Challenging toxic masculinity in schools through deconstructing discourse

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Recent allegations of assault between boys at schools in Toronto have been widely covered in the media. You will have read about this recently if you live in Ontario.

I felt the need to speak about these types of incidents between boys, forms of aggression and hazing, not as a means to critique particular schools, but rather, to contribute to an on-going community of inquiry into the culture of toxic masculinity that encircles this incident.

At first, I thought that there was no way I was going to touch this case. But it was this intense emotion directed at this thought that made me realize that I had to; as educators (and parents) we need to be comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations about what can go wrong when discourses surrounding what it means to be a ‘man’ start to fester out of control and culminate in horrific events such as the aforementioned. 

Deconstructing these issues are tedious and must be done oh-so-carefully. For this reason, I choose to explore this concept of toxic (hyper)masculinity through a sociological lens, centered around the concept of discourse and deconstruction as key concepts in moving beyond these cultures of hyper-masculinity in schools. I am not writing this to defend any of the actions that occurred, but I do want to shine a light on how discourse can shape actions over years, break down individuality and contribute to this subsequent herd behaviour.

So, some background and definitions to frame this conversation:

Lau and Balovec (2018) define toxic masculinity as a “set of societal expectations of how a traditional male should act, feel, and behave (OISE, 2018). This can take the form in daily life as aggression, dominance, the suppression of empathy and emotion, and homophobia.

To understand this concept of toxic masculinity on a deeper level, I will draw on the work of Michel Foucault (a super famous and respected sociologist), who shaped the concept of discourse. Discourse is a very powerful concept defined as “ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern” (Weedon, 1987, p. 108). 

What I would like to tease out of this rather complex definition is that discourse is more than ways of thinking and producing meaning; it forms one’s unconscious thoughts, and over time, shapes a culture without the individuals even knowing that it has happened. You can begin to see that the invisible power relations that circulate within a particular society get actualized in a very subtle way; a control and power invisible to the eye, but more powerful than anything we can see. This gets dangerous when the discourses that shape a particular institution are encapsulated within a toxic definition of masculinity.

Discourses and Actionable Moments in Schools 

So, here’s where theory and practice come together. Foucault says that discourse can be deconstructed, and this is precisely what we need to do in schools to diffuse these discourses of toxic masculinity; deconstruct. Put simply, deconstruction means locating the ingrained discourse, teasing it apart and breaking it down and rebuilding it into something different. We must deconstruct the discourses that contribute to toxic masculinity and hate in all of our schools, even if we think it is not an issue in the circles in which we exist. Remember, discourse is a tricky devil and hides where we least expect it. It can (and always does) circulate in such subtle ways that we can’t even feel its work, and sometimes it becomes too late to undo its damage. 

Charles Pascal (2018) urges “that notions of hyper-masculinity have become extremely normalized. We need to create a new normal and redefine what masculinity means.” In other words, we must deconstruct this term, find where it hides, and throw it out on the table for all to see. This is so hard, but I think it starts with small conversations with our students, and we must start these conversations early. It begins with knowing the language, feeling confident and comfortable using it, and coming to terms with the fact that power and discourse circulate around us no matter where we live or work.

Shifting discourse is fickle (it’s so ingrained and imbued in power dynamics that often percolate over decades or even centuries) and it will take the full participation of a community; all must be able and willing to have these conversations with young people and know how to deconstruct the concepts. Gillis (2018) argues that this begins with a community-wide conversation that deconstructs masculinity and builds it back up to be something that is inclusive and forgiving within a community of care; a conversation that stresses dignity and respect; that lets boys be who they are, and not fit within a hyper-masculine mould of what it means to a ‘man.’ Bullying is not to be tolerated and intervention must happen early with reminders of a community of care and what that looks, sounds and feels like. 

These recommendations were adapted from a succinct and impactful article by Lau and Balkovic out of OISE at the University of Toronto. I thank them for opening this dialogue in the academic world surrounding this most recent incident; sadly, one of many I am sure. I found this article tough to write, I found the content hard to think about and the solutions daunting to consider; but it is imperative and the impact on our students and children, life-changing. 

Thanks for reading, 

Laura 

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