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Help men, don’t shame them for ‘toxic masculinity’

Heidi Stevens talks with family therapist John Duffy about toxic masculinity and the Gillette ad heard 'round the world. Join Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group Wednesdays at noon to hear her take on gender, race, parenting, relationships and pop culture. (Kasondra Van Treeck/Chicago Tribune)

“What’s the matter with men?” This question and the attendant notion of “toxic masculinity” have been swirling around like a Category 5 cultural maelstrom, especially since the #MeToo movement began.

Misogyny and sexual harassment and assault obviously are horribly wrong, yet the underlying problems for millions of working class, poor and struggling middle class American men do not stem from whether they act more like the Terminator than Mr. Rogers. The real front-burner issues are declining wages and underemployment, poor physical and mental health, dwindling educational success, relative loss of status, being able to connect with their children, mass incarceration and powerlessness.

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Young men today are less likely to hold jobs and more likely to be poor than before the Great Recession. Suicide is three and a half times more common among men than women, and men are twice as likely to die from opioid overdoses. About one-third of men between ages 15 and 64 live alone.

To be told that their big problem is “toxic masculinity” only provokes anger. In fact, considerable research has shown that decent work and wages, stable families and civic engagement tend to reinforce more prosocial behavior among men — presumably, just what progressives should want.

Rather than their holier-than-thou haranguing — much like those who simplistically advocate for “family values” — what a huge number of men need are good jobs, economic security, better health, good schools and training and hope. These would help men (and women and children) in very concrete ways. But they also would enable men to feel less need to prove their manhood in destructive ways and give them a greater ability to become involved fathers.

Rachel Branham of Boston, with mask, holds a sign that reads 'End Toxic Masculinity' during 'SlutWalk Chicago' on Aug. 20, 2016.
Rachel Branham of Boston, with mask, holds a sign that reads 'End Toxic Masculinity' during 'SlutWalk Chicago' on Aug. 20, 2016. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Don’t get me wrong: Culture is important, but culture is a complex web of multiple, interacting factors, including economic conditions, that influence beliefs and behavior. For example, low incomes and lack of hope batter countless men who grew up believing they would be “providers,” as the toxicity police rightly tell us. So, is the “traditional” masculine belief that men should be breadwinners or the fact that so many men fail to win enough bread the bigger problem?

I’ll admit there are “toxic” well-to-do men. But they’re a minority and should be the first target for those trying to teach “healthy masculinity.”

The progressive new-masculinity groups are hardly alone in making the socioeconomic plight of working-class and poor men a low priority. There has generally been a deafening silence among those on the right when it comes to advocating for genuine economic and educational opportunities and good health care for men (or anyone else) who needs help. Their big little lies are also founded on ideas that culture, not economics or power structures, are to blame: Their answer to “toxic masculinity” is “coastal elites.”

For those on the left — who too often pay little attention to culture in their analyses and policies — railing against “toxic masculinity” is unlikely to win many friends or carry much influence among most American men. If attitudinal and behavioral change is the goal, tackling all manner of social and economic ills and improving men’s everyday lives has a better chance of changing men’s attitudes and behavior in the long run than preaching to them.

Andrew L. Yarrow (Twitter: @alyarrow), a former New York Times reporter and historian of post-World War II America, addresses these and related issues in his recent book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.”

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