“A dangerous man… Masculine. Very. Has to be.” Understanding the connection between manhood and violent extremism

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Research undertaken by the PERICLES team at TCD, reveals that Ireland is an unusual context in relation to the form contemporary violent extremism takes. With no strong evidence of violent radicalisation to the political right or extremist Islamism, radicalised violence in our context is more often manifested in connection to the ‘national question’. Dissident Republicanism amongst those who have not bought into the Irish peace process, is one site where violent political beliefs and action remain present. We have seen this most recently in the appalling murder of journalist Lyra McKee, shot by a man who fired randomly towards police carrying out raids in the Creggan area of Derry in April. Even as I write this blog on the morning of the European election three boys have been arrested in Derry for petrol bomb attacks against the police near a polling station. The reasons for this on-going violent dissidence are much discussed. They lie in factors like unwavering political ideology, economic deprivation and a ‘lost generation’ who are suffering from the failings of political institutions and the non-materialisation of the expected ‘peace dividend’.

But given that those publicly associated with dissident politics or arrested for such violent acts are (in the majority) men and boys, we also need to consider the role that gendered power and ideas of masculinity play in creating such violence. Although I would never subscribe to any claim that men and boys are naturally more violent than women and girls, or that all men are the same, it is the case that gendered norms around manhood in many contexts tie masculinity to aggression, power and violence. American sociologist of masculinity, Michael Kimmel, draws on examples of homicide rates and school shootings to suggest that the link between violence and masculinity needs to be recognised as a pressing problem for our times.

It’s a link for the Northern Ireland conflict context which is captured just perfectly in Anna Burn’s stunning Booker Prize winning novel Milkman. The story spins out through the thoughts of an eighteen-year-old girl (‘middle sister’), living in the constrained and conflicted environment of a city in 1970s Northern Ireland. It’s a Republican community, hemmed in and harassed by the army and police of the State ‘from over the water’ but also policing itself internally by rigid expectations of social and political behaviour and pernicious gossip about community members considered ‘beyond the pale’. When middle sister attracts the unwanted desire of a major paramilitary figure in the community, his sexual harassment of her produces difficult consequences for her and her relationships to family, ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and community. The power of the paramilitary man in this community is such that even as middle sister doggedly refuses Milkman’s attentions, the gossip mill assumes she must be his. Patriarchal power is stamped all over the community. Women – though acknowledged as essential to keeping things going – are hedged in by the ‘official male and female territory’ rules about what women can and can’t say. The nascent feminist group in the community is treated by all as deranged and even dangerous because their concerns go beyond ‘our border issue’ or ‘our political problems’.

In this patriarchal context, the paramilitary ‘renouncers of the state’ embody ‘the combative male code of the district’. They are idealised as ‘men of honour, dauntless, legendary-warriors, guerrilla fashion’ but they are also feared because the idealized renouncer too often becomes the gangster and enforcer of suffering through dealing out punishment beatings to the community. For the women who are these men’s ‘groupies’, what attracts them is quite simply the allure of ‘A dangerous man…Masculine. Very. Has to be. Love that sort of thing’.

Burn’s book is set at a different time from the one we are researching in PERICLES. Yet in many ways she captures the dynamics of gendered power and performances of masculinity that are prevalent in many communities in conflict. We see gender inequality and the allure of dangerous, powerful manhood in many expressions of violent extremism. Importantly in the novel though, there are other expressions of what it is to be a man in such contexts. ‘Maybe boyfriend’ with an interest in sunsets and political avoidance; his wayward father, a glamorous ballroom dancer; and ‘real milkman’ the man who rejected the violence of many of his contemporaries. Despite the predominance of the link between masculinity and violence, multiple masculinities do exist – even in situations of violent conflict. Finding ways to disentangle idealised manhood from violence and enable other ways of doing gender to emerge are central to countering violent extremism.