Angry young men

| March 16, 2024

On March 15 the world will mark five years since Australian man Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tarrant, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars was told by the court during his sentencing that he had “no apparent mental disorders or psychiatric conditions, and that there was “insufficient information to make a formal diagnosis of any personality disorder”

Instead the court said he was described as “having held unusually racist beliefs since your late teens that have developed and intensified through your adult life”.

Tarrant was primarily radicalised in online chat forums, and his ideology fuelled by his supposed experiences of travelling in Europe.

He described in his manifesto as having “emotions swinging between fuming rage and suffocating despair at the indignity of the invasion of France”, which he claimed was through migration.

Tarrant’s warped view of a society that he will no longer participate in is illustrative of many extremist views held by young men across Australia and the globe.

These lonely, disconnected men with the chance to exert horrific violence on communities they see as enemies have been one of the stories of this generation.

From the more than 200 Australians who joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to the rise of neo-Nazi groups taking to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, the world is facing a collective anger problem and has been for at least a decade.

The ‘hope’ and optimism of the Obama presidency was quickly replaced by a divisive, polarising Trump presidency that captured the anger and resentment of those who felt left behind.

This has been the case globally as populists and demagogues have seized, and sought to maintain, their power.

Australia has not been immune to this, and numerous parties and actors seek to exploit societal fault lines for political gain.

Populists continue to attempt to sell simple solutions to the intractable complexity of our modern world, where an individual’s emotional response to the changing world is most important, and where anger is seen to be innately special.

Because anger appears to justify many things.

It is the key emotion behind Vladimir Putin’s festering resentment at the loss of Soviet power and invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict and global rise of violent extremism and terrorism across the religious and political spectrum.

We are witnessing new formations of violent extremism, from the far right and conspiratorial movements such as ‘QAnon’, which blame an invisible elite, through to involuntary celibates, or ‘incels’, made up primarily of younger men who blame feminism and women for their deep grievances.

However, history tells us anger is not a purely negative emotion.

Righteous anger at injustice and indignity is a critical agent of social change.

From the parable of Jesus overturning the money lenders’ tables to the abolitionists and suffragettes to #MeToo and Black Lives Matter or the many anti-authoritarian movements across the global south, anger at the abuse of power is a central element driving progress.

It appears, however, that a retributive, resentful, and anger-fuelled hatred is, at this moment, in the ascendant. This is particularly the case among men, who are more likely to vote for populist movements and make up the bulk of members of violent extremist movements.

Answering why we have a surplus of angry men and what the role of masculinity is in that equation becomes crucial to understanding why.

Part my research explores why men are drawn disproportionately to the narratives of reactionary politics and hate-filled violent extremists.

Given Australia’s historic deep-seated gender divides and status as a settler society, where gender roles are often reinforced, it is no surprise that some of the world’s most celebrated feminist scholars are Australian.

Australians, including Raewyn Connell, have been among those pioneering the modern understanding of how masculinity interacts with power.

Until recent decades, the gender roles were definitively marked in what some wish to call the traditional family.

This enabled a clear delineation between men occupying a particular social status as the ideal type of masculinity — typically white, healthy, wealthy and successful — and those locked out of this status who were supposedly shamed, humiliated and resented their “subordinated” status.

These are the people who historically have been associated with displays of ‘hyper masculinity’.

However, these scripts have been slowly changing.

An economic system grounded in the male breadwinner role has shifted dramatically to a free market economic model since the 1970s.

The male-dominated dividend of traditional societal structures, including traditional blue collar and white-collar work, have been eroded.

As manufacturing and mining have shut down and labour hire firms have shaped the blue-collar experience, precarity and short-term work have come to characterise white collar professional work that once offered a pathway to a job for life and guaranteed pathway to middle management.

At the same time, the mass entry of intelligent, competent women into the workforce with increasing protections has added a layer of complexity and competition to the traditional white collar male pathway, challenging the dominance of “mediocre men”. This led Connell to refer to ‘neoliberalism’ (free market economics) as ‘post patriarchal’. 

These changes have led to resentment, anxiety, and anger (not to mention nostalgia for an imagined lost past) among a sizeable minority of men.

Traditional support mechanisms for men including trade unions, offering solidaristic bonds, and church, offering a sense of community, that championed the male breadwinner model have become increasingly marginalised.

Many men have consequently turned online to find community and fill this vacuum and to air their grievances. Michael Kimmel refers to this as ‘aggrieved entitlement’, though increasingly, no expectation of success among some younger men emerges.

We see men being drawn into the ‘manosphere’, an online ecosystem of anti-women online commentators that includes influencers such as Andrew Tate and that promote hyper masculinity, affluence, competitiveness and most importantly, belonging.

These narratives blame feminism, women and ‘woke’ liberal elites.

Their narrative messaging intersects with populists like Trump and violent far right and religious extremists alike and have resulted in a de-territorialised backlash against feminism including a push to reclaim control of women’s bodies, minorities including the LGBTIQA+ communities, migrants, and ‘elites’, often with a strong antisemitic flavour.

Populists and violent extremist movements alike are highly skilled at calibrating their narrative messaging to target masculinity as a recruitment mechanism. Interviews for my research reveal that men are most likely to become angry and experience hatred when experiencing a perceived personal slight or disempowerment.

Populists and violent extremists mobilise anger against a perceived societal level attack on men and personal experiences of emasculation. They offer upward social trajectories, be they economic, political, or spiritual and a sense of empowerment in the face of shame, humiliation and despair.

For example, neo-Nazis emphasise the importance of white pride to men who would otherwise feel they have nothing to be proud of.

The strategies employed to do so across the political and religious spectrum of populist and violent extremist actors are remarkably similar. Violence is framed as an honourable act and defensive mechanism against a hostile other .

This has important implications for our politicians, policy makers, societal institutions, and communities alike.

It can shape how we approach the education of boys and young men about manhood, but also how we advance gender equality and approaches to competition and the need to belong.

It requires that our politicians and policy makers give serious consideration to an increasing group of those who feel left behind.

This is particularly important in the context of a cost of living and housing crisis.

As for countering violent extremism, this research informs a more calibrated approach to the development of alternative narratives that challenge the framing of masculinity as somehow in deficit, and promote positive viable alternatives for men looking for solidarities and belonging.

Research referred to in this paper has been funded by the Australian Research Council

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.