The deeper causes of toxic masculinity

Recently Australians have seen senior students from an elite Melbourne boys’ school bawling appallingly misogynist chants on public transport. This has given a another platform to those who argue not only that single-sex schooling is irrelevant in our times but also that it contributes to a toxic masculinity that seems at the heart of so much grief for women.

But are single sex schools the cause of this toxic masculinity?

Loren Bridge, of the Alliance of Girls Schools Australia, does not think so. She argues that ‘it’s just a reflection of our society at the moment’. And as the headmaster of boys’ schools for almost 20 years, I agree that the causes are far deeper.

The violence against women and sexual objectification that saturate our society reflect the state of our contemporary culture. To hold a small percentage of institutions that educate boys responsible for the catastrophic misbehaviour of men in our society makes as much sense as blaming traditional families for the breakdown of marriage.

Catastrophic it is.

Violence against women continues to rise, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In this past week alone, we have read of the 30-year sentence handed to the drug addicted rapist and killer of Aiia Masarwe, who was a beautiful Palestinian exchange student minding her own business as she travelled home from English lessons. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that the crime reflected the ‘sexist attitudes in our society’.

Last week we also saw the death of the infamous Ivan Milat, responsible for the assault and murder of at least six young women backpackers. Almost 2 percent of Australian women reported violence from their partner in 2016. The ABC reported that Australian police dealt with 5,000 domestic and family violence matters a week in 2016. That's one every two minutes, 264,028 per year. And that figure was up 7 percent on the year before.

Sexual objectification of women also is on the rise. Australian police recorded 25,000 sexual assaults in 2017 with sexual assault offences increasing by 40 percent within the past decade. But the dynamics of objectification are complex. There is evidence that male objectification of women is associated with women objectifying themselves, leading to further increases in objectification. In the study 65 percent of women reported in real time that they were subjected to sexually objectifying behaviour such as being ogled, catcalled or whistled at.

So who is responsible?

There is a moment in the old Dennis the Menace movie where George Wilson (played by Walter Matthau) proclaims in frustration ‘In a tragedy of such proportions someone must be to blame!’ So then, whom do we blame for catastrophic sexualisation and objectification of women in contemporary Western society?

And more importantly, is there some way of fixing this?

The only meaningful way of exploring deficient human behaviours is to work within a template of sound psychology. As British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe insisted, ‘We must stop doing moral philosophy until we get our psychology straight.’

So what are we looking for? Sound psychology must do more than treat behaviours as phenomena; behaviourist psychologies are of very limited use in understanding causes. Nor of use are psychologies that remove the possibility of human free will, albeit the restricted freedom that often results from upbringing and prior conditioning.

A sound psychology must take into account the embodied manner in which human beings develop habituations and addictions, but it must also acknowledge the power of choice and conviction in motivation. Such a comprehensive psychology was proposed by the mediaeval philosopher Thomas Aquinas who, within an embodied paradigm, embraced both the emotional/appetitive, and the rational. He suggested, following Aristotle’s insights, that freedom is a consequence of rationality and that human fulfilment requires sound appetitive conditionings, convictions of one’s duties as a responsible member of family and society, and the development of the moral and intellectual virtues as habitual operational dispositions within this framework.

So let us utilise this lens of virtue to consider the phenomenon of the profoundly self-indulgent behaviours that characterise objectification and violence against women. Objectification, on the one hand, may be understood as a thoughtless deficiency of the virtue of temperance, which is the habitual capacity to choose one’s pleasures to the extent they are good for us.

But any habitual objectification of others must be more than impulsive because it will be a reflection of a considered and complacent attitude. So it is a failure not only of temperance but of justice, which is the quality of character whereby we make habitual choices that take the rights of others into account. Every woman has a right to her personal dignity where she is valued not for her appearance but for her very person. It is only when we treat others with profound respect at all times that we are acting in a truly just manner.

And when a man uses violence not to defend himself or others but to impose his own will on those physically more vulnerable, he shows he lacks the virtue of fortitude because he misappropriates strength and determination for purely self-centred motives. Instead of using his capacity to pursue difficult goals to bring justice to the world, a man who resorts to domestic or sexual violence uses it for completely selfish reasons.

