It is possible to interpret a single concept, as instantiated in a bit of jargon, in a way completely at variance from how others use it.

When I encounter this — as I often do — I sometimes believe that I am in the right, and others in the wrong, while on other occasions I am not at all sure who is right.

Recently, Meryl Streep, an actress in a popular Amazon Prime show about women behaving badly, shocked the readers of ‘Everyone Thinks We’re Insanos’ Home Journal with a seemingly commonsense statement that, in times past, would not have raised an eyebrow. She is not fond of the term “toxic masculinity”:

We hurt our boys by calling something toxic masculinity. . . . And I don’t find [that] putting those two words together . . . because women can be pretty f—ing toxic. It’s toxic people. We have our good angles and we have our bad ones. I think the labels are less helpful than what we’re trying to get to, which is a communication, direct, between human beings. We’re all on the boat together. We’ve got to make it work.

“Meryl Streep’s ‘toxic masculinity’ critique a ‘step out of’ Hollywood ‘echo chamber of conformity,’ Concha says,” by Charles Creitz | Fox News

At first blush, this seems preciously close to wisdom, though immediately a note of uncertainty creeps in: does use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” ineluctably hurt “our boys”? Despite my doubt, the statement is not nuts. But it was not a universal hit:

Janet Fiamengo, Paul Elam, and Tom Golden shared some time onscreen talking about this brouhaha. And the general consensus seemed to be that the concept of “toxic feminism” was an inherently indecent concept:

The folks at InStyle warned against their interpretation: “The specific kind of toxicity Streep is talking about involves a kind of hyper-gendered behavior. It’s not saying outright that men are evil or inherently violent.”

Emily Alford went full Jezebel, asserting that “Meryl Streep has no idea what she’s fucking talking about” on the subject, while admitting, “Yes, there are toxic people, some of them women, many of them girls I went to church camp with in 1996, but that has nothing to do with toxic masculinity.” Ms. Alford helps us with her own definition:

“Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak. (No, it doesn’t mean that all men are inherently toxic.)

It’s these cultural lessons, according to the A.P.A., that have been linked to “aggression and violence,” leaving boys and men at “disproportionate risk for school discipline, academic challenges and health disparities,” including cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.”

Emily Alford, “Meryl Streep Does Not Know What ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Means,” Jezebel, May 30, 2019.

What Alford offers us is an environmental, “nurture”/“social construct” view of the issue. And while I do not doubt that there is a strong cultural component to the education of male humans about their (contested) roles in society as boys and men — how could I? — males are also and indisputably driven by biology, too, especially the hormone testosterone. It used to be fun to joke about “testosterone poisoning,” and I have no problem with that joke. Toxic masculinity is associated with the male hormone for good evolutionary reasons, and trying to impute masculine toxicity entirely or even mainly to cultural influences is not plausible, no matter what the A.P.A. may or may not assert.

Alford offers a definition and a theory. I reject her theory but accept her definition. Prof. Fiamengo et al. seem to object to the very term, and agree with Streep that talking about it is bad for boys. Alford demurs: “You see, Meryl, there are some damaging facets of culturally-imposed masculinity that are toxic to men (and the rest of us). It is not the men who are toxic simply by accident of being men.”

Alford seems as level-headed as a person can be under the sway of the ludicrous Blank Slate hypothesis, where human behavior is “culturally” driven. Men are not toxic for being men. Sounds plausible. Good. But, that being admitted (at least arguendo), the toxicity of masculinity is indeed a male-related propensity driven in no small part by biology. More importantly, we call the problems heavily associated with masculinity (which includes violent crime, first and foremost) toxic because they destabilize and vex and sometimes even destroy the affected individual as well as those around him.

And, once again, I do not doubt the cultural component. Indeed, one group of people who have traditionally — and even unto this very day — promoted masculinity to the point of toxicity has been . . . women. Not all women, of course: #notall! And not just because of factors associated with Briffault’s Law — that is, not just because women tend to control male access to the Delta of Venus between their legs.

Indeed, I am pretty sure one could show toxic masculinity as developing in a sort of Grand tarantella with toxic femininity — each leading on the other.

And what might toxic femininity be? Well, traditionally it is associated with a number of behaviors, known to us personally and in literature — the Vamp (pictured above) being just one classic example. And it is also connected to the deep life history of our species, broadly speaking, and to the hormone estrogen, narrowly speaking. “Estrogen poisoning” is also relevant to the discussion.

And I will go further: it may also be the case that feminism has cultivated not only some classic forms of toxic femininity, but also applied toxic masculinity in women against women, perverting their lives to the extremities of misery.

Which brings us back to our trio of anti-feminists. For reasons I do not wholly understand, Fiamengo et al. seem to think that Streep is right, and that toxic masculinity sends boys the wrong signal. Dispirits them or something. (I confess, I turned them off before they had finished. Perhaps others with more patience than I can inform me if they started making more sense halfway through.)

The problem I see here? A common problem in our culture, where the old Aristotelian notions of virtue and vice are no longer part of our moral vocabulary. The idea that virtue is found in balance, and vice at the extremes, helps explain how we should recognize two poles in our natures, yin and yang, and recognize that they need balancing — by the cultivation of good habits, according to reason.

And this question of “toxicity”: it is a metaphor. And a good one. Poison is in the dose. Estrogen and testosterone are good things in our make-ups. They provide us with our basic drives. But we must not let them drive us into perversity or oblivion. Balance; moderation in all things.

And, when it comes to toxicity, it is all a question of dosage. Too much of any single hormone is, well, too much: poison. Too little is bad, too, for it is at optimum dose that poison is medicine.

Similarly, each person must find his or her balance. The first requisite of being a good human is to be a good animal, Herbert Spencer said, and speaking in frankly biological as well as cultural terms is important. But add in other medicines (which, again, are also poisonous at high dosage, by the principle of hormesis) as well, like rights and obligations and justice: we have a lot of balancing to do.

Little boys need to understand that some typically boyish behaviors — like rough-and-tumble assertiveness — can be quite bad in some circumstances and at some extremes. Same goes for little girls. They should be aware that certain typically girlish behaviors — coquettish cuteness played up, say — are also dangerous in many contexts and especially when laid on thick.

Nowadays, of course, we are supposed to immediately discuss various ambiguities of sex roles and behavior ranges, using the term “gender,” which I dislike for reasons I have often discussed. So I will skip all that. Of course, of course: #notall, blah blah blah.

I will, instead, merely summarize: Streep and Fiamengo et al. are wrong to suspect that little boys cannot handle the knowledge that some of their typically boyish behaviors can be taken to an excess of vice. But little girls need similar remonstrances, mutatis mutandis, and perhaps were this stressed more, and seriously, boys would be able to handle maturation better than they seem to be doing these days. They will realize that they are not singled out as “problematic,” and that every person, of both sexes, have a tough road ahead of them, perhaps right up to the moment of death.

And the feminists need to let go of their relentless and indefensible social constructivism, for reasons I have given elsewhere. I am quite glad that Ms. Alford does not mean to say that toxic masculinity should be understood as akin to Original Sin. But hey: blaming society for social mores that double down on our basic sexual/biological patterns we see in mammalian and avian species the world over is a nonstarter. Further, not only do I readily admit that culture and social controls and norms matter, I suggest to the Alfords of our society that their feminism has worsened, not alleviated, the basic lot of humanity.

Well, to some extent, at least.