It is our human nature to be intimate with others, both physically and emotionally.  We like all human beings (and apparently a huge proportion of all animals) require intimacy to be and stay alive.  Toxic masculinity, however teaches us to fear and to sexualize touch (see “How the lack of touch is destroying men”.   But we need touch to stay alive and to be healthy in our living.

Intimate, platonic touching of women, other men and trans friends can be a powerful way to disturb toxic masculinity.

6)     Be quiet and listen

Toxic masculinity informs us to always have an answer, interrupt, “mansplain”, clarify what others (particularly women) say, and take charge of conversations. Not only does choosing to be quiet and listen disturb this element of toxic masculinity, it also relieves us of the responsibility to be in charge, to “explain” and “clarify” and to have all the answers.  We learn a lot when we stop talking.

7)     Be vulnerable

Toxic masculinity teaches us to never ever ever be vulnerable, especially with other men.  This prohibition is even more exaggerated for those of us who have white skin in regards to expressing any vulnerability with black or brown men.  But being vulnerable is a part of the human condition and it is by moving into through our vulnerability that we find out more about who we are, and develop close meaningful relationships with other people.

Being vulnerable disturbs (greatly) toxic masculinity.

8)    Be Gentle and Kind

Toxic masculinity places a premium on being “hard”, “tough” and willing to be violent “if need be” (i.e. to protect someone we love, to define our honor, etc.)  Toxic masculinity, as modelled currently, has limited space for gentleness or kindness.   Yet all of us who are male have enormous capacities for both and demonstrate it regularly (tho often behind closed doors).

Being gentle and kind as a starting place for how we interact with and treat other folks disturbs toxic masculinity.

For those of us who are living in white skin…

Toxic masculinity and white dominance have become married in many ways.  As men who are also living in white skin, challenging racism and being actively and visibly supportive of black and brown men and women is another way for us to actively and effectively disturb both.

Toxic masculinity is a weapon of white supremacy.  It teaches us to distrust and stay disconnected from black and brown men.

9)     Forget that you’re white.

To paraphrase James Baldwin, as long as we think we’re white, we can’t be effective partners in dismantling racism.  Whiteness is not an identity, it is made up and its only purpose is to separate and elevate us over folks who are defined as black, brown or red.   Our ethnic identities matter (Irish, German, French, Scandinavian, European, etc.).

By denying whiteness as our identity, we disturb both toxic masculinity and white supremacy.

10) Become friends

Find ways to become and deepen friendships with black and brown women and men.

Friendships guide a different standard of accountability.  And having friends is always a good thing.

As men who have white skin, being intimately friendly with black, Latino, Asian and/or native men is a great way to disturb toxic masculinity.

My suspicion is that many (perhaps most) of us do some of these things regularly.  I intend to encourage and support those of us who identify as men to be ever more disturbing of toxic masculinity and point out the harms of toxic masculinity to us all and our communities.  This work seems particularly important in the shadow of President Trump and the masculinity that he presents.

© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk