Every week on social media I seem to see something new described as “toxic.” Toxic has become the word of choice, it seems, to describe something that you feel is bad but seems to resist more precise condemnation. This word is everywhere. I’ve used it myself. Everyone seems to know what “toxic” means even though the word is applied to a staggeringly diverse group of maladies. Here’s a sampling just from my own reading:
- Evangelical culture is toxic
- YouTube comments are toxic
- Jordan Peterson is toxic
- Political discourse is toxic
- The New York Times is toxic
- Pornhub is toxic
- John Piper is toxic
I know exactly what each of these statements is supposed to make me feel: loathing, disgust, avoidance, etc. The problem here is that “toxic” seems to be a stand-in for other words, other descriptions, and those other words probably won’t mean the same thing if you applied them to everything else on the list. John Piper may be toxic in your view, but nobody would say he’s toxic just like Pornhub is toxic. The New York Times may be, according to you, a toxic institution, but it cannot be toxic for the same reasons that YouTube or my church are toxic. So that leaves us with the impression that toxic just really means bad.
So…why is toxic so much better/cooler/woker to say than “bad”? Where are the essays about bad masculinity? What does “toxic” reveal that bad doesn’t?
A couple theories:
1) We seem to be at a point, at least in online discourse, where the more imprecise a moral judgment is, the better. The obvious example is how loaded conversations about identity are with words like “oppress” or “bigot” or “right side of history.” If you say something like, “Bigots are on the wrong side of history,” everyone knows what you’re saying is true, even if you decline to define the words “bigot,” “wrong side,” or “history.” The word toxic is a nice shorthand because it carries with it the necessary negative connotation but does not contain in itself the object of moral scorn. If you say that such-and-such pastor is misogynistic, that’s an equally loaded term, but now you’ve advanced a claim that can be evaluated based on the meaning of words. But if you say that such-and-such pastor is toxic, you can mean that the pastor is misogynistic (and the right audience will know this) while not risking a potentially defeating response from someone who evaluates your claim.
This benefits the speaker, obviously. But it also benefits the audience by allowing feelings of disgust and icky outgroup-ness to be shared among people who may not have any idea why they’re supposed to feel this way. “Trust me, this person is toxic” is very freeing to hear to folks with particular kinds of ambition and tribal sensibilities.
2) The word “toxic” does not technically describe anything’s nature. It describes an effect. Polluted air is toxic if you breathe it. Rat poison is toxic if you ingest it. This leads me to wonder if a lot of people describe something as toxic as a way of signaling how it makes them feel, or how they believe it makes other people feel. Obviously very few people see the word toxic and make this instant connection, so the word is used as though it does describe something’s nature—e.g., something that’s immoral, prejudicial, oppressive, etc.
Thus, you get think pieces like, “Let’s Talk About Netflix’s Toxic New Show,” or, “The Oscars Have Hired an Unbelievably Toxic Host.” More substantively, you might get something like, “Conservative Evangelicals Embrace Toxic Theology.” In each example the upshot of the article is clear from the headline: Netflix needs to dump the show, the Oscars need a new host, and conservative evangelicals need to believe something different. But if these things are toxic, why does anyone support them, either a Netflix producer or the Oscars or evangelical theologians? Clicking through to the article will likely explain that toxic things are done by toxic people, and that the reason one needs to be sure to keep up with all the new emerging toxicity is so you can avoid toxic people at all costs. Kick them out of your life before they intoxicate you.
You’ve probably heard someone say they got out of a “toxic relationship.” In many cases what they mean is that the other person was mean, rude, selfish, possibly abusive. I’m not sure why describing a relationship as “toxic” is actually better than saying the reasons for it. It seems to me that if someone is truly cruel or manipulative, that moral character is worth describing truthfully, and calling them “toxic” is letting them off the hook. Perhaps the flip side is true too: perhaps some people say “toxic” when they really mean, “I didn’t enjoy this and it wasn’t what I wanted.” In that instance it’s pretty clear that describing another person as toxic lets you off the hook.
Imprecise moral judgments are valuable because they cast a wide net. Precise moral judgments can be pushed back upon by people who would seem qualified to do so. For example, if you accuse a person or group of being racist, a member of a different race could theoretically complicate your accusation by disagreeing with you. The way around this is to ascribe a moral but fluid negative characteristic to the group, so that people who are inclined to agree with you can do so and those not inclined are in danger of walking into your description by failing a standard they don’t know.
“Toxic” then seems to be the perfect word to describe the sin of not being the Right Kind of Person. It’s a conversation ender, a debate finisher, a slammed door. The only way to not be toxic is to not be toxic. The racist could repent, the misogynist could change, the slanderer could make a U-turn. But a toxic person cannot de-toxify. They don’t even know where to start.
A resolution for 2021: Don’t say “toxic” when you mean something else. Say what you mean, so that what you mean will be worth saying.