Okay, bear with me, this will make sense in a minute. But I have this passionate loathing for the term “common sense.” I know a lot of other people do as well, but for me it’s on the (very) short list of terms that actually have the power to make not want to know a person who uses it. It speaks volumes, and the really bitter irony is that it does so by saying nearly nothing.
Like I said, I’m not the first person to feel this way. There’s even an old adage to the effect that is something is sensible, it’s not common, and if it’s common, it’s rarely sensible, which in turn is reducible to the more elegant (if gnomic), “Common sense is neither.” I’m fond of both, but the core of my antipathy to the idea of common sense is that it’s one of those concepts that’s trotted out not to engage in debate or dialog, but to end it. It’s a lightweight rhetorical dodge, intended to stifle further discussion. Who, after all, can argue with common sense? But the idea that some subset of ideas falls under a common consensus, and that these universal principles are so well understood as to need no further argument or elaboration once stated, is nonsense. Have you seen our culture? No such consensus has ever existed, and no such consensus ever will.
No, to call something common sense is to say, “This is a position that I hold, but have not really thought about and am unprepared to defend. Please don’t ask me anymore questions.” Needless to say, I do not like this sort of position.
Anyway, the thing I’m concerned with here isn’t so much the notion of common sense per se. What I’m concerned with today is the weird tendency for certain concepts to obtain a kind of cultural currency without anyone ever really understanding what they mean. Common sense is an example because its very name suggests its improbability, yet most people assume not only that it exists, but that they understand it clearly. It’s far from the only such idea. Empty constructs, inflated with hot air, surface all the time, and are batted to and fro like one of those giant beach balls thrown into the crowd at a bad music festival. And it’s hard, I’ll admit, to stay on top of them. The trap (and it’s genuinely easy to fall into) is to imbue the idea that’s floating around with your own interpretations and assume, however narcissistically, that your interpretations are the consensus. They’re not, but that needn’t be a barrier to you having an opinion, nor to holding forth on your opinion over beers. And believe me, I’ve watched: there really is no fixed time limit on how long two or more people can go on talking about two or more completely separate topics without ever realizing that they’re doing so. The only trick is to talk more than you listen, and that’s as close to a true cultural universal as you’ll find.
Point being that for all these reasons, I’m having a hard time lately with the idea of toxic masculinity. Somewhere in among the several meanings of that term is an important idea, but it’s bugging me that the phrase itself seems to be headed for common-sensical territory. Nor is this strictly an academic exercise: I’m a father of sons, so if there’s going to be a thing called toxic masculinity, the question of whether I’m transmitting it to my progeny is a matter of some moment. The thing is, by some definitions at least, I’m pretty sure that I am.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Yes, there are behaviors associated with certain, traditional ideas of the masculine that are deeply harmful to both men and women, and that need to be identified and addressed. We’re living through an important cultural moment in which a whole bucketful of odious male behaviors are being held up to the light, and a bucketful of odious men are facing long-overdue consequences. This is important, and this is good. Nor do I mean to suggest with any of this that serious people aren’t giving the the whole subject serious thought. My own very significant other is writing a series about this right now, tackling harmful masculine tropes in fiction and film. But what I find frustrating is the fact that for all this, you can mention toxic masculinity in any craft brewery or urban wine bar and be assured of getting a series of solemn nods. But if you ask any five nodding sippers to describe it in actionable terms, you’ll get at least six answers, in varying levels of inchoate and outraged generality. So the fact that it actually does tie back to something cultural and personally important is an issue, because nothing floating around the zeitgeist suggests to me that we’ve got any meaningful, collective handle on just what we’re trying to address. Of course we get the extreme examples of horrific behavior – nobody needs to have Harvey Weinstein explained. But the syndromes behind it are much harder to pin down. Is there a non-toxic masculinity? What would that be like? Sounds like a simple question but try asking a few people. I think you’ll find that there’s no consensus answer.
Let me give an example that’s close to home. One of the more persistent themes lately, in article, blog and meme, seems to be around boys and emotional control. A cornerstone of toxic masculinity, I gather, has to do with teaching boys not to cry, carrying on cultural traditions of male emotional repression. And I get it. I grew up in a reasonably progressive milieu, at least by 80’s standards, but I still don’t remember a lot of healthy male emoting going on. Rambo cried at the end of First Blood; that was about it. So I’m sympathetic, to a point, with the idea that we’re supposed to be encouraging greater emotional openness among young men, and encouraging a wider range of emotional experience than that available to our forefathers. To a point.
