Right now, we are changing for the better
There is no more fitting poster boy for toxic masculinity than President Trump, ushered into office in spite of being caught on a hot mic boasting about his ability to “grab women by the pussy.” Under his leadership, we have lived the consequences of a value system that prioritizes dominance above all else, where might makes right and the weak are challenged to toughen up or be eaten alive. Nowhere is this more evident than President Trump’s scoffing at the wearing of masks in the face of a global pandemic. ‘Wear a mask to protect older or sicker folks?’ he seems to telegraph, ‘That’s for sissies!’
By contrast, President-elect Joe Biden, a guy’s guy who started fights in the school-yard when kids made fun of his stutter, has been softened by a lifetime of tragedy. At age 29, in the weeks before his swearing in, he would lose his beloved first wife Neilia and their 13-month old daughter Naomi, becoming at once a Senator and a single father. Biden famously traveled from Washington DC to Delaware in order to put his boys Beau and Hunter to bed every night. Tragedy struck again in 2015, when Beau’s life was cut short by brain cancer. Born a man not afraid to stand up to a bully, Biden’s life experiences taught him compassion.
But, it was the public display of emotion from another man, Van Jones, live on air at CNN as that network called the election in favor of Biden/Harris, that best captures the transformation possible in this precise historical moment.
The 2020 election in the US was decided thanks in no small part to the disciplined work of Black women, especially former GA State Senator Stacey Abrams, but it was a groundswell of activism in defense of black men’s lives that inspired liberals to take to the streets. The tears of a strong black man as he remarked, “You know, it wasn’t only George Floyd who couldn’t breathe…” are the purifying waters that can wash America clean.
Since the days of slavery, the embodiment of criminality in America has been the image of the strong black man. Demonized by white society, he was feared as being all-powerful, sexual and untamed. This caricature is the criminalized extreme of masculinity. The differences between attributes of male charisma that have long been the ingredients of success for rich, white men — confidence, sexual magnetism, height and a strong physique — are contextual, not fundamental. In white men, these attributes earn you the presidency; in black men, prison. Black men, stereotypically, are the most manly of men, so much so that their behavior crosses the threshold from powerful to deviant.
As lawyer, scholar and activist Bryan Stevenson explains, 1 in 3 black men in America today is either in prison or on parole, and the history of policing in America cannot be understood without also understanding Reconstruction.
Scholar and activist Jaron Browne elaborates:
Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture, referred to as corporal or capital punishment. While the model prison in the United States was built in Auburn, New York in 1817, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War, with the official abolition of slavery, that the prison system took hold. In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.
Fear of black men in America is so deep-seated that police violence against them is a leading cause of death. Over the course of their lives, 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. As boys, young black men are taught strategies for projecting calm if and when they are pulled over by police, as to not inadvertently frighten the officer, thereby causing him to shoot.
Such fear is so extreme that Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, the police officer who murdered Breonna Taylor earlier this year has brought suit against Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. The suit says Walker’s conduct when responding to plain-clothed police officers entering his home brandishing guns was, “outrageous, intolerable and offends all accepted standards of decency and morality.” Mattingly, the officer, is claiming that Walker’s conduct caused him trauma and mental anguish, even though it was Walker’s girlfriend Breonna Taylor who was murdered that day.
Toxic masculinity and the systemic racism entrenched in the US prison and policing systems are linked. The power that animates them is the same and America will have to deal with both if it wants to truly be the land of the free. It is for this reason that Van Jones’s tears are both moving and transformational. The vulnerability of this most powerful black man is healing for all of us. In crying with him, we feel our humanity and we stretch the limiting notions of masculinity that have been strangling men for so long.
At its heart, toxic masculinity stems from the myth that emotion is feminine and that displays of emotion are antithetical to power. Following the publication of guidelines for psychologists working with boys and men, the American Psychological Association explains: “Traits of so-called “traditional masculinity,” like suppressing emotions & masking distress, often start early in life & have been linked to less willingness by boys & men to seek help, more risk-taking & aggression — possibly harming themselves & those with whom they interact.” Humans feel. Men included. But displaying the full range of human emotion has long been antithetical to the male gender code, policed by phrases like “Man up.” and “Crying is for sissies.”
Gender codes notwithstanding, loss is the great equalizer. No person, no matter their privilege is spared its wrath.
What is more, feeling our heartbreak links us with all who suffer. Empathy is the greatest of human super-powers, inspiring our ancestors to band together in tribes in order to fight off predators and linking communities across great geographical distances, in spite of a lack of shared language and culture. What is more, empathy is the key to overcoming the pandemic and saving the planet, as we must care about one another’s fate in order to work together.
Whether due to an antisocial personality disorder or a life of extreme privilege, over the course of his career Trump has displayed a profound lack of empathy for those in his wake, evicting the poor to build high-rises and scamming students out of thousands though his for-profit Trump University. By contrast, Joe Biden is a man of profound empathy, remarking in his own Huffington Blog Post on how his daily Amtrak rides shaped him, “”It has provided me another family entirely — a community of dedicated professionals who have shared the milestones in my life, and who have allowed me to share the milestones in theirs.” His own suffering has opened him to seeing the suffering of others.
Van Jones’s tears, on live, national television bring the difference between these two men into sharp relief, and they remind us that our healing must begin by healing the stains of slavery that darken America to this day. In so doing, we are learning the lesson, little by little, that all men feel and cry, and that the shedding of such tears can join us to one another, expanding compassion and helping us to feel one another’s pain.