Tuesday 23 July 2019

Niamh Horan: 'Just as a 'toxic' man can prove heroic, many women can hide a shadow side'

One man has proven the critics of 'toxic' masculinity wrong, and we don't even know his name, writes Niamh Horan

An off-duty SAS soldier leads a woman to safety after the Nairobi attack. Photo: Reuters
An off-duty SAS soldier leads a woman to safety after the Nairobi attack. Photo: Reuters
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Last Wednesday afternoon, an unnamed man was shopping in Nairobi when he received word that a nearby hotel was under siege by Islamist terrorists.

Dressed only in jeans, a charcoal shirt and runners, the off-duty SAS soldier sprinted to his car and armed himself with a rifle, a side weapon and a knife for hand-to-hand combat.

The clock was ticking, and his usual protection gear not at hand, so he could do nothing but pull a flimsy-material balaclava over his face before rushing into the fire-fight.

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Minutes later he emerged, leading civilians to safety while word spread that his heroics had saved countless lives.

It was with great irony that the tale of this man's brave actions made headlines around the world on the same day that columnists and social media debated whether or not we should exorcise a list of so-called toxic masculine traits from men and boys.

The debate follows a report by the American Psychological Association (APA), which has condemned traditional masculinity as 'harmful' and called for certain characteristics to be expunged.

Traits like 'stoicism', 'competitiveness', 'aggressiveness', 'dominance', 'eschewal of the appearance of weakness' and 'risk'.

Basically, all the traits that were displayed by our Nairobi hero.

Police survey the aftermath. Photo: Reuters
Police survey the aftermath. Photo: Reuters

Labels are dangerous. They satisfy society's need to simplify people. To put their behaviours into boxes marked 'good' and 'bad' in order to make better sense of the world and separate ourselves from anything that makes us uncomfortable or which we find difficult to understand. One man's madness is another's idea of genius, as they say.

You would think then that the APA would have had the nuanced thinking to understand this when deciding if a particular trait is a vice or virtue. It is not about the trait, per se, but how it is used? And for what purposes?

Take aggressiveness. Most of us learned to view it as an unacceptable emotion. Instead we were encouraged to behave courteously and to always be agreeable in order to get by in the world.

But what about positive aggression? The kind that fires up a sportsman to compete, or helps a businessman crush their competition and secure a deal? Channelled in the right direction, it enables a person to be assertive, independent and achieve a mastery over themselves and their passion.

Likewise, with stoicism, how many women have bemoaned men who show little in the way of emotion? We are constantly urging them to 'open up'. Yet emotional detachment can help a person stay calm and brave in the face of anxiety and pain. It is the perfect anecdote in uncertain times, a protection against sleepless nights in an otherwise cruel and changing world.

Most women seem better able to talk about feelings on a daily basis but the added benefit of not being an 'open book' is that - on the rare occasions a stoic person does discuss his feelings - people are more likely to listen.

Go through the rest of the list and we can see how each 'toxic' trait actually aids mankind's two basic needs: survival and sexual reproduction. There's a reason that, for thousands of years, the alpha-male has been sought by women and envied by men and continue to dominate the top of the food chain. You want them to just easily give that up?

The other side of the coin is that - if this dissection of men's characters is an acceptable development in mental health - then surely women should be subjected to the same scrutiny.

So what are the traits of 'toxic' femininity? If we are to hold women accountable for poor behaviour associated with their gender, we would need to look at behaviour that is far subtler and insidious.

It's important to say here 'not all women' but what about some women's tendencies to allow their passivity to maintain certain abusive power structures? When they look the other way from abuses committed by the men in their lives - even towards their own children - in order to keep the family together?

Or what about their ability to employ victimhood to control men or avoid responsibility in personal relationships? To use emotional manipulation or their sexuality to get men to do their bidding? Or their passive aggressive tendencies to spread rumours in order to undermine, degrade and undercut another women in their social circle? Some of the most toxic competition occurs between women competing for status.

In 2017 a study in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science showed that women are far more likely to use nasty gossip to compete for a man's attention. Their behaviours are often perpetuated by other women who want to keep in favour with their friends.

When women use aggression it is also deployed in a more devious and underhand manner.

In 2016 a study conducted by Plymouth University found that young women with high emotional intelligence (EI) are more likely to use manipulative behaviours, resulting in a greater engagement in delinquency.

As Dr Alison Bacon, lecturer in psychology, who led the study explained: "It's an interesting line of research to follow, given that very little work has been conducted on EI and what it might facilitate in terms of non-prosocial behaviour."

When you consider how research has shown that women consistently outperform men on nearly all emotional intelligence measures, Dr Bacon's findings are even more unsettling.

In 2016, research, conducted by the Korn Ferry Hay Group, used data from 55,000 professionals in 90 countries.

They found that in 11 of 12 "emotional intelligence competencies" women outperformed men. Do men even stand a chance against the more socially sophisticated ways of a woman?

Perhaps, then, a better way for discussions on gender and behaviour is to employ a more balanced approach.

To realise that both men and women have the ability to weaponise even traditionally virtuous traits for their own toxic ends.

No man, or woman, should ever be put in a box labelled all 'good' or 'bad' - we all have our shadow side - but as Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung pointed out: "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

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