War and Gender: It's Mostly Men Who Are Violent Extremists
April 10, 2018 Michael Kimmel / Guardian UK
According to an ever-growing number of young men in Europe, the United States and across the Muslim world, we are at the beginning of a war. And no one knows how it will end. The fact is that virtually all of those mobilizing on all sides of this growing clash are young men -- whether right-wing extremists, anti-immigrant zealots, anti-Muslim skinheads and neo-Nazis or young Muslims readying for jihad.
How Men are Trained and Expected to Behave
Almost All Violent Extremists Share One Thing: Their Gender Michael Kimmel / Guardian UK
(April 9, 2018) -- According to an ever-growing number of young men in Europe, the United States and across the Muslim world, we are at the beginning of a war. And no one knows how it will end.
To me, what is interesting in the paragraph you just read is not the indeterminacy of the outcome. All crises are like that. No, it is the fact that "ever-growing number of young men" probably does not seem notable to most readers.
The fact is that virtually all of those mobilizing on all sides of this growing clash are young men -- whether right-wing extremists, anti-immigrant zealots, anti-Muslim skinheads and neo-Nazis or young Muslims readying for jihad.
It's so obvious, it barely needs noting.
And so it isn't noted.
If we imagine for a moment that all those amassing on all the different sides of this looming cataclysm, all those drifting to the edges of the political spectrum and toward violent extremism, were female, would there be any other story? Wouldn't magazines be filled with individual profiles, TV news shows highlighting the relationship between femininity and violence, bookshelves sagging from the weight of the "gender" analysis?
Yet the fact that virtually every single violent extremist is male creates hardly a ripple.
It can be easy to think: "But wait, what about those female suicide bombers? What about those skinhead girls? Those women of the Klan?"
This proves my point. We notice the minuscule percentage of female activists. We over-notice them precisely because they are so counterintuitive.
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I have interviewed over 100 current or former extremists, including American neo-Nazis and white supremacists, jihadists and Islamists in Canada and Great Britain, and anti-immigration skinheads in Europe, to understand how they experience masculinity on the extreme right. I heard many stories of what I came to call aggrieved entitlement: a gendered sense of entitlement thwarted by larger economic and political shifts, their ambitions choked, their masculinity lost.
Young men often come into extremist movements because they experience downsizing, outsourcing or economic displacement in specifically gendered ways: they feel themselves to be emasculated. This political-economic emasculation is often accompanied by a more personal sense of emasculation: they come because they are isolated or bullied in school and feel they need the support of something much bigger than they are.
Joining rightwing groups lent a gendered coherence to their sense of emasculation and frustration. Their manhood had been taken from them by unseen conspiratorial forces, and their recruitment was seen as a way to reclaim their manhood and to restore that sense of entitlement.
Proving one's masculinity plays a central role in recruitment, or entry, into the movement. Entry is a gendered effort to ward off the shame that comes with their failures -- their failures as men. "The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence," writes psychiatrist James Gilligan in his stunning book Violence. "The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame."
It's not just that they are male -- anatomically so, chromosomally so -- but that they see themselves as men. They enter feeling like failed men, like men who need to prove their masculinity, need to feel like real men, yet are thwarted at every turn.
The ex-Nazis, jihadists and white supremacists I have interviewed felt like failures as men. But instead of turning that sense of emasculation inward toward depression, interpersonal violence, suicide or self-medication through drugs or alcohol, these young men were somehow convinced to externalize their sense of emasculation, turn it into righteous political rage and lash out at those forces that they came to believe responsible for their emasculation.
Their failure was not theirs as individuals; it was something done to them -- by an indifferent state, by predatory corporations and rapacious bankers, by a host of "others" who had preyed upon global sympathies to get special bargains. They were not failures; they were victims.
It is this sense of victimhood -- that they are the new victims of the politically correct, multicultural society -- that lends a degree of righteousness to their political activities. Once inside, these men developed a worldview that constantly shored up their own sense of masculinity through the emasculation of the "others".
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I do not suggest that once we understand gender, we will fully understand the lure of violent extremism. Of course not. We still need to take many other factors into account.
