On March 22nd 2017, Khalid Masood drove a car on to the pavement of Westminster Bridge, killing four people and injuring 50 more, then fatally stabbing a police officer outside the Palace of Westminster before being himself shot and killed.
Exactly two months later on May 22nd, Salman Abedi walked up to the entrance of Manchester Arena just as a pop concert ended and exploded the bomb in his backpack, killing himself and 22 others.
June 3rd, Khuram Butt and two accomplices drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge before randomly attacking members of the public with kitchen knives. By the time they were shot dead by police, they had killed eight people and wounded 48 more.
June 19th. Shortly after midnight, Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd of Muslims outside Finsbury Park mosque before being restrained by worshippers. When emergency services arrived, one person lay dead, 11 injured.
On the morning after the Finsbury Park attack, the Twitter account @WomenDefyHate asked a question that always echoes in one form or another in the aftershock of such atrocities:
“Seriously, for fucks sake, can men stop being violent? I’m no prissy, no feminazi type. But men have to stop this violence. Men.”
It is an essential question that demands an answer and, tragically, the answer is certainly no. Men cannot stop being violent. At least not all of us, not all the time. Not the way we are raised, socialised, instructed to behave, taught to react. Not for as long as we are raised to believe that a man’s worth and value as a human being is inextricably tied to his capacity and willingness to both inflict and tolerate violence, aggression and brutality.
With very few exceptions, our global human society, our cultures and our global economic systems are steeped in militarism, in warfare, in violence. Perhaps the most profoundly symbolic moment of the recent General Election campaign came during the live TV leader interviews when Jeremy Corbyn was harangued by not one, not two, but no fewer than nine different middle-aged/elderly men over his anti-nuclear weapons beliefs. Each of these men seemed to become more red in the cheek than the one before, each more furious, more indignant that a candidate for Prime Minister might express reluctance to authorise the instant slaughter of hundreds of millions of innocent civilians in a first strike nuclear attack.
What we saw in that exchange was not a debate about military strategy or the wisdom of mutually assured destruction. What we saw was a vivid unfolding of blunt masculinity politics (a game which, of course, female politicians are also expected to play and some whom play very well indeed.) Corbyn was being held over the coals, superficially for the politics of relative risk appraisal, but at an emotional and psychological level he was having his machismo tested and (in the eyes of his inquisitors) he was coming up short and they despised him for it.
There is a marvellous essay covering this by Raewynn Connell (writing then as Robert W Connell) in a book published a while back by UNESCO. (Chapter 1 in the pdf here.) As I read it again this morning, something leaped out at me that places one final piece in the jigsaw of awfulness that has made up our summer of 2017. You might not think there is much in common between recent terrorist atrocities and the unimaginable horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire. Connell provides the link, identifying the profoundly masculine gender processes involved in neoliberal economics and globalised politics.
World politics today is increasingly organized around the needs of transnational capital and the creation of global markets. Neo-liberalism speaks a gender-neutral language of ‘markets’, ‘individuals’, and ‘choice’, but has an implicit view of masculinity. The ‘individual’ of neo-liberal theory has the attributes and interests of a male entrepreneur. Institutionally, the strong emphasis on competition creates a particular kind of hierarchy among men.
Meanwhile the increasingly unregulated world of transnational corporations places strategic social power in the hands of particular groups of men. Here is the basis of a new hegemonic masculinity on a world scale. The hegemonic form of masculinity in the new world order, I would argue, is the masculinity of the business executives who operate in global markets, and the political executives and military leaderships who constantly deal with them. I call this ‘transnational business masculinity’, and I think that understanding it will be important for the future of peace strategies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying neoliberalism caused the Manchester bombing and I am not saying economic conditions drove a van into worshippers outside a mosque (nor would Connell, I’m pretty sure). I am saying that a society where hundreds of human lives can be risked to save a few grand on refurbishment costs, a society which fetishizes risk-taking and competitiveness, where the pursuit of profits can excuse the systematic demonization of human beings for being poor or black or Muslim or disabled or on benefits, that is a society in which the most twisted, damaged and dangerous minds on the fringes will will inevitably and necessarily be enabled, nurtured and inspired toward acts of appalling violence.
If we genuinely seek to understand the behaviour and values of those at the margins of society, we must understand the links to behaviour and values at the very heart of society. Going further, if we wish to alter and adapt the behaviours and values of those at the margins of society, our only hope is to alter and adapt the behaviours and values at the very heart of society. Hegemonic masculinity does not drive individuals to murder and maim innocent men, women and children, but it is certainly one crucial ingredient in a toxic stew of behavioural motivation.
I would like to turn around the question asked on Twitter. The question we need to ask as a society is not “can men stop being violent?” The question we need to as a society is “how can we, together, stop men from being violent?” That is a question that can be answered, albeit maybe easier said than done.
We can think less about preventing radicalisation and more about preventing brutalisation. Ending or reducing terrorism should not need to be the justification for building a society that offers everyone purpose, self-worth, self-actualisation, social welfare and mental health care, but it would certainly come as a bonus. It is no revelation that those who who trigger acts or random mass violence are almost invariably damaged, isolated, sad, broken men and yes, we need to find ways to prevent such people erupting into hateful vengeance, but we also have to ask ourselves how we have ended up in a society with so many damaged, isolated, sad, broken men in the first place.
We can learn, as a society, that masculinity can be an asset not a curse. Connell suggests framing peacebuilding in masculine terms as an active, constructive challenge – framing peace and security as more than simply the absence of violence. We also need to uncouple the very best of traditionally masculine traits – courage, selflessness, strength etc – from the language and concepts of violent conflict.
John Donne was not lying: No man is an island. It is ultimately futile to tell men to stop being violent. The ones who need to hear you will never be listening. When all is said and done, if we have really had enough of violent men, we need to stop making men violent. That is a job for us all.