Toxic Masculinity


Today’s sermon was going to be rather different. I wanted to talk about men shrugging off the chains of societal pressure and daring to live a more authentic, more meaningful, life. I wanted to explore a healthier masculinity, discuss how I almost missed my kids’ entire childhood, and explore at least one path back into right relationship with community. It had Friederich Nietzsche and an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. It would have been a great sermon. Very uplifting. You all would have been amazed. Next time.

But the events in Parkland, with 17 more students and teachers dead, have left me with a hole in my heart and I just can’t stop poking at it, so I hope you’ll pardon my slight change in direction this morning.

Like many of you, I found the events in Parkland, like the 29 other such events since January 1st, unfathomable. And, like many of you, I find our response as a nation, likewise, unfathomable. Frustrating and unfathomable. I am sad. And yes, I’m at least a little scared for myself, my family, my friends. For you. And I’m worried, too. I’m worried about how many of are so angry, and so filled with rage, and scorn, and cynicism. I want you to know that I hear you. And, at least in part, I understand.

But this is not a new problem. And no, I don’t mean mass shootings. I think mass shootings are a symptom. We are not, as I read earlier this week, in the middle of some kind of epidemic of violence. An epidemic is something new. An invader that seeks to enter an existing culture and destroy it. That’s not what’s happening here, because “toxic masculinity” is not an invader. It isthe culture.

And that’s what I feel we need to talk about today.

First, I want to remind you of an event we held here at UUCR last fall, where we were host to Rev Rob Keithans, the community minister from All Souls in DC. Rev Keithans helped us take a hard look at white supremacy, both in our culture and in ourselves. Those of you that joined us for that talk will remember him talking about the relationship of culture to system. He told us that unless we also tackle the culture that gave rise to some specific system of oppression, changing or even dismantling that system is always a temporary fix. This attempt to change culture is why we hold vigils. This is why we do teach-ins. This is why NFL players took a knee during the anthem. It’s why Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism asked us to hold the “Promise and the Practice of our Faith” service, where Rev Debra and I shared and centered the stories of our neighbors in our UU faith who also happened to be people of color. This is why Rev Debra spoke out last fall about the #MeToo movement. So that’s why, today, we’re talking about culture. Because culture eats system for breakfast. And until and unless we start acknowledging the culture of toxic masculinity, we’re never going to be successful at having a national debate about guns. And it’s also why “system changes” like “common sense gun laws” and “assault weapons bans”, will never be more than a “good start”.

Wikipedia tells us that “toxic masculinity” is an adherence to stereotyped male gender roles, that it restricts the range of emotions that is it socially acceptable for boys and men to express to just ‘anger’, and is marked by socially negative effects like misogyny, dysfunction, violence, and self-destructiveness. This reads like a pathologist’s report, a clinical analysis you might find in an abnormal psychology textbook. To me, it also sounds a lot like Monday morning.

And as many of you know, before I came to UUCR as your student minister, I was a corporate executive. I spent 21 years in Fortune 100 companies. I managed teams and I sold multi-million-dollar projects and systems to other people like me all over the world. All of the companies I worked for were Silicon Valley tech companies, or emulated them, and it never occurred to me that “bro culture” was not how professional men talked and behaved. On any given day, chances were quite high that I had at least one conference call. And if I was on a conference call, chances were also quite high that I was listening to a sexist joke, a sexist story, or a sexist insult, any or all of which might be offered in the spirit of camaraderie, of solidarity, of boys-being-boys – you know, “locker room talk” – before we settled down to bore the snot out of each other discussing spreadsheets. I remember those phone calls. And I remember doing nothing. I didn’t stop those men. I certainly didn’t report their behavior to human resources. I just shrugged it off, kept my head down, and did my job.

The question of “why” is an important one. My failure to call out the blatant misogyny pervasive in tech and sales culture didn’t make me any kind of exception to the rule. The fact of pervasive misogyny in tech is a well-known and well-documented problem. For me in the 1990’s, it was the status quo. I like to think that the aughts were better and the teens better still, but I have no idea. Because I think by the end of that part of my life, I was simply unable to see it any longer. It was just in the air. Invisible to me. And, if I’m being honest, as a male this behavior didn’t affect me. Male silence – our silence, my silence – may not be because we don’t care. In many cases, silence is the result of a calculation – perhaps an unconscious one, that is an answer to the question: “is speaking up worth losing my status, getting marginalized, getting left out, getting left behind, getting fired?” And I remember that discomfort, sitting on those conference calls. I remember what happened to men that “don’t fit the group dynamic”, that “aren’t team players”, that “don’t embody our corporate culture”. Sooner or later, we got fired, downsized, or laid off. As my Executive VP used to say, “we have to manage them out”.

