Young men, masculinity and violence

There have recently been episodes of violence on the streets of Sydney which have attracted huge attention.  The media label for the problem is “alcohol-fuelled violence” and the authorities have just announced a package of control measures.  Blame is being shared out to the “male brain”, macho culture, the demon drink, not enough police, weak sentencing by judges, and more.

We can correct some of the muddy thinking.  Here is the link to my piece on young men, masculinity and violence just published on the Australian public affairs website The Conversation. (It has attracted 27 thousand views and been followed by 500 comments.)  Here is a short version:

The recent outcry in Sydney about “alcohol-fuelled violence” has many people asking whether young men are out of control.  If we are concerned with men’s violence in Australia, the half-hidden epidemics of family violence, sexual harassment and rape are wider problems than street bashings by strangers. But the street violence is worrying, is more visible and has got media attention.

Is this “alcohol-fuelled violence”? Drinking is often part of the lead-up to violent episodes. But alcohol can’t meaningfully be called a “fuel” of any particular behaviour. It is sometimes a depressant, sometimes a stimulant.  In many situations it’s more likely to make you feel sleepy or ill than encourage you to hit out. It’s the circumstances of drinking, rather than the chemical, that we need to understand.

Can we blame “the male brain”, testosterone, or genetics?  Are young men hangovers from a primitive world where males fight cave bears? Those are bed-time stories.  More than a hundred years of research looking for broad psychological differences between men and women have found remarkably few. Studies involving millions of people show that men as a group, and women as a group, are psychologically very similar. This finding goes against many of our stereotypes; but the evidence is strong.  We cannot explain men’s involvement in severe violence by generalized sex differences in mentalities.

Nor can we blame a “criminal type” of human being. Criminologists have, however, identified social circumstances where patterns of violent behaviour might be learned.  These circumstances include high levels of social inequality and marginality, situations in which there is cultural emphasis on men’s dominance over women, and confrontations with authority.

The media?  There is no direct transmission from what people see on a screen to how they act on the street. But there is a relentless flow of images in “action” movies, commercial football, other body-contact sports, cop shows, thrillers, and the like.  Those make up a large chunk of current popular entertainment, with a huge cumulative audience. So media are feeding young men narratives about how men get excitement, success and respect through aggression, confrontation and dominance. But what would make young men take up such stories?

“Alcohol-fuelled violence” often involves some kind of masculinity challenge – for instance, a group of young men confronting the bouncers at a drinking venue.   Masculinities are patterns of conduct that have to be learned. There are multiple forms of masculinity, some more honoured than others. Especially for young men, masculinity is often in question or under challenge.  The presence of an audience is important.  Some of the recent episodes are in zones of exception – places and times in which ordinary social rules are supposed not to apply.

So we need to look hard at the social situations in which violence is happening.  And we need to ask what else is happening in these young men’s lives. Is our society giving them secure jobs? Worthwhile work to do? Models of positive relations with women? Occasions for care and creativity?

I would guess the answer to these questions is often no. But I’m not sure of it – and I don’t think our legislators are, either.  It would be a great pity if the main response to these dismaying episodes is more confrontation, this time from the government.
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