“Who are these young men? What draws them to violent extremism? What are the ideologies that inspire them, the psychological predispositions that lead some and not others to sign up? What emotional bonds are forged and sustained through membership in violent extremist groups?”
—Michael Kimmel in Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism
Looking at the world today, violent extremist groups, white nationalism, and mass and school shootings seem to have an element in common that is obviously seen but inadvertently overlooked—the role of gender expectations, and specifically masculinity.
Why are most members of violent extremist groups men rather than women? Why is it mainly men that are apparent perpetrators of mass shootings?
In Michael Kimmel’s new book, Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, he shares what he learned from members of extremist groups, in this case the extreme right:
I heard them express their distress that the respect and obedience they felt was theirs by birthright actually had been upended, leaving them both bereft and enraged. I saw how they felt emasculated—humiliated as men—by preparing to be breadwinners, family providers, in a world that no longer seemed to need the skills they possessed. I explored how they used gender, in particular masculinity, to “problematize” the Other, to claim that racial or ethnic or religious sexual minorities were not worthy of the rewards they were now reaping, because “they” were not “real men.” And I saw how the organizations on the extreme right used masculinity to manipulate these guys’ pain and despair into white supremacist and neo-Nazi hatred as a way to “take their manhood back.” Was there a way to reach them, to help them get out of such a downward spiral?
It turns out that it was already happening. I began hearing about projects to help neo-Nazi skinheads, white nationalists, Islamist jihadists, and others get out of the movements they’d joined. It was the former members themselves who were doing it, one skinhead at a time, providing the support they needed—material and emotional—to break with a movement that had no future. And they were doing it precisely by addressing what the active members believed they were getting out of their participation. The world of “formers” was a world of building an alternative community, of offering solidarity, friendship, camaraderie, and compassion. Sometimes these formers offered material support, such as safe houses, job training, or job placement. Sometimes they just offered support without judgment, since so many guys feel tremendous shame about what they did while they were in the movement. (In fact, as I came to understand, some guys stay in the movement just because they cannot face the shame of honestly confronting their pasts.)
As I watched groups like EXIT in Stockholm, listened to a leader from Life After Hate recount his story to a throng of entranced Yeshiva students in Brooklyn, or learned how an anti-jihadist imam sits for hours, days even, with young jihadists, I began to see that what they offered these guys getting out was an alternative grounding for their identity, a way to feel like a man without the violence and hatred on which their sense of masculine identity had come to depend.
Read the first installment of the #HealingFromHate blog series regarding The President and the Populace: On Gender and Violent Extremism.