February-cartoonIn what passes for popular discourse these days, it has become increasingly common to accuse an intellectual adversary of being in the thrall of a conspiracy theory. The charge has become a convenient way to malign anyone outside of a carefully curated and ever-narrowing range of acceptable beliefs. The clear implication behind this charge is that a serious exchange with someone so compromised by credulity or debilitated by paranoia or persecution is pointless. And yet this very charge is never leveled against those who harbour the most deep-seated suspicion about society and its organization. While we can easily dismiss putative “explanations” of the moon landing or 9/11, theories about the social construction of gender—which involve even more absurd claims about an even more extensive set of conspiracies—are pervasive in the academy, culture, and government policy.

The theory goes something like this: every social arrangement which is tainted, to any degree, by inequality, injustice, or oppression is not only contingent upon, but contrived, the product of those who have cunningly perpetuated these systemic exploitations for their benefit. If the accused architect of these exploitative social structures was a secret society or a racial minority, the theory would be a laughingstock. But, somehow, because respected scholars, using this preposterous hypothesis to explain everything from capitalism to familial structures, have laid the blame at the feat of a nebulous, trans-historical “patriarchy,” students, citizens, and politicians nod soberly when such fictions are proposed. The very same voices who would immediately decry any doubts about vaccines are willing to entertain the possibility that the fundamental basis of the culture that produced such medical advances is a fraudulent farce premised only on power.

These preposterous theories, however, apply only to those who advance them: for radical, norm-busting social activists, everything really is about power. And, given enough of it, they truly believe that reality can be aggressively reinterpreted and entirely redefined. Thus have their social theories led to an extensive social experiment, a sustained campaign of denormalizing all of the givens that undergird our social order.

One of the most obvious examples of this corrosive social experiment is the discourse about “toxic masculinity.” The trope of toxicity has recently been repeated by multinational corporations like Gillette, professional organizations like the American Psychological Association, and political leaders like Justin Trudeau.

Gillette released an ad last month that suggested all men are cruel, bullying, sexual harassers. Even if the commercial was criticizing only those men who carry out such odious behavior – as its defenders insist it does — such is the zeitgeist in 2019 that the ad seemed like an attack on all males; days later, the Egard Watch Company responded with an emotional online ad (called “It’s time to stop tearing each other down”) that recognized the virtues and vulnerabilities of men.

The exclamation mark on the point Gillette made was the American Psychological Association’s guidelines for psychologists on dealing with “traditional masculinity.” Gender stereotypes, the APA insists, harm women and men; the “protector” role easily leads to power imbalances and abuse, while “traditional masculinity ideology” stunts the emotional growth of boys and reinforces gender conflicts. It turns a virtue like courage into a vice that oppresses women.

Lastly, we have Justin Trudeau who said in an interview in December at the G20 summit in Argentina that “there are impacts when you bring construction workers into a rural area – there are social impacts because they are mostly male construction workers.” The CBC’s Katie Simpson reported that Trudeau used the term “toxic masculinity” and offered as an example the idea that men “have to be the leader of the home.” Jamil Jivani wrote in the Globe and Mailthere is “no positive masculinity that can be gleaned from the Prime Minister’s sentiments,” adding: “there is only talk about where men might be going wrong.”

In effect, companies like Gillette, organizations like the APA, and politicians like our Prime Minister have signed on to the “flat earth” theory of gender: everything solid that science and experience tell us about male bodies and souls will melt into thin air if only a single generation of boys is retrained. If traditional masculinity can be pathologized thoroughly enough, it would simply disappear.

Undergirding this preposterous theory is a particular kind of female fantasy: the excesses of the male character can be curbed by the shrewd schoolmarm’s intervention. But, instead of Beauty and the Beast being played out on a social scale, we find, instead, the transformation of culture into a cartel of Orwellian conformity, one which colludes to punish wrongthink.

The real toxin currently circulating in our body politic is “toxic masculinity” itself. Tellingly, the Greek word, toxon, refers to the bow that would send infected arrows at the enemy; the source of the poison is the person wielding the weapon. The same is true of our current convulsions about these topics. The loudest voices in our culture—for whom culture really is just the arena of an endless power struggle—are spreading their own sickness by means of this very discourse.

At a time when authentic masculinity is in desperately short supply, the destructive theories of radical social activists have made it almost impossible to diagnose this lack. Instead, masculinity itself has been denormalized and demonized— and institutions and individuals been coopted into extending this stigma to all spheres of culture. The real danger of this sustained campaign again men is its very success: the contagious resentment which is being trained on them might ultimately infect them. Then, in the absence of any positive models of manhood to emulate, a truly toxic version of masculinity may well emerge.

However, the long, bitter war against reality that these radical social activists are waging will only become more intense as their desired results prove elusive. Their theories cannot be brought into being by sheer, shrill insistence. In reality, as they say, bats last.