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2018, don’t you know that you’re toxic?

2018 has been a year of strange occurrences. With scandals unravelling, climate catastrophes, and increasingly polarised politics, 2018 was not an easy year to get through. Perhaps Oxford Dictionaries has most successfully summed up the status quo with its Word of the Year: toxic.

Although a formal definition of the word ‘toxic’ is limited to describing poisonous substances, its modern use has spanned much further. In fact, Oxford’s decision to declare ‘toxic’ the Word of the Year is a result of “the sheer scope of its application”. Toxic is now used as a descriptor for a myriad of topics – from chemicals to relationships, and yes, even masculinity. Oxford explains the basis of its choice as “The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance,” as stated on its website.

Admittedly, toxicity has been significantly used in recent times. Oxford Dictionaries has experienced a 45% rise in searches for the word on its website, which plays a part in its choice of the word as Word of the Year. It has also provided a list of collocates, or words commonly used alongside toxic. In first place was ‘chemical’, followed by ‘masculinity’. In sixth and seventh place are ‘relationship’ and ‘culture’ respectively. A recollection of events from this year would inform us of the extensive relevance of the word.

2018 has been a year of strange occurrences

The phrase ‘toxic chemical’, according to Oxford Dictionaries, increased in relevance and popularity due to the use of Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last March. The poisoning was notorious for its unexpected nature: the use of a chemical weapon in a time of peace, not unlike a reliving of Cold War-esque confrontations, as The New York Times observed. Diplomatic relations deteriorated, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May claiming that this was an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK” and proceeding to expel 23 Russian diplomats. In retaliation, Russia also expelled the same number of British diplomats. It has continuously rejected any claims of responsibility for the incident, with various accusations on their part, such as British agents committing the crime to divert attention away from Brexit, or American agents or Ukrainians, among others.

The nerve agent incident has brought attention towards the plausibility that certain powers may be stockpiling toxic chemical weapons in order to leverage power over others. Suspicions have increased despite the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), of which 192 countries have agreed upon, including Russia. This convention stated that no country is to develop, stockpile or use chemical weapons. A BBC report stated that the CWC’s operational arm has overseen a destruction of 97% of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons. Russia itself has declared the destruction of nearly 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons since September 2017. However, there are loopholes in the convention – some chemicals, especially those newly invented, are left undeclared to regulatory bodies and therefore no checks have been devised to control quantities. This was the case with Novichok. As foreign relations continue to become less cooperative, the potential ownership and use of toxic chemicals (to intimidate, declare war, gain notoriety on the international stage, among other reasons) is surely a worrying thought.

Another prominent issue raised this year is ‘toxic masculinity’. Origins for the term, some authors argue, can be traced back to the mythopoetic men’s movement in the ’80s and ’90s, which involved mostly middle-class, middle-aged men participating in rituals like “drumming, chanting and sweat lodges” in an attempt to reconnect with a ‘deep’ masculine identity. The movement was heavily influenced by the book Iron John by Robert Bly, arguing that modern society has resulted in the loss of ‘deep masculinity’, blaming industrialisation, separation of fathers from their children and second-wave feminism. Mythopoetic figure Shepherd Bliss coined the term ‘toxic masculinity’ to describe the result of a repression of deep masculinity. However, this initial definition was aimed at the effects of toxic masculinity on toxically masculine men, whereas the modern definition is more concerned with its effect on others, particularly women.

Toxic masculinity as a concept still remains a large problem even as 2018 draws to a close

Psychologist Terry Kupers defines toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence”. It is viewed as a negative manifestation of hegemonic masculinity, with multiple representations, from ‘casual’ workplace sexism to domestic abuse and rape. Certainly, the #MeToo movement that followed The New York Times’ report on sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein has brought notions of unhealthy masculinity into the limelight. Since then, #MeToo has dominated public discourse on the sheer magnitude of harassment and violence towards women behind closed doors, and the need to reassert justice for the victims.

The movement celebrated its one year anniversary last October, and its impact around the globe has been to open up a dialogue regarding continued sexual harassment and power imbalances between men and women, and in some cases, has succeeded in holding violators accountable for their actions. A later analysis by The New York Times discovered that 201 men lost their jobs and positions as a result of allegations brought forward against them.

However, toxic masculinity as a concept still remains a large problem even as 2018 draws to a close. Feminist groups frequently criticise US President Donald Trump for his toxic masculinity, which many argue is reflected not only in the policies his administration has passed, but also in his tweets and demeanour. From the uproar caused by his previous comments of being able to grab women “by the pussy” which was revealed in his 2016 election campaign, to his successful nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court judge despite a testimony on sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate. Furthermore, propositions to defund Planned Parenthood under Trump’s administration has spurred criticism of his stance on women’s reproductive rights.

The US Midterm elections in late 2018 saw the largest number of women ever elected into Congress

Toxic masculinity, however, is not restricted to the upper echelons of government. An increased awareness of ‘incel’ communities, an abbreviation of ‘involuntarily celibate’, has surfaced due to the Toronto van attack back in April 2018. Alex Minassian, the alleged perpetrator, posted on his Facebook account the night before the attack: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” Far from being revolutionary, the incel movement is an online community of men who blame women for their inability to find love and sexual intimacy. They thrive on internet forums such as Reddit and 4Chan, often with vulgar discussions of their fantasies to punish women through “sexual assault, rape or disfigurement”, according to GQ.  In incel vernacular, ‘Chad’ is the term for attractive men, and ‘Stacy’ an attractive woman – but one targeted for revulsion and even violence. Although Reddit has since closed down the community, incels have still been able to interact on other forums.

Fortunately, there have been some incredible victories this year. The US Midterm elections in late 2018 saw the largest number of women ever elected into Congress. Arguably, this may not have been possible with another president in office. Keli Goff, writing for The Guardian, claimed that the record number of women running is due to a fear of an America where assault is normalised.

Oxford’s Word of the Year may have summed up the mood of 2018. But the runners-up are no less bleak. ‘Gaslighting’ was shortlisted, defined as “The action of manipulating someone by psychological means into accepting a false depiction of reality or doubting their own sanity”. The word increased in popularity after Love Island contestant Rosie Williams confronted fellow contestant Adam Collard about abandoning her for another woman on the show, compelling the charity Women’s Aid to warn against signs of emotional abuse and gaslighting behaviour.

The phrase has taken to storm…with people speculating who has BDE and who doesn’t…and nominations are certainly not limited to men

‘Techlash’ also made the list, described as “A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley”. This clearly resonates with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, harvesting data from millions of Facebook accounts to influence voting behaviour, putting into question the tech industry’s ethical grey area. The following events, such as GDPR laws being put into place in May and Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony, remain important in popular culture.

Perhaps a more light-hearted take on the shortlist is the inclusion of ‘big dick energy’ – a Twitter-invented phrase describing understated confidence. This is the brainchild of Twitter user @babyvietcong, who responded to Ariana Grande and then-fiance Pete Davidson’s Twitter conversation, stating that Davidson exuded ‘big dick energy’. The phrase has taken storm, with people speculating who has BDE and who doesn’t, and nominations are certainly not limited to men. It seems that the internet has unanimously agreed that Cate Blanchett indeed has BDE. Other nominations include Chris Evans, Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street and even the Microsoft paperclip. A Vox article evens goes as far as calling BDE the inverse of toxic masculinity: “Toxic masculinity is an unsuccessful attempt to mimic BDE, and then furious resentment when that mimicry becomes impossible.”

Do you think ‘toxic’ is an appropriate summation of 2018? For such an unpredictable yet eventful year, it seems impossible to guess what may be in the running for 2019’s Word of the Year.

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