Toxic masculinity is harming politics and wider society - Noel McDermott

We can say with certainty that we’ve seen a great deal of ‘toxic masculinity’ in the Houses of Parliament and Government of late, with a stream of tales of drinking, sexualised behaviours and outright misogynistic press briefings raising serious questions about the culture of the place.

Pic: PA.
Pic: PA.

All of these behaviours can and often are linked to the ideas around toxic masculinity and it’s disturbing to see them in the seat of UK power.

The term has come to describe behaviours and attitudes associated with a form of masculinity that has in effect not grown with the times and where ideas of power, dominance and control sit at the centre of relationships to others.

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It is often used to describe exaggerated negative masculine traits.

Men who avoid showing emotions are damaging their own mental health and in turn this can have major consequences for themselves, their relationships and society as a whole.

Any weakness is seen as a negative and often perceived as relating to femininity. Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, including the men who ascribe to it and the boys who are taught it.

What seems to be emerging is what might be termed a ‘canteen culture’ which is often a term used to describe bullying in the police and other institutions.

In the Met, serious questions have been raised about dangerous misogyny with the death of Sarah Everard.

On the world stage, we can look at the war launched against Ukraine through this lens. Here we have a man asserting his toxic beliefs of supremacy, power and control.

Thankfully the Putins, Trumps and indeed lesser figures of our times represent the minority of toxic males.

These men got to the top, but can be seen to be fundamentally flawed.

Most toxic antisocial male behaviours lead only to personal harm, harm to others and in many cases the criminal justice system. From a psychological perspective we understand these behaviours as being essentially anti-social and reflecting a deep inability to connect with others, to find safety in the herd.

As humans we have two aspects of our survival that need to work together.

The first is our fundamental social nature which means from birth we are dependent on the care of others for our survival and for our neurological, biological, emotional, and psychological growth and development.

The second is our in-built individual threat response to immediate danger, the so-called fight or flight response.

One takes us towards others, and one takes us away from others. The move towards others for survival is known as pro-social behaviours. The move towards self-preservation is called antisocial behaviour. Pro-social behaviours are the type of behaviours that have essentially created the world we live in. If you’re reading this on a smart phone for example, then you are holding a practical example of what the human capacity to be pro-social and organise into very complex social groups can achieve.

The threat of toxic masculinity is precisely that, it hijacks the second process codifying a status hierarchy which needs scapegoats and victims. Anyone who has experienced a canteen culture will tell you it is not a safe place. Lack of safety produces unsafe behaviours. What we are witnessing in parliament in the Met, in Ukraine isn’t though a theoretical problem, it’s a parenting issue. It’s our boys who will be receiving messages suggesting that antisocial behaviours are okay and lead to success. So, what can we do?

First, we must recognise that as parents even while we maybe become jaded to the antics of our leaders, we don’t lose sight of the messages our kids are picking up.

Our daughters may be learning they are targets and at risk, our sons may be learning the world is a dangerous place and only the strong survive, but we can challenge that. Seeing these issues allows us to take time with our children to develop their positive pro-social learning. Here a few ideas:

Set aside time to look at these broader issues with your kids. With your boys find time to let them talk about fear, anger, and power. Boys who become men need to learn what to do with aggression

Girls need time to explore with you that in truth the people who represent risk to them are the people they know. It is not always strangers that attack girls and women, it’s boys and men they know.

Developing and supporting this type of learning in the family sets the scene for your children successfully navigating them in the world.

- Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with more than 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education.