The Beast that Lurks in the Shadows of Your Soul — Overcoming Toxic Masculinity Part 1.
Twenty-eight years ago, a young man named Marc Lepine walked into a classroom in Montreal’s École Polytechnique with a semi-automatic rifle in hand. He separated the women from the men and then fired on all nine female students, killing six. He then systematically moved through the campus, shooting women as went, killing a total of fourteen people and wounding fourteen more.
It’s a sad moment in our history, a reminder that beneath the thin veneer of tolerance we project to the rest of the world, the same bigotry and misogyny that we decry in others still exist in the hearts of many Canadians.
The media has spent nearly thirty years analyzing Lepine’s motives. There seems to be no end of people who will look back on a tragedy like this and insist that we’ll never really know the killer’s motivations, but in Lepine’s case, I should think it would be obvious. The man literally shouted, “You’re women. You’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists,” before opening fire on those first nine students. When the killer himself tells you that his purpose is to fight feminism, believe him.
This mealy-mouthed refusal to acknowledge misogyny is a consequence of our fear that such violent impulses exist within us. Deep down, we want to tell ourselves, “I’m not like that. I’m one of the good ones.” It’s easier to construct a narrative where men like Marc Lepine and Elliot Rodger are mysterious figures with inscrutable motivations than it is to admit that we’ve all been taught to hate women.
But any dream of a society in which women can go out alone at night without the fear of violence remains unattainable until we acknowledge the ugliness within ourselves. Over a quarter century since the Lepine’s massacre, and things haven’t changed all that much. Most victims of sexual assault are women, and in most cases, the perpetrator was a man. In cases of intimate partner violence, it’s almost always a man assaulting a woman and not the other way around.
I was asked to write a piece on toxic masculinity for the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, and I could give you all the standard talking points. I could show you the stats on violence against women, then cross my arms, tap my foot and say, “Gentlemen, we need to do better.” In fact, I’ve written that kind of article before.
But shaking my finger at you, and saying, “Do better,” doesn’t leave you with very much insight on how to begin. There are talking points on this subject as well. We could go down the list: listen to women, believe women, take no for an answer, amplify the voices of women, don’t cat-call, stop using misogynistic slurs.
Those are all good things. Do those things.
But they’re only surface changes.
This is an article by a man for men, a primer on how to change who you are on the inside, a guide to freeing yourself from that poisonous anger that urges you to do violence.
It’s not possible to give you step-by-step instructions on how to change yourself; that’s a life-long journey that requires not just one but many shifts in perspective. But you must begin by understanding the source of your anger. The answer is different for each of us, but there are a few common threads. Let me share some of my own story to illustrate the point.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative condition that slowly claimed my vision until everything on my left side was just a big, blurry haze. I quit my job when the headaches became unbearable. There were times when the simple act of standing up triggered a dizzy spell that made me fall to the floor.
I couldn’t write.
Creating elaborate stories with complex characters was my one true passion in life, but that too had been taken from me. I’d scrape the bottom of the barrel for ideas, but there was nothing left. Just a profound emptiness where my imagination used to be.
I had a publishing deal for a YA novel that I had completed a year earlier, but that fell apart when my lawyer found loopholes in the contract that would give away the rights to my work. It seemed as if my life was unraveling. All I had left was my relationship.
That’s why it nearly destroyed me when my girlfriend — for the purpose of this article, we’ll call her “Dani” — broke up with me. In her attempts to sabotage our relationship, Dani said some very cruel things.
At the time, Dani didn’t know about my diagnosis — that happened on the day we broke up — but she did know that I was feeling insecure about my failing health; it’s hard to be active when you’re dizzy all the time, your head is pounding and you run out of energy a mere thirty minutes after leaving the house. So, one night, in the middle of an argument, Dani looked at me and said, “You’re so fragile. And it’s not attractive.”
She knew that I had very low self-esteem and that it only got worse when my eyesight failed. She exploited that vulnerability by saying, “After four years with a guy who keeps telling me he’s awful, I can’t help but think that maybe he’s right.” I could sense the calculating nature of her put-downs — the way they were designed to push my buttons — and it made me angry. And lest you think I’m a saint, when we broke up I sniped back at her, exploiting some of her insecurities.
Shortly after our breakup became official, I found myself sitting on my couch and staring at the wall. Dani’s insults were playing on repeat in the back of my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. “You’re so fragile, and it’s not attractive.” Each repetition brought with it a new spike of anger. Pretty soon, it felt like my blood was on fire. I don’t think I had ever been that angry before.
Picking up my phone and texting her seemed like a very good idea. And I knew just what I wanted to say. “The next time I see you, I’m going to punch you in the face.”
Was I really contemplating threatening a woman with violence? In that moment, it was clear to me that the same misogyny I denounced in other men was also present in me. There is a line I like from a Canadian show called Earth Final Conflict: “The dark side lives within all of us, from the most primitive of species to the most highly evolved. That a beast may lurk in the shadows of your soul is not a question. It is a given.”
That’s the first step toward taking control: to recognize that the ugliness does exist within you. When you ignore it, when you try to pretend it’s not there, it creeps into your life in unexpected ways. Up until that point, it was easy to pretend that misogynistic rage was something that happened to other men — to backward, sexist men — because that was the first time I had experienced it.
Nothing in my life had ever pushed me to the point where I wanted to hurt a woman. I didn’t think I was capable of feeling that way. But Dani belittling me for being weak at a time when I felt weak — when I was feeling insecure about my masculinity — brought out something dark. I had a vision of the most loathsome man beating his wife, and I thought, “If I’m not careful, that could be me.”
Anger is seductive. The tempest raging inside you makes you feel powerful; it whispers the promise of restorative justice, a balancing of the scales. Those who have wronged you will be punished, and by reclaiming your power, you can heal the scars, undo the damage.
But that promise is a lie.
Acting on your anger only makes you angrier. Thankfully, I knew this. If I acted on the impulse — if I told Dani that I wanted to punch her — it would only stoke the rage. And it would make it that much easier to resort to threats the next time a woman made me angry. How long before those threats became actual violence? Each step down the dark path makes the next step easier.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true.
I didn’t text Dani. Instead, I pulled the battery out of my phone, put them both in different drawers and went somewhere quiet to cry for several hours. That took the anger away, and I’m proud to tell you that I never felt that kind of poisonous rage again.
So, gentlemen, this is your first task: find the source of your anger. Acknowledge that society has trained you to dominate women through violence. Even if you’ve never had a desire to do that, you were still exposed to media that encouraged you toward violence, you still saw examples of this behaviour among your peers.
Look within yourself, and when you see the ugliness that makes you want to act like the abusive ex-boyfriend in a Nicholas Sparks movie, don’t run from it. Don’t hide. Look into the abyss and see it for what it is, then turn away from it and walk back into the light.
To read the next piece in this series, click here.
Rich Penney is a science-fiction author and futurist. You can check out his books here.