The Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty/Chet Strange)

After Charlottesville, solving the problem of angry men: What does healthy masculinity look like?

Salon talks to sociologist Michael Kimmel about radicalized men, extremism, white supremacy and Jordan Peterson


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Chauncey DeVega
August 9, 2018 7:00PM (UTC)

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, VA, during which anti-racism and human rights activist Heather Heyer was murdered. Dozens of other people who stood up against white supremacists and others operating under the banner of the "alt-right" were injured. The white angry men who marched throughout Charlottesville chanted hateful slogans such as "The Jews Will Not Replace Us" and "Blood and Soil." These right-wing brigands displayed their fealty to Donald Trump with great enthusiasm by chanting his slogan "Make America Great Again!" and wearing his de facto uniform of tan khaki pants and red "MAGA" hats. In total, the Charlottesville white supremacist riot was the explosive result of aggrieved white masculinity and racism.

Across the Middle East and other parts of the world, young men flock to Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS/ISIL and Al Qaeda. They want to engage in a glorious struggle to create an Islamic "golden age" where men (and boys) such as them will be Islamic knights in a struggle against Christendom.

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Both right wing domestic terrorists and extremists in the United States (and Europe) as well as Islamic terrorists around the world both embody a global crisis in masculinity. These men and boys are seeking meaning in their lives and to create a sense of community by asserting their "natural" rule over women and any other groups of people they deem to be subordinate and inferior. Disruptions in the economy and changing demographics caused by neoliberalism and globalization are also contributing to this crisis in "traditional" understandings of masculinity and gender. There is a great disruption and paradigm shift: too many men and boys find themselves adrift, embracing unhealthy behavior in an effort to make sense of their lives and social responsibilities.

What does healthy masculinity look like? How do race and gender relate to each other in right wing politics? Why are so many white men in America so angry and full of resentment when they are the most powerful group of people in the country? In what ways are political extremists such as neo-Nazis and other white supremacists similar to Islamic terrorists in ISIS/ISIL and Al Qaeda? How are young men being radicalized into violence and hate? What if anything can be done to deprogram them?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Michael Kimmel. He is a sociologist at Stony Brook University and one of the world's leading experts on gender and masculinity. Kimmel is also the author of numerous books include "Manhood in America," "Angry White Men," "The Politics of Manhood," "The Gendered Society" and the bestseller "Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men." His new book is "Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into and Out of Violent Extremism."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is your immediate reaction to the mass shootings such as those that recently occurred in Las Vegas, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere?

My immediate thoughts are to look at who is committing these mass murders, and in virtually every case, it's a middle class white man. When it's a middle-class white man, the way we talk about it in America is to focus on mental illness. We talk about how there must be something wrong with them. If these were all African-Americans, or if these were all Muslims, the last thing we would talk about is mental illness. The focus would be on "culture". We would talk about religion.

This is how racism works. Racism disaggregates white people so each individual white person is discussed as an individual. Thus, it is an individual mental illness problem. Whereas when black people act or when Muslims act, it's collective--it's them, it's their culture, it's their religion. What racism does is it desegregates white people and aggregates people of color. The second thing I noticed, of course, is that they're all male. It's not that there's something genetic or biological or chronic about men's violence and picking up guns. There is something about the cultural meaning of masculinity.

For example, if this violence was really caused by mental illness is it not rational to assume that rates of mental illness would be relatively similar between teenage boys and teenage girls? The answer is yes they are. So why is it that they're all boys? Well, it could be that boys have more access to guns, but it could also be that there's something about the meaning of masculinity that says when you are ashamed or when you are humiliated this is a gendered experience of emasculation and violence. The way you restore your manhood is through violence. All of these guys feel aggrieved and that something bad has been done to them. They are the "victims" and they are going to get even. American men don't get sad. We get mad. And American men don't get mad, we get even.

What triggers these young predominantly middle class white men and boys who are privileged in society to commit these acts of mass murder? American society is organized around protecting white heterosexual male privilege. How come they cannot process basic slights and rejections in a healthy way? Is it a function of collective narcissism?