I hope that at least some of you are familiar with my personal hero, the scientist and storyteller Dr Brene Brown. If you haven’t recently done so, go watch her 12-minute TED talk. In fact, take that as homework – this week, go online to TED-dot-com and watch her talk. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Dr Brown’s breakthrough work is on the subject of human connection. For Brown, connection “is what gives meaning and purpose in our lives”. Connection. The ties that bind. Community. Why? She continues “it’s partly because we are neuro-biologically hardwired for belonging and connection. We’re hardwired to want it, and need it so much, that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.” Dr Brown has a name for our existential fear of disconnection. She calls it “shame”, and she describes it this way: “is there something about me that, that if other people know it or see it, I will be unworthy of connection”. Dr Brown goes on to say that “shame is universal. No one wants to talk about it and the less you talk about it the more you have it.”

You have shame. I have shame. Women have shame. Men never talk about it, so they must have lots of shame. Even little kids have shame. And yes, little boys are taught it, too.

Let’s do a quick survey for all the men and male identifying individuals out there: when was the last time you cried? And I don’t mean snuffling at a sappy commercial, or howling when you stepped on a pile of Legos, or whimpering at writing that last check to the IRS. I mean really crying. Where you were picked you up, swept over the cliff, and dumped into the sea. A weeping, that left you bruised and tender and aching and limp and exhausted. An experience where you had no control. That kind of cry.

Anyone? Maybe a couple of you. Maybe some of you have, but don’t want to share. I can respect that. I also suspect some men out there are wondering what I’m getting at. What’s the point. No, I don’t cry like that. I used to, sure. But I’m not a little boy anymore. I’m a man and a real man doesn’t cry.

How old were you when someone first told you to “be a man”? To “gut it up”. When someone first said: “Stop crying. Don’t cry. Stop with the emotions. Pick yourself up. Don’t be a baby. Grow some balls. Man up. Act like a man. Don’t tattle. Don’t back down. Stand up. Fight back. Be a man.” I bet most of you can’t remember that first time. But you might remember the lasttime. That was when you finally learned to take those feelings of hurt, feelings of isolation, of loneliness, of disconnection, and ignore them. To push them down, or at least, away. Because it’s safer to have no feelings at all. Look at the men on TV and in the movies. Stoic. Resolved. Angry, and ready to do something about it. These are the men that men look up to. Not confused. Not conflicted. Not wounded. Not sad. Not lonely. Not alienated. Men don’t look up to figures that embody those emotions. Men don’t look up to weakness.

For this week’s sermon, I watched “The Mask You Live In” on Netflix, and I owe our amazing RE Director thanks for that recommendation. In the movie, a sports coach ties shame to weakness, and suggests that you can see this in boys by heading over to any group at any lunch-time recess and start a fight by asking a single question: “Who’s the sissy around here?” The resulting fight is a blatant aversion to showing weakness and an expression of the need to appear strong in the eyes of other boys. This is what organizes and regulates many of these peer groups. They rank themselves by shame. Police each other through shame. And boys that fail to play along risk losing status and membership.

What happens to people that are stifled like this? Studies are showing that young males more readily turn alcohol and drug use to numb their pain and their fear and their loneliness. Because it’s precisely in those moments of excess where their opportunities lie for lowering barriers, for genuine expressions of emotion, for bonding. That is, the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs is the one context in their social experience where many males actually feel free to express their emotions. (“I love you, man!”). Should we be surprised that males are also twice as likely to die by overdose?

Alienation from your emotions apparently takes a toll. Nationwide, only 70 percent of boys, compared with 80 percent of girls, graduate on time. When it comes to dropouts, the rates are 50% higher for boys than girls. Boys are two times more likely to be in special education. Three times more likely to get diagnosed with ADHD. Two times more likely to be suspended. Four times more likely to be expelled.

Alienation from your emotions is hazardous to your health. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide. Men die, on average, 10 years younger than women. Men are almost twice as likely to die from heart disease, and twice as likely to die from cancer.

