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Toxic Masculinity Might Help Us Justify War

Pictures: Elise Zimmerman

Violence often occurs as a response to real or perceived threats, insults, or provocation, and an individual’s beliefs about how their culture expects them to react to such threats often dictate the level of aggression in that response. As evident in the research below, there are cultural components that may condition individuals to behave more aggressively when threatened or provoked. Likewise, the aggressive response to an individual threat seems to translate into support for more aggressive policy or war. In the study detailed below, the authors use the example of the American South, where a culture of honor exists that is associated with greater rates of peer-to-peer aggression compared to the rest of the United States. As such, people in this culture are more sympathetic to the use of violence to defend or protect their loved ones, country, or way of life and more likely to believe that “aggression, by men, is both appropriate and necessary in response to insult, threat, and provocation.” However, the cultural and behavioral components that comprise honor beliefs, argue the authors, likely extend beyond the geographic boundaries of regions thought to possess “cultures of honor.”

Past research has identified a connection between cultures with strong beliefs in this type of honor and the support for violent responses to foreign attacks, and for war more generally. In this study, the authors are interested in the role honor beliefs play in an individual’s attitude towards collective violence—thus extending past research on the subject by measuring honor as an individual rather than a cultural difference. Specifically, this study asks if a person’s beliefs on how individuals use aggression to protect themselves or their families, communities, and reputations impact their views on issues of war, peace, or aggressive security policies. It also examines to what extent individual beliefs about masculinity and honor influence their behavior.

In an attempt to answer these questions, the authors created a two-part study to identify and analyze relationships between an individual’s honor beliefs and their perceptions of war, aggressive security policies, peace, and human nature as a whole. First, the authors used an established behavior model that identifies and measures masculine honor beliefs (MHBs). Individual MHB levels were measured through a series of questions where respondents were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “a man should protect his wife.” The respondents were then given a different survey asking about their views on aggressive behavior or traits, and certain real or hypothetical policy decisions regarding war, use of a military, or decisions to resolve conflict through more peaceful means (diplomacy). Both studies administered surveys to groups of around 140 male and female undergraduate students from a university in the United States.

In the first study, the respondents began with a survey measuring their individual MHB levels. Next, a different survey measured their levels of aggression; their political views; their perceptions of war as an appropriate response to hypothetical scenarios such as revenge, gaining territory, protecting one’s own country, ally, or an oppressed people, or spreading worldviews or democracy; their perceptions of whether the US role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was justified; and their views on various examples of aggressive or restrictive policy: domestic spying, torture, foreign military action, government-sanctioned assassinations, and laws about immigration, airport security, and gun control. In the second study, the respondents similarly began with the assessment of their individual MHB levels, and then were asked questions about their beliefs on whether the world, or the people in it, can be “pure evil” or “pure good”; their perceptions of the world as a competitive, dangerous, or unpredictable place; and their views on a series of hypothetical US responses to terrorism including extreme and preemptive force to attack terrorism around the world, the use of torture to get information, and the use of diplomacy to address the causes of terrorism.

For both studies, the survey responses to foreign policy questions were analyzed in relation to individual MHB levels, revealing that individuals with higher MHB levels had more positive perceptions of war, higher levels of support for aggressive security policies, lower support for peacebuilding and diplomacy, and a more pessimistic perception of the world—including the capacity for “pure evil.” The first study found that high MHB levels were directly related both to a person’s belief that war is an appropriate way to seek revenge, protect one’s country or others, and spread worldviews; and to a person’s support for restrictive policies such as spying, immigration restrictions, torture, and assassination. Individual MHB levels were not, however, associated with political conservatism, the justifiability of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, or support for an increase in foreign spying, airport security, or gun control. The second study found that individuals with higher MHB levels were more likely to hold pessimistic worldviews and to endorse the use of violence to protect their place in the world; showed greater support for extreme or preemptive militarism and torture; and exhibited lower levels of support for peacebuilding, diplomacy, or other nonviolent efforts to reduce war and manage conflict. MHB levels were not related to an individual’s support for humanitarian wars. 


In the past decade, especially during more recent years, public attention has shifted towards examining many of the norms and institutions that protected much of the “toxic masculinity” that has plagued our workplaces, universities, classrooms, homes, and broader society. Recent movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, and many more less-popularized but equally important movements throughout history, have brought attention to the way some men, as well as antiquated conceptions of masculinity or excuses of manly banter or “locker room talk,” have created toxic environments where inequality and sexual harassment have become commonplace. Additionally, as society begins to acknowledge the widespread mistreatment of women, past behavior deemed acceptable under the pretense of chivalry, protection, or honor can begin to be addressed as well. Often overlooked or underappreciated, compared to the more blatant acts of sexual assault/harassment/discrimination, is behavior attributed to seemingly “benign” masculinity that can also function in destructive ways. The author’s MHB question of “a man should protect his wife” may seem harmless to some, but it perpetuates the belief that women are in need of constant protection by men—and provides a rich cultural resource for justifying war. As this research has shown, masculine beliefs about protection and honor can carry over from the individual level to the global level, through increased support for aggressive policy and war.


This research leads us to critically examine a common belief that the capacity for violence, military might, nuclear weapons, etc., is necessary to maintain safety and security. By identifying the connection between an individual’s masculine honor beliefs (MHBs) and support for war and aggressive security policies, these findings teach us more about why some individuals support violence and war, and why others are more opposed. With this new understanding, concerned parties can work towards identifying traits associated with MHBs and address their causes. We can then begin to reshape the cultural and individual belief systems around honor and masculinity by directing attitudes away from violence and sexism, towards the constructive qualities of equality and strength found in all people. Many of these problems begin with how masculinity is defined as the possession of certain qualities or traits traditionally associated with men—and then how these traits are generally valued more highly than those so-called feminine traits traditionally associated with women. Instead, our qualities and traits should be ungendered, non-binary, not associated with men or women. The further we can untether personal traits (negative and positive) from their associations with masculinity and femininity, and in the process re-value those traditionally associated with femininity, the more likely it will become that people of all genders will feel free to endorse behaviors like empathy and diplomacy and nonviolence in the face of threats—behaviors that have as much of a chance, if not a greater chance, of providing safety and security. We will then also take away one more cultural resource for the justification of war, what Iris Marion Young calls the “logic of masculinist protection,” by pulling conceptions of “honor” away from the masculine protector/feminine protected dynamic.

Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies. To subscribe or download the full piece, which includes additional resources, visit their website.

Peace Science Digest


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