Toxic femininity like toxic masculinity is a pretty daft idea. However, a recent essay in Areo posits the idea as a counterpoint to those pervasive ideas about toxic masculinity, to which all the evils of society are ascribed.
Areo the online free thought journal, edited by Helen Pluckrose, is always worth a read and I strongly recommend the article Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity published on 26/01/21. The author Freya India Ager graduated from Kings College London and is now an independent writer interested in politics, psychology and culture.
Social justice, leftist thinking argues that male characteristics such as misogyny and violence permeate society and that in turn has resulted in a poor response to the COVID pandemic, a crisis in men’s mental health (in fact levels and anxiety and depression are much higher in women) and even the climate catastrophe.
The author argues that if we are going to describe toxic masculinity as the negative manifestation of male traits then we also also have to consider societal problems that may be due to the expression of female traits. After all, contrary to the beliefs of ‘blank slatists’ on the left, traits more common to one or other sex certainly do exist and in a way that is not entirely socially constructed.
Among the good things about the essay is that it doesn’t overstate its case, in spite of venomous online trends such as kill all men and men are trash, society is not in thrall to toxic femininity any more than it is in thrall to toxic masculinity. One area where I do slightly disagree is that Freya Ager states that purveyors of ‘social justice’ are not all female. While that is true, reading Helen Pluckrose’s book Cynical Theories suggests that the majority of thinkers in this field are indeed female. What the author does, however, is to apply the same line of reason that is applied to male traits, to female traits and see where it leads.
Freya Ager argues that the current culture that normalises cancelling others, praises emotional reasoning and overvalues safety, aligns with traits that are more strongly represented in women. For example, the female approach is to engage in reputation destruction rather than direct confrontation. Just think about what happened to James Damore who just wrote in internal memo that attracted feminist ire and you will see what the author meant.
The parallels that are made with other primates are illuminating. In our nearest neighbours chimpanzees, males compete for dominance to maintain the unity of the group against threats from neighbouring groups. On the other hand, female chimpanzees primarily associate with their offspring and form alliances to oust newcomers or low-ranking females. It would be surprising if relics of these traits do not persist in humans and cancel culture is perhaps the embodiment of predominantly female aggressive tactics.
There are also, on average, differences in empathy between males and females. Although, some women view this as evidence of their emotional superiority, empathy also has downsides. Women tend to react more strongly to emotionally negative experiences than their male counterparts and use more negative coping strategies such as cognitive rumination to deal with events. This can not solely be attributed to social norms – ‘patriarchy’ if you like. Sex differences in such behaviours are larger in societies with greater relative gender equity.
Reliance on ‘lived experience’ more than empirical evidence is popular with the ‘Social Justice’ movement. It can also be dangerously misleading. We are all tempted to reframe our past so as to amplify the adversity from which our achievements arise. Furthermore, when we recall past memories we are not recalling the event itself but the last time it was remembered and each time a memory is retrieved it is changed, particularly if it is retrieved within a thought framework such as ‘Social Justice Theory’. The tendency to ruminate on past experience is stronger in women for which reasons there will be more at the extremes who over-rely on analysis of their own lived experience and other marginalised groups in their assessment of the surrounding culture at the expense of more empirical methods.
An additional problem is ‘safetyism’. Of course, this isn’t all bad, deaths from accidents and workplace injuries are in decline. However, when that ‘safetyism’ goes on to include hearing opinions you might disagree with and ‘microaggresions’ – that’s when problems begin. This culture of ‘safetyism’ promotes risk-averse behaviour, political correctness and gets in the way of developing resilience and receptiveness to contrary opinions and even demands to suppress language that is perceived as ‘violent’.
Where the extreme end of maleness can mean caring too little about how people feel, caring too much also carries risk if empathy means the denial of objective truth in order not to hurt feelings.
I do not feel I have done justice to this article so I leave you with a direct quote from the final paragraph.
Toxicity resides in individuals, not in groups. Certain traits may be more likely to exist in one sex than the other due to the average psychological differences between them, but what matters, ultimately, is how each individual behaves. In the end, all human virtues can become vices and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all progress.
Go and read the article in Areo.