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It's about entitlement. Narcissism is a type of self-aggrandizing behavior. I believe that these boys are coping with self-hatred and feeling emasculated. So that's the flip side, what is a disordered mirror image of that narcissism. These guys feel like they're the "victims". They start out with a notion that there is an adversarial relationship between women and men. It's a battle of the sexes. It's war between the sexes. Dating and sex and relationships are made into combat. You know as well as I do that when you go out with her she has something you want and you have to figure out strategies to get it. If you get some, you win and if she gives it up, she loses.

These guys all feel that way. They are following the Elliot Rodger model "I'm good looking, I'm attractive, I'm the perfect gentleman and I keep getting denied and I'm destined to die a virgin."

When you read work by Jordan Peterson or Ross Douthat which tries to analyze this crisis in masculinity--and in the process seems to enable some of the worst aspects of men's behavior--how do you make sense of it all? Why is their work so popular and apparently respected as being "serious" and "worthy of debate" because it is "rigorous"?

To start I would not lump Jordan Peterson and Ross Douthat together. They are not the same in terms of the origins of their claims.

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The broader lesson here is that every 20 years or so some male guru comes along and he says to men, "Your lives are empty. They're meaningless, you're not going anywhere". Now you have Jordan Peterson saying, "Your life is shallow, stand up straight, dig in, do something hard, do something meaningful with your life, will you? Just get off your ass. Oh by the way, it's not your fault that you're sitting there watching the world go by, it's women's fault". This is an argument that people have always been making.

In this logic, "If women would just put out a little more, men wouldn't have to rape them. If women would put out a little more, prostitution would end". It takes the types of malaise that Peterson observes among men and tries to offer solutions. I agree that young men are looking for meaning in their lives. They will find it, but not in the places that Jordan Peterson thinks. He basically says you men are lacking meaning and resilience, but it's not your fault. It's women's fault. And what is this system that these right-wing "men's rights" types and others are suggesting but basically a kind of state-run brothel?

We're talking about the "Handmaid's Tale" here. In many respects, Jordan Peterson is a philosophical clown, an intellectual court jester. He likes being provocative but he's not conscienceless. Peterson is a serious guy who has serious ideas about male malaise, but his diagnosis of it is so mistaken that he can't possibly offer a solution to it.

How is this malaise uniquely "male"? If we are looking at social malaise, atomization, economic insecurity, fear, depression, and other negative social forces they are present for all genders. Neoliberalism and globalization are impacting all people.

If you start with neoliberalism and globalization then the next step is the global economic restructuring of class relations in the United States which means that a large number of white men--and lower middle class and middle class and working class men as a group--are downwardly mobile as compared to their fathers and grandfathers. Then came agribusiness, then came Walmart, then came the outsourcing of all of those manufacturing jobs, the war against the unions, all of those things.

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This is what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild is in part arguing in the new book, "Strangers in Their Own Strange Land." I make a similar argument in my book "Angry White Men." These guys believe that they are entitled to certain kinds of jobs and other positions but they don't get them. The "other people" such as black people, gay people, women and immigrants are getting those jobs and opportunities.

I think that the difference is these white men start from a position of aggrieved entitlement and victimization. They believe they've gotten a bad deal and are getting screwed. Now, if you feel that you're a victim and you've gotten screwed, you have to figure out why you feel that way. One idea is the global restructuring of neoliberalism. Now if you think systematically and structurally you would conclude that, "Gee, I'm in the same position as African- American men and other dispossessed men. I should make an alliance with them." That is what we would call left-wing populism.

But if I say that those people of color and those immigrants are the cause of my malaise, the cause of my distress, then I move to right-wing populism because the difference between right-wing populism and left-wing populism is your position on race.

If you focus on class over race then you're a leftist. The right-wing populists supports Donald Trump and his predecessor The Tea Party because they focus on race.

Here's the thing about Trump that's really interesting to me. His base is almost entirely angry white men who experience aggrieved entitlement and believe that they deserve certain jobs and status and all these immigrants, people of color, gays and women and  everybody else is getting what they "deserve." They're angry because they feel dispossessed. They're emasculated. Now, what Trump has managed to do is to take this individual experience among his base and make it America's policy. We've got to, "Make America Great Again!" so we can be the biggest, baddest bully on the block. This is really a brilliant strategy to take the individual experiences of those individual angry and white men who feel dispossessed and make it a national sentiment

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In the United States these so-called "dispossessed" white men you are describing join right-wing domestic terrorist groups and also become diehard Trumpists. In other parts of the world they join ISIS, Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. How are these processes of radicalization similar or different?   

