The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

On Stopping Hate

rally-2Yesterday I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia to protest the desecration of Mount Carmel Cemetery and the recent wave of hate and violence against many individuals and groups. I do not often go to rallies, but this was too important to me. I took the train—brought work along and got a lot done—walked two miles in sun and breeze to Independence Mall, and joined with the hundreds who had come from near and far. I am glad I did and glad that there were so many people there. It was a great and affirming event.

As I listened to the speeches and songs (sung by wonderful choruses—including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Student Choir and the Mainline Unity Choir), I asked myself whether it was possible to get rid of hate, and if not, what could be done to curb it. Hate, it seems, is part of our makeup; in some ways it functions to define us.

I hate a certain kind of syrupy prose, so it would be easy for me to hate a writer of syrupy prose. If pressed, I would claim that it was the writing I hated, not the person, but it’s all too easy for one to slip into the other. It’s not bad to hate certain syrupy prose; those antipathies spur better writing. If I see syrup in my own prose, I take out a spoon and scoop it out. Begone! But derision itself is harder to scoop; it slides past the object into a larger field.

So instead of stopping hatred, which will probably be with us forever, I would try to stop the slippage. People often speak in terms of hating the deed but not the perpetrator, or hating the sin but not the sinner. There’s much more to it, though; it also involves recognizing how little we know about another. But what does this take? It seems to have to do with halting oneself, seeing one’s own limits. It also requires some laws and safeguards.

It also has to do with recognizing what we have in common: first of all dignity, but also history, family, friends, yearnings, emotions, thoughts, questions, needs, duties, and more. It is no trifle to hold the door for someone or help someone carry a baby carriage down the stairs; this not only shows courtesy but allows both the giver and receiver of assistance to see something in the other.

How, then, do we build these parallel understandings: that we know little about others, and that we have much in common?

The first way is through spontaneous acts of kindness and courtesy–helping an elderly person across the street, welcoming someone to sit next to us (in response to the question “Is this seat taken?” and hundreds of other daily possibilities.

Another is through structured acts: volunteering, participating in events, visiting other countries and parts of the U.S., and reading opinions and perspectives that differ from our own.

Another is through building and enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, electing responsible and honorable leaders, and fostering civic education.

Another is through schools: teaching subject matter in all its glory, posing challenging questions, bringing students into dialogue and discussion, and creating an atmosphere where intellect and art are respected and cherished.

Another is through literature, history, and art, which have a way of surprising the soul and accompanying us through our lives.

Another is through mathematics and science, which have a common language across cultures and help us understand the relations between the abstract and concrete.

Another is through dialogue: learning from others, discussing easy and difficult questions, telling and hearing stories.

Another is through gathering and speaking against acts of hate: affirming that they are unacceptable and something else is possible.

Maybe all of this involves an internal gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it has to do, I think, with keeping oneself in check, recognizing that one is not the master of the universe or the arbiter of human nature. This sounds like an intellectual understanding, but it’s partly visceral too. It’s the dropping of hands, the halting of steps, the catching of impulse in an instant.

In his challenging and exhilarating book Human Dignity, George Kateb takes up the difficulty of dignity and proceeds to defend it. Human dignity, according to Kateb, has two aspects. It is founded, first, on “humanity’s partial discontinuity with nature”—that is, the special gifts and responsibilities of humans—and second, on the equal status of all humans. These two principles may be in conflict with each other—human dignity may have inherent contradictions—but it is better, he argues, to deal with the conflicts than to break dignity into pieces or dismiss it altogether.

Those ideas guide me when I stand against hate. It is not that I imagine that we will ever eradicate hatred from ourselves or others. Rather, I affirm something greater and more difficult: my responsibility to help build the world, and my profound equality with everyone. Along with that, I remember that what I see and know is just a speck of what exists.

 

Photo credit: Thanks to the kind person who took this picture.

Note: I made a few additions and edits to this piece after posting it.