Toxic masculinity and us

It’s time to face the painful societal reality of so many angry and isolated young men


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I met a young man at the pharmacy recently who had his right hand in a cast making a late evening pickup of pain medication with his mother. When asked, he told me he had broken two bones in his right hand by hitting a cement wall in anger. I politely suggested he might find a less painful way to express his anger and wished him well. He smiled that sheepish smile of a 21-year-old, yet I couldn’t help but think of all the young men that express anger in even more dangerous and damaging ways.

There are many issues in American society that we don’t talk about openly or don’t discuss adequately. This election year we have been bombarded with a wide range of emotional and political appeals to our vanity, hopes and fears. But I’m not convinced that we talk about the vital issues that cut to our historical core – race, class, gender and economic inequality to name a few – and these national conversations, if they occur, tend to be shallow and often politicized.

Recently, my family joined hundreds of others in our community to mourn and stand united to honor those who were murdered by one man at a gay night club in Orlando. This tragedy occurred just a short time before two other men with assault weapons ambushed and killed eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

In a short period of time, it felt as though our social fabric was being torn beyond repair. 

Some of these young men may have become recently radicalized jihadists or homegrown racists who target African Americans in a place of worship. Some are combat veterans who targeted police officers in a very public form of suicide, and in Newtown, one young man slaughtered many innocent school children and teachers before killing himself.

The perpetrators are always young men. What exactly is happening that leads young angry men to kill at random and more importantly why?  

There is an obvious lethal combination: easy access to guns, obvious hatred and extreme views and mental health issues. There are troublesome questions lurking beneath the surface. What has happened to these young men who are entering what is supposed to be the prime of their lives? Did people close to them miss the warning signs? Are these murderous incidents reflective of cultural, political, or socio-economic cross currents? And does our country accept and tolerate more mass shootings because of the relatively easy access to guns with greater killing capacity?

We may never find all the answers as to how to prevent mass murders and very public suicides, but I do believe we need to dig deeper as a community and ask better questions about what is happening and why. Perhaps we can start by looking inward to family and home and see what can be done to improve the health of our communities. 

For example, we can ask if young men have positive role models in their lives. Have we made it too hard for men to ask for help? Are we assisting them in developing better coping skills as societal changes relentlessly come? The unmet needs of our returning veterans and other young men, have pushed male suicide rates to epidemic levels.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel has said gender and racial equality have arrived in a flash of historical velocity, and we will all be better for it. “It turns out that gender and racial equality is not only good for people of color and women,” Kimmel has written, “but also good for white people and men – and most of all for our children.”

But “toxic masculinity” has been what Kimmel calls the reaction to societal changes that have left men unfulfilled and as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi described as “Stiffed.”

I recently shared similar remarks to a large audience of women supporters of the NH Women’s Foundation, an organization known for advocating for both genders. I spoke candidly about this painful societal reality and what we could do.

“I would ask that each and every one of you consider taking a young man and consider being his mentor. The women we so want to support need not just strong women and moms at their sides, but partners in the men they often choose to be with. That young man you take under your wing could make a difference – just as all of you have.”

Bowed and nodding heads validated a collective understanding of what needs to be done for both young women – and men. 

Tom Sedoric lives with his family in Rye.

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