There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
– David Foster Wallace
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For the typical American kid growing up in the eighties and nineties, the world seemed complete. School five days a week. Non-stop cartoons every Saturday morning. Cassette in the boombox, VHS in the VCR. Endless summers. Friends you thought you’d never lose touch with.
If we ever sat in front of a computer, it was to type a book report or chase Carmen Sandiego – let’s just say we weren’t living in the Information Age, nor were we aware of our lack of information – much as people in the Stone Age didn’t know they were missing bronze.
Today you can find a manual for everything. Get rich in 22 steps. Live to a hundred with biohacking! Type in your email and I’ll show you how to crack the female source code so she’ll never say no again.
It’s fair to say we are no smarter today than we were then – we’ve simply been fished out of one aquarium and into another.
What Goes On Behind Closed Doors
During the eighties and nineties, dark things were happening in the world we had no idea were going on. The revelations of the #metoo movement shocked the world with its exposure of vile and violent crimes. Within the corridors of respected institutions and billion-dollar industries men abused their positions of power to rape, subdue, and silence women.
The reactions of most men to #metoo – men who are decent, respectful, and reverent toward women – was to look outward and say, “That guy is a monster.” But when the conversation broadened to “Toxic Masculinity” good men were forced to look inward. All men must now make the effort to understand the waters in which women swim on a daily basis.
“It took me a long time to figure out that toxic masculinity is a real thing,” says veteran emcee Lyrics Born in conversation with Sung Kang on his podcast Sung’s Garage. “We have to help each other out as men to get away from that and identify that behavior.”
When Lyrics Born (real name Tom Shimura) was growing up in the hip-hop landscape of the nineties, the definition of masculinity was the guy who had the most girlfriends. He admits this chauvinistic mindset caused a lot of problems in the community.
“It’s a genre problem,” says Shimura, “because rap is boastful, and we try to outdo each other.”
Shimura has made it a point to never use “the B-word” in any of his lyrics. “I’m surrounded by women – my wife, my strong and opinionated mother – they wouldn’t let me get away with that.”
Sung ponders on the importance of awareness asking, “How come no teacher taught me this? How come no one sat me down? It’s surprising that there’s no manual.”
While there is no specific manual for how men are supposed to behave in a world where every social interaction will vary, Shimura believes that peer-to-peer conversation is key to everyday awareness.
“The fish don’t know they’re swimming in water,” says Shimura. Guys, at times, need to pull their friends aside to remind them:
“You shouldn’t really say that.”
When faced with wrongdoing, saying nothing is a disservice to society. If saying something puts you or others in immediate harm, then wait for the right time to act. Men, oblivious to the waters they swim in, need to be corrected, but be tactical about it.
“Lead by example,” says Shimura who is raising a boy of his own. “Boys look at their fathers like they’re superman. What you pass down will be interpreted as law. Insensitivity and intolerance are learned.”
Sung asks, “If there’s no proper man in the household where do you find the guidance?”
The answer to that question is a sad one – boys without male guidance are statistically more prone to behavioral problems, dropping out, and living lives of poverty. Father figures for growing boys is so vital that when they’re absent, the results can be catastrophic.
“Why does everybody always need to talk about everything?”
– Don Draper from Mad Men
Stay tuned for a future article series diving deeper into the causes of Toxic Masculinity and what steps we can take toward solutions.
What are some practical actions we can take to confront toxic language and behavior? What have been some of your own experiences? Let us know in the comments below.