But, when we talk about healthy male emoting, we mean what, exactly? See, here’s where we get into trouble, because if I go by what seems to be crossing my Facebook feed lately it would seem that teaching boys any degree of emotional control is automatically a toxic act. If you’re not telling boys to feel whatever they feel and give voice to whatever they experience in real time, you’re forcing them right back into the stone age, turning them into the angry and stunted beasties that terrorize our world. There are only two views: boys don’t cry, which is a damaging idea, and boys can cry whenever they feel the need. Yet I have a very strong suspicion that very few of the people saying this are in any way involved in actually raising boys. I’m suspicious of simple binaries, but here’s where I get into trouble: as a father, I don’t agree, at least once adolescence looms, that it’s always okay to cry.
Watch: I’ll do a trick. Instead of saying, “It is important to teach boys emotional control,” I’ll cleverly substitute the phrase, “It is important to teach boys how to create and maintain healthy emotional boundaries in their personal lives.” The first sentence sits athwart a vicious cultural divide, and lots of well-meaning people will disagree. The second is far less controversial, but the trick is, it’s saying essentially the same thing.
I don’t think many people would seriously argue that emoting randomly, spilling out over the side to anyone who’ll listen (to borrow from Tom Waites) is a healthy habit to inculcate in young people, particularly as they build out their first mature social relationships. On the contrary we would nearly all agree that there will be people in our lives with whom it is appropriate to be emotionally open and vulnerable, and people with whom this is not a good idea. And as we get older, it’s important to layer into this the understanding that not everyone we encounter in our lives will have our best interests at heart. Discerning this, and learning to identify the people and situations around which we should and should not open up our emotional kimonos is important. This is also, in every respect, an exercise in the art of emotional control. Put another way, exercising thoughtful emotional control is the first step in cultivating emotional intimacy. If you can’t get a handle on your emotional responses in some situations, you can’t delineate the really important situations in which that handle can be safely let go. If your innermost emotional life is on technicolor display everywhere, you’re not creating room for the places and people who can help you get your arms around those emotions in a useful and, if needed, healing way.
No one likes this kind of talk. It’s too complicated. It’s so much easier to say that emotional control is toxic, while emotional openness is good and leave it at that. But control was never the right word. Rejecting your own emotional life, that’s a problem. Not being able to recognize and put a name to what you’re experiencing, that’s worrisome. A father who teaches his sons that emotions are girly, and gives his boys no tools for dealing with them, is indeed an asshole. But I’ve not done that. The mantra in my house has always been that it’s okay to have feelings – even angry feelings – as long as we make room to talk about them. And the boys generally prefer to do this in private, which I also support. But I’ve also asked them, at certain points, to pull themselves together. I’ve let them know that certain conversations aren’t going to happen until they’re composed.
Thankfully not many people read any of this, but if they did I would anticipate two responses. First, somebody will read that last bit and say, “but that’s not toxic masculinity!” To which I would respond that I’m not sure who has standing to rule on whether it is or isn’t (if indeed anyone does). I’m perfectly happy (even relieved) if my behavior doesn’t map to your definition of toxic masculinity, but that’s your definition. I can’t assume that everyone else sees it the same way. Language matters, the terms we choose matter enormously, and this is a powerful term with a lot of cultural weight behind it. It’s also sketchy shorthand for a number of unpleasant ideas, which makes it something of a loose cannon on deck. The second response, of course, would be a reflexive assumption that because I’ve questioned the term at all, I’m an antifeminist member of the alt-right. That’s the opposite of the truth, but it gets to the same point. When it comes to something like toxic masculinity, as currently defined, if it’s hard to be sure that you’re doing it, you may be certain that it will be equally hard to prove that you’re not.
What I want, in the end, is not to have emotionally stunted children. I’d like to have emotionally competent children, able to feel deeply and share those feelings carefully, with the right people, when it’s safe to do so. It often won’t be, and that’s regrettable, but that’s the world as we found it. And I’m just dying right now to close with a little zinger about how that’s just common sense, but as rhetorical flourishes go that one’s too ham-fisted even for me. In effect I just did it anyway, but clothed in just enough ironic distance to keep me safe.
I’m not about to be vulnerable around you people.