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On April 23 of this year, our two co-authors were on opposite sides of the Atlantic reading the same news about a horrific incident in Toronto. 10 people were killed and another 16 injured by a man who chose to drive his van down a kilometer of sidewalk in the north end of the city. Today [October 23] marks the six-month anniversary of this senseless and tragic event.
Over the course of two posts, Alexandria and Allison will unpack some of the ideological parallels between incel groups, ideas put forward as gospel by complementarian authors, and toxic masculinity more broadly.
In part one, we will examine the notion of toxic masculinity and compare the ways that incel culture and complementarianism perpetuate themselves. In part two, we will turn our attention to the ideological and rhetorical parallels between these two groups.
A note: this post discusses violence against women.
Genteel toxicity is still toxic. It is perhaps all the more insidious because its mask of respectability hides its discursive damage. Like the white moderate bemoaned by Dr. King, the gentle toxicity of the complementarian worldview might pose as significant a hurdle to the well-being of our society as its more aggressive secular counterparts, like the incel movement. In some cases, these groups speak in one voice; in others, the complementarian expression of toxic masculinity is the incel movement’s gentler, less crude echo.
Christians who hold complementarian beliefs would certainly denounce the violent behavior of the Toronto van driver who was eventually arrested and charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Before committing his crime, he posted a message on his Facebook page indicating his actions were driven by misogyny. It also seems he targeted women as he set about his killing spree. As media reports about Men’s Rights Activists and “incels” made their rounds, this terrifying act brought viewpoints bred in some of the Internet’s darkest corners directly into the public eye. As we each took in some of the reporting on these movements, we saw many assumptions that were strikingly similar to what we have found in our separate research on complementarian theology. Regardless of complementarianism’s ostensible rejection of violence against women and extremist behavior, it embraces some of the key features of toxic masculinity that are also common to the misogyny that motivated the Toronto attacker.
A term developed in the social sciences in the 1980s (and having undergone renovation since), toxic masculinity can generally be understood as a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” Toxic masculinity surfaces as a defense of (some) male individuals and hegemonic masculinity when an individual or group understands their identity or societal position to be under threat. Perceived threats can include the existence of gay people, the absence of sexual activity, independent women, social isolation, the legal system, and more. Within the constellation of toxic masculinity, the assumed boundaries of masculinity are aggressively policed. Challenges to male dominance are fought back against, both with words and with deeds.
There is a strong argument that toxic notions about masculinity are at play in acts violence (such as the Toronto van attack), when women are killed by their male partners, or in horrific mass shootings. These incidents spark a near-liturgical response in North American culture, as various officials and pundits often denounce such tragedy or terrorism but fail to address the root causes of widespread societal lament. “When people jump to blame mental illness instead of misogyny for this demonstrable pattern [of men committing acts of mass violence],” writes Aditi Natasha Kini, “they underestimate/undercut the violence of misogyny and undermine the safety of women. There is no diagnosis that all mass shooters share. Sexual entitlement is not in the DSM—but it’s chock full in unchecked online communities [where incels gather and share].”
In an ironic foil to Betty Freidan’s “the problem that has no name,” toxic masculinity presents a scenario where we have a problem that has a name but one we seem afraid to speak. Coverage and analysis of the Toronto van attack seems to have broken some of the seal on the gendered elements of these events. Reporters have shown the links between participation in online misogynist groups and committing misogynist-motivated acts of violence. These groups create a narrative that suggests the mainstream way of seeing things is wrong and that a better way is possible when one views the world through the lenses they provide. These groups cast men and manhood as embattled and provide red pill solutions to their perceived problems.
Continue reading this article at Women in Theology.
See Part II here as well as our Incels: Ross Douthat and His Orthodox Fan Club Have It Wrong.
Alexandria Barbera holds an MTS from McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton ON. She is a regular contributor with Women in Theology and managing editor at The EcoTheo Review.
Allison Murray is a PhD Candidate in the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto. She is a regular contributor with Women in Theology and maintains connections to evangelical and Anabaptist communities.
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