Alienation from your emotions doesn’t leave you with a lot of options. If your peer group only recognizes or encourages anger as your one valid emotional response, externalizing emotions is not going to go well. Are you upset? Get angry. Are you afraid? Get angry. Are you hurt, or lonely, or frustrated? Get angry. It’s a short step from being angry all the time to doing angry things. When something bad happens to you, maybe you need to do something bad to someone else. Maybe you should avenge your humiliation and shame.

Which brings me to the single most glaring fact of all about violence. 90% of murders are committed by males. And yes, 94% of mass shootings are also committed by males.

I think it’s probably time to start talking about solutions. For our government, specifically, it’s quite a bit past time. But I want to honor some of the challenge that we all face when talking about our culture and how toxic masculinity seems wound through it. The point is, this is going to be hard, and despite all temptations to the contrary, there really does not appear to be any “silver bullet” that would solve all of our problems at one stroke. Even saying that out loud makes me cringe. Silver bullet. As if our problems were werewolves, and as if shooting our problems wasn’t exactly how we got into today’s topic in the first place. Even framing the problem in such a way that it seems able to be solved simply does injustice to the problem. Because not only are there never any silver bullets; undoing toxic masculinity and the culture that hides it and keeps it flourishing isn’t the work of a single person, or a single program, or single law, or even the work of a single lifetime.

I want to add just a bit more before we go. Because as we commit to the work of changing the culture, there are things some specific things we can do. Things that, I believe, can lead to lasting, positive change.

We need to stop yelling at each other and still find a way to actually connect with each other. We need common sense gun laws and improvements to our mental healthcare system. We need responsive legislators and a willingness to accept that any progress is going to be imperfect and incremental. We need to dismantle systems that oppress women, people of color, the LGBTQI community, and men.

We need to do all of the things. And while, yes, it would be great if toxic masculinity were a simple problem, with a straightforward solution, perhaps we first need to get comfortable with the idea that it’s going to be hard and messy. These problems that we face are what they are and they are is what they’ve always been – complex. And complex is okay. Complex is just another way of saying “human”. Human, just like the face that stares back at you from the mirror.

I also want to say that it’s not a matter of replacing “male” for “female”, that it’s not a choice between “patriarchy” as bad and “matriarchy” as good. I want to say that, aside from being exclusionary to those of us that don’t identify with one extreme or another on the binary scale for gender, this is just a system-level change. We ought to tackle the culture that gave rise the system in the first place. Because culture eats system for breakfast.

So, how can we start changing the culture? Maybe a start would be to swap the question of “how to be a man” for “how to be a human”.

In your homework – you remember your homework – go listen to a TED Talk? – in your homework, you’ll hear Dr Brown talk about connection. About how we all crave it, how we all fail to get it, and how we all might still reclaim it. How we do that – regardless of sex or gender, how we do that as humans– that seems like a great way to close this out for now.

Dr Brown tells us that the first step to meaningful connection is to understand – deeply understand — that you are worthy of love and connection. Let me say that again. You are worthy of love and connection. [Pointing] You are. And you are. And you are. All of us are. For those of you keeping score, the first of the Unitarian Universalist principles says, “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.” That’s where we as UU’s start. That is our culture. Happily, that’s where Dr Brown calls us to start from.

The next step is a big one, is also not specific to sex or gender. That step is this: let yourself be known. All of you. The real you. And yes, this can be terrifically scary. But scary is okay. Don’t worry about being good at it! “Being you” is not a competitive sport. It’s about opening up and being vulnerable. Being vulnerable is absolutely critical; as Dr Brown says, vulnerability is the birthplace of truly authentic belonging.

The last thing is something I hope you all already know. My hope is that someone, somewhere, has already you those three, simple, empowering words. No, I don’t mean “I love you”, though those are awesomely empowering words. I mean these three: “You are enough”. And if no has ever said them to you, let me tell you right now, right here, you are whole right now, right now, with every single one of your glorious imperfections. You are enough.

These three things – worthiness, vulnerability, wholeness – have the feel and the power of magic. Use them. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell yourself. May we feel them tingle on our skin, and may they sink deep into our bones. Connection is what we all crave. It’s what we all need. And it’s here. In this room. I can only imagine what that magic might look like if were to root and spread. What kind of culture would that be?

May it be so. And may all those who wander, lost and disconnected, lay down their pain, unburden themselves of their hurt, and find compassion and connection.

I am so very grateful to be on this journey with you all.

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