Those who study “inflected” languages such as Latin soon confront the problem of modifiers. Once you realize that the genitive “Marius” is modifying the nominative “book” (“the book of Marius”) then you must ask whether the book was written by Marius, belongs to Marius, or is about Marius. So too, in English, when you say, “Silly men don’t ask for directions,” the question is whether you mean “Men who are silly don’t ask for directions” or “Men, who are silly (as a group), don’t ask for directions.” Vocally you could indicate this by saying, “Silly men don’t ask for directions” (are you one of that kind?), or “Silly men never ask for directions.”
All of this might seem fussy and pedantic until we come across the sort of confusion generated by Gillette’s new “Toxic Masculinity” ad. Is masculinity what’s toxic? Or is there a special category of toxic masculinity? I haven’t seen the Gillette ad, so I have no idea. Nor would I turn to an advertisement to get my ideas about “masculinity.” What am I supposed to say to my friends with beards? “Hey, Gillette says that real men shave!” I don’t think so. But having not seen the commercials, I have nothing to say about them.
I also have nothing to say about the dispute the ads have generated among people who care about such things, other than to take this occasion to point out that grammar and logic matter. So why aren’t we teaching them? You want better civic discussions? Then you have to give people the tools to engage in them.
Gillette has made the usual apologia for the controversy, claiming that they have done a service by “generating an important discussion.” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comments about letting a child born alive die “generated an important discussion,” but that didn’t make those comments any less odious or repulsive.
You wonder what the response would have been if the ad had been called “Toxic Femininity.” Would the same people now be saying that it generated a helpful discussion or would they be demanding the heads of the people at the offending company?
I don’t think femininity is toxic, and I actually have no idea what a toxic femininity would be, but I gave this column that title just to test the proposition. Be honest: were you extremely offended by that title in a way you simply weren’t by the words “toxic masculinity”?
I don’t know what it would mean if you did, but it might be worth thinking about. I am, after all, simply trying to generate a useful discussion.
Serena Sigillito has written a very good piece on the “toxic masculinity”  brouhaha, pointing out that, “as distasteful as the term may initially seem to conservatives, the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ shouldn’t be alien to those who adhere to traditional norms of morality.”
Indeed, there used to be a term for a young man who had learned the appropriate sort of behavior he ought to show others, whether they were parents, teachers, the elderly, his fellow workers, or women he didn’t know well. It was called “being a gentleman.” Mothers and fathers would say to their teenaged boys: “Be a gentleman!”
Now people mock that idea. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” If “being a gentleman” seems too quaint and Victorian, then perhaps the Gillette people could have said something like this: “Hey, guys, the country needs men, not adolescent boys.”
I would not be the first person to note the critical lack of eligible men available to date all the beautiful, talented, and very eligible women I know. The endless horror stories of women who have ventured onto Catholic Match.com suggests that Catholic men are not doing much better than their secular counterparts.
Catholics are right to be critical of the forces of society when they persist in ignoring the basic principles of nature about our embodied existence and about the relationship between sex and families. But are there some other enduring truths about the nature of human development we are ignoring?
So, let’s review. Human beings are biologically “adult” (meaning they can reproduce the species) at roughly 14 or 15 – women sometimes a little earlier, men a little later. Wise cultures find ways to make these young adults capable of taking on adult responsibility, especially with regard to marriage and family; unwise cultures who don’t suffer the consequences.
We, especially from the 1950s on, have simply decided to suffer the consequences. We created “adolescence,” an absolutely absurd construction of a developmental stage where emerging adults are given all the freedoms of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. And we’re surprised when problems arise?
Instead of doing what wise cultures do, which is to take “young adults” and make sure they spend their time with actual adults so that they can learn the disciplines and virtues they need to take on adult responsibilities and manage adult freedom, we have our young adults spend all their time with other young adults, who are mostly as clueless as they are, doing mostly childish things.
Don’t get the young women in my classes started on the young men at the university, their addictions to video gaming, texting, and social media, and their inability to carry on an actual conversation with an actual, living, intelligent woman.
What do I propose? The “Dating Project” at Boston College is a good idea. Training young men and women in ballroom dancing would be another. But nothing is going to work very well until we stop treating our “emerging adults” like children and start incorporating them into adult society.
If you want adult men, then you need boys to spend time with responsible, mature adult men, probably working. Teens spending all their time with teens is a recipe for disaster. It creates – pardon the expression – toxic teens.
*Image: Amazon Woman by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, 1812 [private collection]