In my new book I examine several groups and organizations that work with ex-neo Nazis skinheads and white supremacists as well as one that works with ex-Islamic Jihadists. The reason for that is because I consider gender as something that links them all together.

Whether they're jihadists or neo-Nazis or the old established white supremacists like David Duke or the more contemporary skinheads, they are all searching for a kind of communal validation of masculinity. They also are seeking an assertion of manhood and feeling like strong and powerful men with missions. There is a big difference between the jihadists and the white supremacists that I interviewed which is around the process of radicalization.

The men who joined the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups tend to be guys who are kind of lonely, isolated and bullied. The schools were not good for them. There are young and the skinhead movement gives them a feeling of brotherhood, camaraderie and connection. The ideology starts later. They get in not because they're ideologically committed, but because they feel like they have found brothers, community, family.

They find some type of community where they feel like somebody values them. Jihadists are a little bit different. The jihadists that I met in Britain are caught between two systems. They were born in England but their parents were all immigrants from Pakistan or Afghanistan.

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Their parents wanted to maintain traditional Islamic values in the home. While their sons were saying, "Hey, listen, I'm born in England. I want to party, want to go to dances, I want to drink, I want to hang out with girls." Their parents respond, "No, you're going to have an arranged marriage, you are going to be very traditional." The kids then start going to high school and university and then British racism kicks in. They then realize that they're not going to be able to assimilate into British youth culture because they're brown. Then they're caught in between two worlds. They can’t assimilate. They don't want a traditional life. But then the Imams in their university and elsewhere start to radicalize them.

READ MORE: Right's attack on birthright citizenship: A new front in the battle for the Constitution

How can you deprogram these men? 

With the programs I worked with the guys come in already wanting to get out.  I'm not a therapist so I don't do this work but I watched it. Do group therapy with them or do job training or job placement. Because what I know is these guys get in at 15, 16, 17 years old, not because of an ideological commitment to white supremacy, but because they feel like these are their brothers, their community, and it makes them feel good and validated.

If you want to get them out, you have to give them a place to land. You have to give them a job. They also get out through relationships with their parents as well as with their girlfriends, wives and children.

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What I would say is that if you want to try and make them feel bad for being in the movement you will never reach them. Of course, you want to erode some of their earlier beliefs and you do that by having them interact with men of color or Jews or gay people or other people they were taught to hate. Hopefully then they begin to realize," Oh my God, they're normal people."

What would a healthy version of masculinity consist of? How do we overcome "toxic masculinity"?

I don't use the "toxic" and "healthy" masculinity framework very much because masculinity is a mixed bag. There are parts of it that have a lot of integrity and honor. But if you ask most men what it means to be a "real man" they don't say any of those things. They say "strong, stoic, never show your feelings, never cry, win at all costs, get rich, get laid."

What I argue is that to be a "good man" or a "real man" is constantly being evaluated and judged by others. It is a constant performance. Every man will face a dilemma in his life where he will be tasked with proving his masculinity to other men. Men are also asked at some point to not betray the "brotherhood" because it would mean betraying other man and some version of masculinity and its rules.

I believe that the conversation we men need to have is, "How can we stand up for each other? How can we support each other in being the good man that we already know how to be?" I am not interested in telling men that they have to be different. I'm interested in supporting men in being more authentically themselves and who they say they want to really be.

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In these conversations we often focus on what is negative. Are there aspects of masculinity in this political and social moment in the United States and abroad that you are hopeful about?

I just did a book about men, guys who had Swastikas tattooed on their necks, who spent their evenings wandering around in packs of drunken brawlers high on painkillers looking for immigrants to beat up. These guys went to the darkest place you can imagine and they got out of it. You have to be inspired by that. If these guys can get out of such a life then there is hope.

A former skinhead turned de-radicalization activist reflects on Charlottesville

Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead turned de-radicalization activist, talks to Salon about white supremacists.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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