A host of structural variables provide much of the foundation of extremism, including economic displacement in an increasingly interconnected global economy, the threats to -- or collapse of -- domestic patriarchy (wives working, children getting an education that circumvents paternal authority), political marginalization.
On to this foundation we add the psychological variables: childhood trauma, bullying, child abuse, sexual abuse. Women's employment and education have also set dramatic changes in motion.
But I argue that we cannot fully understand violent extremist movements without a gender analysis. And, more than that, we cannot adequately meet this challenge without understanding how gender -- masculinity -- is so deeply and intimately enmeshed in participants' experience.
There is a gendered political psychology of extremism: that the men who join do experience the need for camaraderie and community; the threats to a solid, grounded identity; the desire for a life of meaning and purpose; and the inability or obstacles to achieving that life as specifically gendered feelings urges and emotion.
Just for a moment, then, let's pay attention to gender and see where it takes us.
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So this is how it works: These young men feel entitled to a sense of belonging and community, of holding unchallenged moral authority over women and children, and of feeling that they count in the world and that their lives matter.
Experiencing threats to the lives they feel they deserve leads these young men to feel ashamed and humiliated. And it is this aggrieved entitlement -- entitlement thwarted and frustrated -- that leads some men to search for a way to redeem themselves as men, to restore and retrieve that sense of manhood that has been lost.
Joining up is a form of masculine compensation, an alternate route to proving manhood. To not see this as gendered is to miss the point.
Journalists and researchers usually start by focusing on the content of radical extremist ideology and then work backward to search for the fertile political and economic ground in which such hateful ideologies can take root.
Such research strategies can explain long-term political and economic causes, but they can't explain the filter mechanisms by which thousands experience the same political and economic circumstances yet only a handful are smitten by the cause.
It is common to then move immediately from these large-scale macro-level explanations to an individual psychopathology model. There must be something "wrong" with these particular guys, something in their family life or their upbringing.
It seems possible -- probable -- that their fathers beat them, abandoned them, were implacably ruthless with them. Or perhaps the boys were victims of abuse and bullying from male peers.
Psychological reductionism runs rampant as an explanation of violent extremism, but it begs the same question as the overly macro-level structural explanation: in the vast universe of kids who are abused, beat up, abandoned, bullied and otherwise mistreated by a hostile world, why do only a few of them ever blow themselves up as suicide bombers or begin training to defend the white race from "outsiders"?
Why these particular boys and men and not all the others?
In a sense, these two explanations turn understanding on its head. We need to ask why there are so few who end up in extremist movements, not why there are so many.
After all, there are thousands -- no, hundreds of thousands -- of boys in America who are bullied and gay-baited every single day. Yet they don't pick up assault weapons and "pull a Columbine" in every middle and high school in the land.
So we need to ask what are the structural features of those schools where they do pick up assault weapons, as well as the psychological characteristics of those particular boys.
What mediates between these over-deterministic structural explanations and the reductionist psychopathological ones is gender.
It is the specific ways that specific groups of young men understand and enact masculinity that help us navigate between the macro and micro, between the structural and the psychological.
It's within the gendered connection between humiliation and violence where we will find the key to understanding how some young men get into extremist politics and, therefore, how we, as policymakers, civil and community leaders, parents, religious leaders and citizens, can provide a route they can use to get out.
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We need to explore the experience of deep emotional connection, belonging, compensation for shame and humiliation, and purpose and mission in life -- the sense of finally living a life of glory and strength and power -- that provides the emotional nutrients that generate a breeding ground for young men eager and energized to prove their manhood.
For the extreme rightwingers, theirs is a movement not to take power, but to restore authority to its rightful heirs -- "us", not "them". To restore what was, and what should have been.
And, in the process, to restore their manhood. It is through their participation in the movement that they see an opportunity to retrieve that sense of masculinity that has been stolen from them by illegitimate poseurs and their government and its corporate henchmen.
Challenging violent extremism, therefore, means engaging these young men as men, not simply as jihadists or neo-Nazis or white supremacists.
It means offering them new ways by which they can prove their masculinity, to feel that they are real men -- that their lives matter.
These are young men who feel small, who resent being made to feel small and who are looking to get big by destroying others.
They search, sometimes literally, for that magic bullet that will make them a real man.
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