Dr Jordan Peterson And The Myth-Making Around Toxic Masculinity


The key to an equal future starts with tackling male attitudes to violence and equality, writes Olivia Wells.

The recent debate on ABC talk show Q & A, with the appearance of Canadian Psychologist/Philosopher Jordan Peterson, suggests an incapacitated public debate of the feminist pursuit.

This was the first time I was introduced to Peterson’s message on feminism and in witnessing it also discovered his popularity. Peterson is articulate and well educated, a championed voice for men who feel wronged and persecuted by the feminist movement. His attitudes and views are categorically harmful.

His fellow panelists represent a range of ideologies, identities and political motivations and yet it was clear, despite the qualifications amongst them, it was almost impossible to achieve coherent discourse on gender politics or how to challenge its resistance (articulated mostly amongst Peterson’s supporters on the show). Discussion is often preoccupied with semantics and debating political correctness. Focusing on this ignores what has been at the core of social progress to date; a commitment to women’s and LGBTQI rights as human rights.

My hope is that we can find a way to discuss our values and beliefs so that men are coming to the table. Denying the existence of the oppressive patriarchy – an assertion of Peterson’s – does not help anyone. It halts our progress.

Women and LGBTQI peoples experience, in many iterations outside of economics, both subordination and discrimination. Western societies are, by this definition, under an oppressive patriarchy. This does not mean that women and LGBTQI peoples are unable to participate or be represented but it does outline the urgency to address what is underneath it and what causes inequality.

Experts, speakers and activists have put enormous resources into studying, synthesising and pushing for law reforms so we can achieve equality as part of our laws and institutions. Inequality in the workplace and in all parts of society has steadily improved; the work of LGBTQI and women’s liberation movements who have worked tirelessly to overcome inequality and transformed participation, representation and civil rights. The achievements are too vast to list but even still, no country in the world can boast gender equality.

Our public debate is caught in a rigamarole of quotas, affirmative action and men’s suffering but these are not the only actions to be taken. Equal economic participation and men’s mental health are important but so is how we respond to trauma and violence. This is what is at the heart of the patriarchy.

How we overcome trauma is intrinsically linked with how we express ourselves. At present it is riddled with violence and sexual violence. This is what keeps men both powerful and suffering. These are aspects of social progress that will continue to take real courage and analysis to overcome; on both an individual and societal level.

Men have very real concerns about their future in the changing social climate. They are experiencing a change in status, identity and it has an effect on wellbeing. We recognise how destabilising these changes can feel for men.

This is something the pursuit of feminism is also trying to encompass.

We recognise the complexities of addiction, mental health issues and suicide amongst men and boys and how this is intensifying. We see violence – in all its forms – affecting all of us but to truly address these issues we, together, must dismantle toxic masculinity and what is at its core.

Toxic masculinity describes the indoctrination of all people to accept certain behaviours, talents and personality traits as inherently male or female. This is damaging to all of us. It is responsible for speaking to men about the importance of keeping silent, the expressions of violence as manly, the objectification of women, “group think” around beauty standards, but most importantly: the right and masculine way of engaging with the world.

Toxic masculinity promotes an apathetic, strong arm pursuit of life, one that does not allow for emotional expression, processing and healing, acceptance and validation of self. This creates a society that is unable to recover from trauma. Men are suffering under these conditions too.

Through challenging toxic masculinity we have an opportunity to transform traditionally accepted gender roles and performativity, not just for a more inclusive and safe society, but also for the psychological and social health of all people.

I urge men to come to the table. The perception that political correctness is limiting their capacity to speak and be heard is false.

Political correctness is as a term, an arbitrary concept that incites division. People need trigger warnings and respect, not because they hold liberal values, but because they desire to be treated with empathy.

To acknowledge our experiences and how they affect us creates a society that values each other. We can talk together about how we relate individual responsibility, justice, intersectionality, discrimination and change but we also need to recognise past and present suffering.

If we continue to talk through a lens of denial we will protect insecurity of change over human rights. In doing this we are missing an opportunity for all people to exist equally with safety, respect and dignity.

Olivia Wells works with families and communities in the Alice Spring region. She has worked in both SA and the NT in many areas of social services, including child protection and community development. She has a keen interest in and enjoyment of working with women and families, and a passion for human rights and social justice.