Counting Down The FOLD: On Toxic Masculinity

Photo credit: Vojtech Okenka

Toxic masculinity and its harmful effects have been once again cast in the spotlight as a result of another violent tragedy. International experts and researchers are weighing in, but for Peel residents, these expressions of gendered violence and toxic masculinity are not new.

January 2018 alone, saw more women murdered in domestic violence related incidents in Peel, than all of 2017. Service providers were calling for action on what they termed ‘femicide’ and recent conversations have been filled with expanded definitions of toxic masculinity though not all are evolving the conversation in helpful ways.

Jamil Jivani, Brampton-born, Yale-educated lawyer, author of the book, Why Young Men: Rage Race and The Crisis of Identity, and panelist at the Festival of Literary Diversity’s opening gala, notes that we where we start conversations about toxic masculinity, we must ask if we’re doing so with the intent to continue and conclude them in helpful ways.

Jamil Jivani. Photo credit: Wim Van Cappellen

“It’s not that we don’t talk about it enough, it’s just that when we do engage with it, we do so, in incomplete ways, or in a way that’s not mindful of how it affects people.” He elaborates that, “any conversation about masculinity that doesn’t think about how we build self-esteem and provide moral instruction to boys and young men, seems like it’s missing a big piece of whose futures are at stake in how we deal with masculinity practically, and in conversation” 

Growing up in Brampton, Jivani’s experiences speak to the difficulty many young men face that offer opportunities for negative influences to grab hold. He writes in the introduction of his book, that he grew up in a world where, “to use a cliche, I was one of those young people who fall through the cracks. My hopes and dreams weren’t captured by the institutions that were supposed to guide me to a positive life. I was desperate to find an alternative way to live. Every hour that I was supposed to spend doing homework and studying for tests was instead going toward finding a way out of the rigged system I was born into.”

Space for better conversations and understanding 

Jivani’s view on what’s missing in these discussions, begins first with the fact that masculinity is, “approached as a cause of negativity that people attribute sexual harassment or violence to.” 

Where violence brings certain variations of manhood to the forefront, healthy variations of it go unnoticed or aren’t discussed with the same rigor as its toxic counterpart in the media. These variations are what Jivani asks about in relation to their effects on the impressionable minds of young, vulnerable boys and men. 

Jivani goes on to say that, “it’s discussed as a cultural or social phenomenon but not necessarily a prescriptive one, meaning that it’s a topic like many others where we dig into it and leave it with a hole at the end of the conversation without putting it back together.” He notes that, “Masculinity, and just like femininity and other parts of our identity mean very different things to different people. One of the challenges of a term like toxic masculinity for example is that it signals, whether intentionally or not, to some men that any sense of masculinity is deemed toxic.”

Rachel Giese, award-winning journalist, author of the book, Boys: What It Means to Become a Man and another panelist at the Festival of Literary Diversity’s opening gala extends this to gender expression and strict gender roles, through which toxic masculinity can manifest and thrive.

Rachel Giese. Photo credit: Angela Lewis.

“It’s not about getting rid of the labels as much as it is to not make them so powerful and rigid, to understand that they’re flexible, haven’t remained static throughout history, nor are they even cross-culturally consistent.” 

When talking about the ways we can use expansive language around gender variations so they might evolve outside of traditional binaries, Giese added that, “we could say that every single person has aspects of what we traditionally call masculine or feminine and that there are men and women who embrace other configurations of gender expression.”

Making sure that missing pieces of this conversation do not count women’s voices and opinions among them, Jivani noted that despite sometimes negative feedback, women should be present in these discussions.

“When it comes to meaningfully improving things, we also don’t want to create a situation where people feel their opinions are going to be invariably filtered through their own identity. For example, in the book I talk about the way that my mother could have had conversations with me about masculinity and manhood that we didn’t know how to have. Women should feel empowered to have those conversations because we are linked to each other and that’s not just a matter of gender but also race, religion, gender identity and other identities.”

The willingness to listen and be open 

Jivani also explained that the second approach to completing these conversations rests on understanding that, “Masculinity is seen as indivisible from misogyny and sometimes people approach it very defensively, often in the case of men who feel it needs to be protected. This means that any attempts at discussion are met with defensiveness that is counterproductive to getting any real dialogue going on about the topic.”

When discussing the need to check privileges in these conversations so they are built upon a foundation of intersectionality, Giese offered thoughts on being called out and the need for those feeling, “particularly unduly attacked in this moment, to take a breath and realize that if they sometimes feel like someone is hurting their feelings, that’s okay. It’s okay if their feelings feel hurt. That’s also how we work through things right now because we are having difficult conversations, because we’re all trying to make the world more equitable.”

She added, “It’s important that when you’re being called out for something, to just take a breath and ask of your response if it’s your privilege talking or if it’s your discomfort, because you want to see yourself as a good person and you’re hearing how you’re having an impact on someone else’s life. There is a benefit in having honest conversations, not shouting matches on social media, but honest conversations about what safety means and looks like for all of us.”

Building healthier masculinities

When asked how we can be sure that expressions of masculinity are healthy, Giese concluded, “I think it’s like all things- If your masculinity is about having power over someone and making them feel small or mistreating someone else, that’s a good example of toxic masculinity. If your masculinity is about you having fun without harming anyone and making someone else feel bad about who they are or having power over, then that feels healthy to me.”

Jivani, had advice for young men in particular who were experiencing challenges he knows well, “You don’t know what you’re capable of yet and regardless of how angry or limited you feel by your life circumstances, or how misunderstood you feel, it’s really important to understand that your best self isn’t known to you yet. If you asses your future or how happy you might be able to be one day based on those moments when you’re down, frustrated and angry, I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit for what you might transform into, later in your life.”

He added for young Brampton Focus readers that, “You are the future of many things, so the world is competing to influence you, and that’s true whether as a consumer, thinker, where you go after school, what arts you consume, what you believe in and what ideas you share with your friends. However insignificant you might feel, you are relevant enough that people are trying to influence you and affect who you are and how you see yourself.”

These conversations may not instantly change the way we understand what it means to be a man, though they do paint a picture of the future that could be, to guide us through the darkness of violence tearing at the edges of the hope we hold tight, for the world we live in now.

Continuing the conversation, both Jamil Jivani and Rachel Giese will be speaking at the Festival of Literary Diversity’s opening gala on May 4th. Tickets are still available at the FOLD website.