“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.
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.