Why do men join far right groups, and how can we get them out?

Last night I went to an excellent lecture from Professor Michael Kimmel, hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Kimmel researches why men are attracted to far right groups and spoke about how to get them out in this talk. . There were a bunch of people who were interested in the lecture when I was tweeting about it, so I thought it would be worth noting down some of Kimmel’s ideas and some of my own reflections on them.

First! Please note, I’ve included some of the cartoons that Kimmel used in this lecture to illustrate his point (photos I’ve taken of his slides). These cartoons are extremely racist, homophobic and sexist. I am not using them as an endorsement of their message, but rather as a way to highlight the point Kimmel was making. But beware of their content!

Kimmel’s research is based on the acknowledgement that men are more likely to join and be active in far right groups than women (although not exclusively), and therefore to understand these groups we have to have a gendered analysis of them. Understanding gender alone, he argued, would not allow us to understand the extreme right. However, you also cannot understand the extreme right without understanding gender.

Kimmel went through a three stage process in how far right groups talk about and use gender in their materials, recruiting etc. I’m going to go through these stages and then provide some further reflections.

Stage 1: A lost masculinity

According to this flier, masculinity has been taken away to the point that men can’t even look after their own daughters.

First, Kimmel argues that far right groups argue that masculinity has been taken from men, and in particular white men. This he describes as a sense of ‘aggrieved entitlement’ – a belief that as men these guys are entitled to particular roles in society (masculine ones) and that these roles had been taken from them.

Kimmel used the example of a talk show he appeared on in which he sat opposite men who were upset that they were not longer able to get particular jobs. The segment was titled “A black woman stole my job”, hinting (not subtly at all) a sense of entitlement to particular jobs (‘my jobs’) that were not being stolen from them. There is an aggrieved entitlement. Men once had a right to something, and that right is being taken away. This is presented as a loss of masculinity.

Stage 2: Problematising the masculinity of the other

Attacking the hyper-masculinity of feminists

Secondly, Kimmel argues that far right groups attack the masculinity of the ‘other’.  This occurs through labeling the ‘other’ as either hyper or hypo masculine.

For example, far right groups label gay men as being extremely sexually active (hyper masculine), whilst also being weak and effeminate (hypo masculine). They label African Americans as violent and sexually rapacious (hyper masculine), but also as reliant on welfare and unable to provide for their family (hypo masculine). They show Jewish people as controlling the economy and global affairs (hyper masculine), but also as weak, awkward and ‘schmucky’ (hypo masculine).

No matter what, the ‘other’ has a form of problematic masculinity. This masculinity is one that presents a threat and therefore deserves to be attacked.

Stage 3:  Join us and your masculinity will be rehabilitated

The Aryan version of the Charles Atlas cartoon

Finally, Kimmel argues that far right groups create a pitch that says ‘join us and you’ll get your masculinity back’. They use images of the strong white man reclaiming his masculinity, quite frequently with the beautiful white women as his reward.

Kimmel used a re-adaption of the Charles Atlas cartoon (see image), in which the weak white man gets bullied by an African American, decides to join a neo-nazi group and become buff, and then goes back to confront the bully. His new masculinity, gained from joining the far right, is rewarded by being able to get the beautiful white women.

A standard narrative

In doing so Kimmel set up a standard narrative that he sees across these groups. It goes: masculinity is being stolen by an ‘other’ (African American, muslim, gay person, jew etc.), and this is making white men weak victims. Through joining the far right these men are able to reclaim this masculinity, and in turn a sense of self-worth and meaning in life.

I think there is a lot of validity to Kimmel’s narrative arc, and he has been able to show that throughout a range of resources he highlighted in his talk. But what I want to ask is why does this narrative work so well?

An immediate response we could have to this is to just call these dudes pathetic, whining man babies (#masculinitysofragile) and to move on. But I think there is value in understanding the attraction of this narrative.

Kimmel argues that these men are angry, they are scared, they are isolated, they struggling. He used examples from his current research, focused primarily in Europe, where he is researching teenage boys who are increasingly lonely, scared, alone, struggling at school, victims of bullies etc. This is due to a range of social factors, primarily based in fundamental economic, and to an extent social changes, that have happened in recent decades. What happens, Kimmel argues, is that the far right often provides the first and frequently only place that provides these young men a place to land. Far right groups are the place with the best parties, with a social circle that one can enter, a place to feel welcome (strangely enough). They are often the first group of people who care about them.

The masculinity of the white man being destroyed by the other.

There is an important role to masculinity here as well. While we mock these expressions of masculinity through hashtags such as #masculinitysofragile it is important to remember that many of these boys have grown up being told the story that they survive and thrive in society through their masculinity. Men are all told we will grow up, get the girl, be the breadwinner, and survive through our strength and masculinity. Our role models are superheros, sports stars and characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne. Yet increasingly these notions are being undermined by an awful economic system, or challenged by new political ideas. While these social challenges are good (the economic situation not so much), this often don’t leave these men with a place to land or a different path they can take. In turn a message that says you can reclaim this masculinity, the one that was promised to you, ends up being really appealing.

I think this has fascinating implications for how we think about and respond to the far right. Kimmel was very strong in arguing that the feelings and anger that these men have is real. There is a lot being lost in a neoliberal world – one of rising inequality, stagnating wages, insecure work etc etc. The problem he argues is where these men direct their anger. They have created a completely false enemy (African Americans, faminists, LGBT people etc.) rather than looking toward the real causes of these problems.

In doing so Kimmel argues that we do ourselves a great disservice by telling these guys that their feeling feelings are stupid or wrong. Their feelings, even if not true, are real, and we must acknowledge that. More importantly he argues, that many of these men are not wedded to the ideology, but are instead there for the community, the sense of togetherness, the sense of taking back their masculinity. To get them out therefore we don’t need to challenge the ideology, but instead to give them a different place to land. To provide them with a different community, a different space, a more healthy picture of masculinity.

I think this is the most challenging thing, particularly when talking about people who are and have been members of white supremacist, neo Nazi, fascist, misogynistic etc. groups. Kimmel’s approach requires a sense of understanding and empathy, even if we violently disagree with the solutions and conclusions that these men come to. While I don’t think this works all the time, I think it has some value, and it is something that we as a left must grapple with as we approach a rising right around the world.

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