So how can these deficiencies of temperance, fortitude and justice be remedied?

Aristotle would identify two tasks: to train our emotions and impulses, and to educate our minds in right convictions and habitual choices.

And this is still as valid now as two and a half thousand years ago. This development of refined feeling on the one hand, and on the other, the education of choices and convictions, lie at the very heart of moral education which starts in the family and which must be supported at every level in society. This is not primarily or even marginally a problem of schooling styles. Explicit training of our emotional appetites and education of our convictions are both needed. Our society is failing on both counts.

These concepts of justice, fortitude and temperance are not archaic concepts out of touch with contemporary needs.

For the past four years I ran workshops for all second-year officer cadets at ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, precisely with the goal of fostering the development of these strengths of character. ADFA, a coeducational tertiary facility, has had to combat its own cultural challenges of misogyny and sexual abuse in recent years and perhaps these realities provoked the focus on development of character.

The way that young adults develop strengths of character differs significantly from the way young children do so. Young adults must be self-directing in their exercise of self-control, and so the approach will be to develop convictions of one’s duties to women, a deep awareness of the depth of conditioning that leads to addictions to pornography and other forms of objectification, and a commitment to ongoing positive behaviours that can substitute, over time, the negative behaviours.

For example in a unit on the development of temperance and self-control, workshop participants are encouraged to reflect on the following statements that acknowledge the impact of prior conditionings but also the power of goal setting and choice.

I must choose what I pay attention to. Let us develop the habit of paying attention not on impulse, learning to fix our attention on what is the right thing, not what is simply enjoyable or gratifying. What we pay attention to, what we look at, what we read and view, all tell a great deal about who we are, who we want to be, and our values. By managing my thoughts I have the power to choose what motivates me, not just to allow habitual desires and impulses to dominate my life.

I understand that love is the great motivator… so I must train myself to love the right things. I learn to choose pleasures wisely. I realise that many motivations can be impulses and habitual desires that may or may not be good so I try to ensure that my motivations are based on true choices and not just previous conditioning of my expectations. What do I look forward to? Am I conscious of the things that motivate me? My desires and drives? Do I covet the possessions or popularity of others? If I am unduly moved by desires for pleasure, for power, comfort, recognition, for affection… these will become my key motivations, but also will rub off on close to me to whom I give leadership.

I manage my passions. Anger destroys relationships. Do I work resolutely so that I eliminate anger from my character? Do I ever talk bitterly about others? Do I ever allow envy and jealousy to poison my outlook? Do I ever eat or drink too much for my own good? Do I know how to say no to myself? Do I know how to stop things that are personally enjoyable when my duties to others require this.

I integrate my sexual life into my character. My sexual activities will affect me as a person, my peace of heart, my relationships and even my health. If sex is integrated into a personality and is a reflection of exclusive self-giving in a relationship it will nourish and enrich. If it is an exercise in gratification it is self-seeking and destructive of relationships. We must never use others for our own ends.

The officer cadets participating in this program have responded each year with very positive evaluations. They considered themselves empowered to embrace better behaviours, and greater freedom. For freedom is indeed the result when we have the capacity to follow our convictions and ideals rather than being a slave of half-desired impulses and conditionings.

Sadly our society is in denial of the foundational cause of sexual objectification, which is a radical individualism that knows no limits. We enshrine sexual gratification as a private right, thus separating it from justice. And any society that elevates individualism over responsibilities to others will generate, on a grand scale, dysfunctionality in relationships between men and women and must ultimately sow the seeds of its own demise.

So it is absurd to suggest that single sex schools are the cause of these sexist attitudes by their very nature. The education of citizens in justice and virtue is the task of every family and it is the duty of government to second this great endeavour at every turn. And only in this light is it reasonable to insist that all schools have a role in reinforcing the training and education that is required to build the character of young men and women that will see the development of a truly just society.

Dr Andy Mullins teaches formation of character in the Masters program at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the intersection of neuroscience and moral virtue. He is the author of Parenting for Character. He may be contacted at [email protected].


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