Is Generosity an Antidote to Toxicity?
From the explosion of awareness around toxic masculinity to more general analyses of toxic behavior and targeted accusations of toxic femininity, references to toxicity have become central to many discussions of modern culture.
While this has highlighted the negative impact of previously unquestioned behavior on significant proportions of our society — including women, minorities, and men who don’t conform to a rigid view of masculinity — there is no consensus on how to meaningfully address toxic behavior in a way which will steadily reduce its impact and prevalence.
Often the advice for dealing with toxicity is to identify and avoid those people, exclude them from your life, challenge them about their behavior, or even to punish those who continue to behave in what is perceived to be a toxic manner (even when they’re not doing anything illegal). Others propose macro-level social change such as broadening of laws, which while well-meaning seems complicated, infeasible and unlikely to be effective.
Toxic behavior is inherently deeply selfish.
I’m not going to get into the attendant psychology of toxicity — there’s plenty written about that already elsewhere — and instead just state my own view, which is most toxic behavior is inherently deeply selfish. Entitlement, arrogance, superiority, and being judgmental are all aspects of the self, often accompanied by a lack of concern for the feelings of others and established by societal norms, including through parents, family, community, religion and education.
Because of this, many people who behave in a toxic way often don’t believe or recognize they are doing anything wrong. You can’t change their minds by directly challenging their core beliefs. They need to realize the need for change and create a new framework for themselves based on impetus around something they value, such as the need to be successful in life.
Success in life can be assessed in many ways: social, romantic, financial, professional, creative, and so on. It varies for every person, and is one of the most profound reasons for people to enact and embrace personal change. If a behavior reinforces success, they will continue it; if a behavior undermines success, then most people will (eventually) change.
If people see others as role models (or competitors) being successful, they’re more likely to emulate their behavior. The more behavior they see around them which reinforces what is “successful” and “unsuccessful”, the more internal motivation there is to adapt. Some will rage against “the system keeping them down” (or whatever), but the noisy voices of the unsuccessful can emphasize the benefits of change … because who really wants to be part of that group?
So what can influence people to redefine success to exclude toxic behavior? If avoiding, isolating, ignoring, arguing, and directly challenging toxicity isn’t likely to work, what would? Perhaps the answer is surprisingly simple: we can all be genuinely generous with others, and demonstrate this through our day-to-day actions and interactions.
Ghandi was onto something when he said “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
Generosity and empathy are socially powerful traits. In this context, I’m using a broad definition of generosity to mean “freely giving something of value to someone in need, without an expectation of a return”. This can include time, effort, emotional support, advice, consideration, and patience as well as material things like possessions or money*. My point here is that real generosity is closely tied to empathy, in that you’re giving something that has value both to you and the person receiving it.
True generosity needs to be distinguished from fake philanthropy, which is really just tax minimization mixed with social PR and personal hubris for the super-rich. This kind of behavior is inherently self-serving, which undermines the societal value of their actions even as it benefits others. The fetishization of the rich as role models of generosity is deeply embedded in US culture, and closely tied to the popularization of the heresy of the prosperity gospel, which promotes that God rewards his chosen faithful with material wealth and happiness. If that’s true, then why are so many rich people miserable human beings who live in an unhappy construct of their own privilege? (I digress, as there are far too few billionaires to make a lasting positive difference to toxicity even if they did care.)
So how can being truly generous help cure toxicity? By setting an example of success that acts as a counterpoint to toxic behavior and which people can follow. Generosity really is its own reward, to which people respond by liking you more, remembering you better, and being more generous themselves. Not rising to the bait of toxicity and responding by being generous with your patience while firm in not tolerating poor behavior engenders respect. Being liked, respected, and remembered will help you be successful socially and professionally, and thus often financially and creatively.
If generosity is so rewarding and such a positive behavior, why don’t people practice it more? It’s because they’ve been conditioned not to. For men in particular, the “myth of the alpha male” is often strongly established. This myth promotes that to be successful and masculine requires being a strong individualist, who dominates others, takes what they want, relies on no-one, admits no weakness, asks no-one for help, responds aggressively to any perceived challenge … you know, an asshole.
Generosity and empathy are the opposite of this, which is why it is so hard for many men to grasp its essential manliness and effectiveness. What is more the mark of manliness than to display calmness and confidence in the face of challenge? To help those in need, to be steadfast in supporting both friends and strangers? To be considerate of those around you, and to earn respect rather than try and demand it?
In talking with men about this, I often look to frame the concept differently. Asking “who in your life has influenced you most, and why?”, “who do you see as being examples of good men and leaders?”, “how do you think people see you, and how would you like to be seen?”. This can often create a bridge to identify and discuss why traits of rapport, compassion, and generosity are desirable and effective without directly attacking the established construct of masculinity.
Sometimes, no matter how carefully approached, people simply bring up a list of braggadocious, bullying buffoons. In which case, it’s probably best to take that common advice from the start and exclude those people from your life, and let them consign themselves to the bellowing clique of the unsuccessful while you spend your valuable energy elsewhere.
* Money and material goods are often the least fulfilling things to be generous with, but often what people focus on most.
LiamAtLarge is an avid traveler, thinker, and regular contributor to The Modern Dandy’s Guide to Manliness podcast, which explores the challenges, choices, and commitments of being a man in the modern era. Their episode on Toxic Masculinity Today is currently available wherever good podcasts are found.