Do Toxic People Exist?

With a background in psychology and having spent much time in the extremely human realms that are politics and religion, I am possibly qualified to give a view on the question in the title. No. Toxic people don’t exist. People exist with toxic qualities. In fact, everyone has them. Perhaps, that’s stating the obvious but in the current discourse one would be led to believe that life is a melodrama of good guys and bad guys, the storylines are simple, and one may understand their entireties after a cursory review. It is ironically expressed with the best meaning of sympathy that one should not try to understand the person one has had their feelings hurt by but to paint them as a monster and expel them from their life. To, in political lingo, “cancel” them.

            There are dark personality disorders and there are abusive people. Yet, the red flags for these and the reasons for which people label others “toxic” and expunge them from their life are not nearly the same. One is liable to label another toxic, not for the presence of a dark personality disorder or signs of being abusive but merely for having hurt one’s feelings. Famously, cancelling people is after things like racist remarks, low-level sexual harassment, and other asinine indiscretions. Ultimately, one wants to be a victim to morally vindicate oneself and surrenders to one’s cognitive biases which narrate one’s life story in the most sympathetic way. Yet, the true character of a good person will often be ignored for doing this. Mountains will be made out of molehills and sociopaths will be made out of saints.

            It is also dangerous to judge people based on how they make one feel. To use a rather famous example of all of this; Taylor Swift’s canon can be summed up as vindictive self-pity over her experiences in non-abusive relationships. In one of her earliest songs, she burns someone in effigy and spreads disinformation to her small Southern town that her erstwhile partner is a homosexual and more. Taylor lists his transgressions which, while mildly inconsiderate, no reasonably moral person would burn someone in effigy over or hate someone over that little. Malicious gossip that could seriously destroy someone’s life was spread possibly affecting his job prospects, his ability to make friends, his mental health, possibly to the point of self-harm.

Yet, more than the hatred and lack of empathy, her infamous failures in relationships are likely due to judging her partners, not on their true character, but on how they make her feel in the immediate and acute. Successful and good potential relationships have been foregone because she is not looking for character, she is looking for a platonic ideal that doesn’t exist if the lyrics of the song “White Horse” “I’m not your princess; this ain’t a fairy-tale, I gonna find someone someday who will actually treat me well!” are to be believed. If, to her, a non-toxic person is a fairy-tale prince then she’s missed the entire moral of the fairy-tale “The Princess and the Toad” and shall forever be wanting for a fairy-tale prince and may fall for a charlatan because the only perfect people are the pervasively dishonest.

            While none of Taylor Swift’s partners have been truly abusive, to determine whether someone is good or bad based on how they make one feel in the shallowest terms is the path to the proverbial piper. It is King Lear preferring the flattery of his two dishonest daughters over the honesty of his best. If you label people toxic for offending you and are intolerant of the messiness of a human and demand your platonic ideal of a person then you won’t get a good person, you’ll get a shameless politician. You’ll get someone who tells you what you want to hear and does the small things right but ultimately does the big things wrong and screws you.

In poetic irony, the label of “toxic” in how it is typically employed is more likely to lead one to a “toxic” person. The label is contrary to empathy and impedes mutual understanding but personality disorders the term “toxic” vaguely alludes to such as malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Anti-Social Personality Disorder commonly entail people who are politicians with their friends and partners who tell them what they want to hear and endear their people with small things. The label “toxic” causes people to judge people on shallow and shortsighted metrics, mostly subjective to one’s own feelings, denigrates the characters of the ultimately virtuous and kind, and often leads one to the actual worst people.

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