Taken together, his intolerance seems a textbook case of outwardly directed self-loathing. If a different culture of masculinity had encouraged him to accept his sexuality, would he have had that anger?
“Being able to stockpile weapons and have ever bigger and scarier-looking guns is straightforward and undeniable overcompensation insecure men trying to prove what manly men they are,” writes Marcotte. “This isn’t a discussion being held on the plane of rationality, but a psychological drama about these men’s fears of emasculation.”
This is where the argument risks losing traction, in that it has made men across the Internet defensive. “Not all men” has been a boorish rejoinder to critiques of masculinity, but an informative one. No one wants to be implicated in this violence—not all gun owners, not all bipolar patients, not all people who identify with a religion, and not all men. In each of these cases, the vast majority of the group are people who are humane and compassionate people, horrified by the violence at hand. The worst that can come of any preventive analysis is to further divide people. The danger in analyzing violence, the task before us all, then is in painting too broadly.
Or, at least, in being perceived as painting too broadly.
As President Obama said earlier this month, he can’t discuss gun regulation without people fearing that he means to confiscate all firearms. The author Sam Harris has attempted to deconstruct the role of theology in violent sects and has been labeled a “Muslim-bashing demagogue.” Even Ben Affleck condemned him. It’s just as difficult to talk about mental health care after a shooting, which invites the criticism that mental illness is already stigmatized, and should not be mentioned in conversations of violence. The marginalized status of people with mental illness—like that of people in the U.S. who are not Christian—loads any discussion from the outset.
By comparison, masculinity is straightforward. Men are not the marginalized gender, and much of what we call masculinity is malleable, in many ways learnable and unlearnable. If anyone appears to be condemning masculinity broadly (which Marcotte is elsewhere explicit that she is not), then the discussion devolves. The idea of toxic masculinity is—critically— not a sweeping indictment of bros or gender. It’s an admission that masculinity can be toxic at times.
Toxicity of anything in life is only ever a matter of context. And today’s context is one where a dangerous, militant sect is trying to radicalize volatile people who live in the country where weapons are the most plentiful in the world. Today’s context is that on top of all that, there are men who are full of insecurity and expected to express themselves only in certain, limited ways.
No cause is singular, and each inroad incremental: Preventing firearm abuse does not seem immediately politically realistic; divides created by religions will persist; no system will soon provide comprehensive mental-health care. The arbitrariness and pervasiveness of masculinity, though, make it especially actionable on a personal scale, day to day and minute to minute. It’s probably something between painting your nails and giving up all expectations of control. Though both of those would be fine.