In his review of Jared Yates Sexton’s The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making (2019), under the title “World War II’s Poisonous Masculine Legacy,” Josh Cook makes the following statement:
“Some of the racist, sexist, and homophobic vitriol spewed at Trump rallies is performative, spewed by men who did not believe it, or at least with that intensity, but were afraid their masculinity would be questioned if they did not pose as an angry, hateful Trump supporter, who doesn’t care about your feelings. Many of Trump’s supporters engaged in the same kind of pissing contest as internet trolls, where the point was not actually to advance an idea, but to prove how tough you personally are through a specific demonstration of emotional disregard and potential, and occasionally actual, violence.”
This is an important statement — though hardly a novel one, see “Ten Must-Read Books About White Masculinity and the Rise of Trump”.
But what is missing (the elephant in the room), is that Cook’s critiques of performative identity do not address his own performative identity. Read his review, and one is left with the sense Cook is performing the identity of the sensitive (beautiful soul) male who would never advocate violence. The problem here is that this nonviolence seems to be advocated precisely when violence is ethically justified. On the one hand, insistence upon non-violence is one of the hallmarks of cold war (neo)liberalism. On the other hand, advocacy of non-violence as the sole legitimate strategy is both a self-serving myth and a form of liberal blackmail meant to de-legitimate systemic change. This is a problem inscribed in the kind of identity politics that Cook takes as a given, which tend to trivialize the difficulty in switching identities that are adopted unconsciously and pursue a tactic of shaming/guilting opposed groups into submission. Consequently, such “identity politics” tactics simply don’t work at the broader political level particularly when there are real disagreements between social classes:
“As Yuval Harari noted, in his Homo Deus, people feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by 100 to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. When this agreement on basics falters, the only procedures at our disposal are negotiations or (civil) war. That’s why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations.”
This problem with Cook’s analysis is compounded by his rather confused invocation of “abuse” in relation to the concept of “trauma” and, more broadly, using the term “violence” in a way that seems to (purposefully) exclude systemic violence.
Cook seems to argue that “toxic masculinity” performance should be ceased. Aside from the problem of defining exactly what is “toxic” here, or why it is specifically “masculine”, that seems well-meaning. But readers should be questioning the performances that Cook implicitly substitutes because they are just as problematic, and Cook provides no conceptual framework for analyzing the normative ideological battle he fights. He rejects some ideologies and endorses others. But his reasons for choosing one over the other are not explicitly discussed in any way. They are instead naturalized as if they are neutral and unworthy of discussion or potential dispute. Sounds a lot like his point is not actually to advance an idea, but to prove how “sensitive” he personally is through a specific demonstration of alleged moral superiority and a resort to emotional blackmail, coupled with potential/implied coercive ostracism. We see that his objective is not about overcoming social hierarchies but shuffling them like a game of musical chairs. When will Cook be cured of this “chronic illness”? If the goal of ideology is to conceal its aims of domination, then Cook’s analysis is principally ideological, and somewhat totalitarian at that. It is “predicated on the idea that a non-toxic identity and life can be had[,]” but what if “this toxicity is precisely where our humanity, our subjectivity, resides”? In this sense, Cook’s invocation of “toxic masculinity is “a gross oversimplification, with possible quite catastrophic consequences for emancipatory movements.” The more urgent point is the one Henry Giroux later made (drawing on the notion of victimhood status under neoliberal capitalism):
“At its heart, the alignment of white masculinity with the racist discourse of hate and xenophobia has to be condemned while also understood as a mode of depoliticization. As a mode of depoliticization, this script of victimhood robs poor and middle-class whites of their sense of agency and possibilities for individual and collective resistance against the very forces of structured inequality and economic and social abandonment produced by neoliberalism.
“This is particularly true for segments of the white male population who are constantly being told that they are the victims of a society that increasingly privileges racial and ethnic minorities.
“Susceptible to calls by demagogues to express their anger and resentment at the societal selfishness, greed, and materialism that surrounds them, many white males have found a sense of identification and community in the racist, sexist and xenophobic appeals of a range of current demagogues that include Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, and Erdoğan. While I don’t want to excuse the poisonous politics at work here and its dangerous flirtation with a kind of fascistic irrationality and the toxic pleasures of authoritarianism, the white males seduced by the pleasures of a toxic authoritarianism need to be addressed in a language that not only speaks to the roots of their fears and economic securities, but also as Michael Lerner has brilliantly noted, to those fundamental psychological and spiritual needs that have been hijacked by a ruthless capitalist disimagination machine.
“The pain and suffering of different groups under neoliberalism has to be understood not through shaming whites or other supporters of a fascist politics, but through efforts to unite these disillusioned groups across race, gender, and class divides.”
In other words this fits into a de-politicization (or “university discourse”) based on envy, with fetishist enjoyment of impotent rage proffered as a kind of bribe to accept a destructive social structure. Or basically what the French have long called ressentiment. But class struggle is an alternative to this populist temptation.