A review of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank, St. Martin’s Press (September 2019) 336 pages.
“There is no greater threat to humankind,” Liz Plank announces on the first page of her book For the Love of Men, “Than our current definitions of masculinity.” A bold claim. “Toxic masculinity,” Plank claims, underpins vast amounts of suffering across the globe.
Lest this introduction lead one to expect an anti-male screed, Plank is at pains to insist that many of the victims of “toxic masculinity” are men themselves. Who could claim that masculinity cannot be problematic? Men are undeniably responsible for most of the rape and murder in the world, and suicide claims a disproportionate number of male lives. The male bias towards camouflaging vulnerability—expressed, for example, in men’s disproportionate unwillingness to address potential health problems, be they mental or physical—was more adaptive when familial life depended on men getting up to work and fight every day of every week, but it is less so in our more comfortable times.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, may be surprised to find some common ground with Plank’s emphasis on the importance of fathers playing a role in the lives of their children. She scorns egoistic promiscuity, and she identifies loneliness as one of the great scourges of our time, even if, regrettably, she reduces it to male reticence and ignores family breakdown and the decline in social capital.
In theory, then, Plank’s call for a more “mindful” masculinity could have justice. Sadly, though, her book does not deliver on that promise, and much of what remains leaves the impression that the good faith of her professed concern for men’s welfare is debatable. Readers will be shocked to discover that despite working for Vox, Plank habitually makes sweeping, unsourced, bogus claims. Falsehoods litter the pages of her book like dead leaves masquerading as harvest fruits.
Barely has she launched into her introduction when she declares that “almost every single mass shooting in American history was perpetrated by a white man or men.” Anyone who reads the news and has a functioning memory should know that this is wrong. The D.C. snipers are black, Seuing-Hu Cho was Korean-American, Nidal Hasan is a Palestinian-American, and Omar Mateen was Afghan-American. A Center for Inquiry analysis of data on mass shooters confirms that whites are, in fact, not even disproportionately represented among such criminals.
Pages later, Plank announces:
We grade male violence on a curve—men of color receive far greater punishment, scrutiny and collective attention, while violence perpetrated by white men is far more invisible and still considered unexpected. The violence of white men can even be perceived as justified, especially when it’s against people of color. We see it in the case of the white police officer who killed Philando Castile for reaching into his glove compartment, or in George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, a black teenager coming back from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles.
Do minority killers receive greater attention? This year the African-American Samuel Little was alleged to be the most prolific serial killer in American history. Have you heard more about him than Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? And, as Plank must surely know, George Zimmerman is not white. He is mixed-race and dark-skinned, and is only described as “white” by progressive commentators because it suits their racial prejudices.
Plank makes use of studies in her book, but she does so selectively. When research might weaken her argument, references disappear. To bolster her portrayal of “toxic masculinity” as a ubiquitous evil, for example, Plank suggests that lesbian couples are generally free from the “power dynamics” that it introduces. She writes:
When I asked [a relationship counsellor] about couples counseling for lesbians, her answer fascinated me. She said theirs were the easiest kind of relationships to tackle because of the absence of power dynamics she has seen with straight couples. She said the problems were down to personality issues, rather than the typical struggle for control in the relationships she encountered with straight and gay couples. Of course, this is not to say that power dynamics are never present in lesbian relationships; there are many ways these relationships can be toxic, abusive or violent. But the absence of toxic masculinity seemed to have an appeasing effect on relationships, or perhaps the presence of it seemed to be associated with conflict.
However, researchers from the University of Torino, Turin, have argued that:
…many studies have revealed the existence of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] among lesbian and gay couples, and its incidence is comparable to (Turell, 2000) or higher than that among heterosexual couples (Messinger, 2011; Kelley et al., 2012).
If “toxic masculinity” is some malign cultural force which can explain the pervasiveness of abuse and exploitation, why can lesbian relationships, as well as gay and heterosexual relationships, be so abusive and exploitative? This is a serious problem for Plank’s central argument which she fails to acknowledge, let alone address.
Plank never grapples with the essential incoherence of the concept at the centre of For the Love of Men. What is toxic masculinity? It is, the baffled reader is finally left to conclude, anything associated with male behaviour that Plank dislikes. Male violence? Toxic masculinity. Male stoicism? Toxic masculinity. Men not changing babies’ nappies? Toxic masculinity. Men trying to look for rational solutions to relationship problems? You had better believe that that is toxic masculinity. To Plank’s credit, she at least avoids an inconsistency I spot elsewhere: lambasting male emotional repression while also lamenting women’s “emotional labour.” Such terrible food! And in such small portions!
Much of what Plank writes carries the familiar but irritating feminist assumption that male behavioural traits are unnatural and unhealthy while female behavioural traits are natural and good. On relationships, she writes:
Just how central and damaging idealized masculinity can be to men’s intimate relationships showed up in a conversation I had with Shalini Mirpuri, a couples therapist in Gainesville, Florida, about the most recurring problem area for men who enter couples therapy with their female partner. “I always find myself repeating ‘try to listen instead of trying to be right.’” She explained that men tend to try to rationally solve an argument, rather than pay attention to the emotions of their partner.
I get it. Men are liable to think that if their wives are giving them the silent treatment after they ate their chocolate it is because they need chocolate and not because they think their husbands don’t care about them. But is it not also true that women are inclined towards greater indulgence in unhealthy depressive rumination, and that the greater male tendencies towards rational coping can be effective in some circumstances? A study of police officers, for example, found that a higher degree of rational coping was associated with greater psychological resilience. One might, reading the book, forget that women have higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders than men.
Plank is confident that gender differences are learned and not inherited. Some of her arguments in this vein are curious. She seems to think the male tendency towards sexual abuse is enabled by films such as Snow White, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Who knew young boys were such big fans of Disney animations? At one point, Plank leans on the authority of Deepak Chopra, who claims, “Most people think that their brain is in charge of them. We say we are in charge of our brain.” Whether it is me or my brain speaking, I confess I find Deepak Chopra to be a crank unworthy of reference.
It is true that “determinist” arguments for gender differences can be flawed. Plank effectively skewers simplistic arguments about the role of testosterone in male behaviour, for example. But while she cites studies about playing with dolls increasing empathy in children, she ignores papers like Christov-Moore et al‘s analysis of the evolutionary roots of the gender gap in empathy. While there is a lot of talk about John Gray’s justly forgotten book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus there is no mention of Baillargeon et al‘s paper on gender differences in physical aggression among children aged less than two years old. This kind of cherry-picking allows her to select the most wizened fruit in the determinist orchard and claim that there are no fat, ripe cherries elsewhere.
Still, one might say, if destructive and self-destructive traits are to some extent innate to men is that not worse than if they were internalised? Perhaps it can be so. But the biggest problem with Plank’s book is that it holds up supposedly “toxic” traits as essentially and not just potentially problematic.
Is male stoicism a problem in itself or a problem in excess? I am sure that men, and the world in general, would be better off if we could foster more intimate male friendships and more honest interaction between men and doctors but some idealised vision of male sensitivity might shatter when confronted with the stresses of the world. Is male aggression merely malign or are there healthy channels through which it can be expressed? Plank looks askance at men roughhousing with their sons as if that tends to lead to bar fights and school shootings rather than junior judo competitions. Is male competitiveness just a source of conflict or is it also a source of innovation and entrepreneurship? I am inclined to believe that the latter is the case. But I suppose that might simply be an indication of my toxic stubbornness.