Where do all the angry white men come from?
This is an article about angry white men and their galloping sense of aggrieved entitlement. It is at least partly inspired by feminist theory and analysis of structural racial supremacy. Before I’ve finished my third sentence, I’ve probably already contributed to a minor epidemic of hypertension among a certain section of Comment is free readers. I can anticipate the comments, the hit-blogs and the hate-mail already: by even mentioning white men, I am the real racist. I am the real sexist. Why doesn’t the Guardian take a pop at the angry brown men over here or the angry black women over there instead?
In my defence, the provocation is not entirely mine. A new book is published this week under the blunt title Angry White Men. Its author, Michael Kimmel, is not unaccustomed to stirring up strong responses. As a liberal sociology professor and perhaps the world’s most prominent male feminist, he has dedicated a career to poking the hornets’ nest of traditional masculinity. He once wrote that the penis should carry a sticker saying: “Warning: operating this instrument can be dangerous to yours and others’ health.”
His latest work strokes a broad, acerbic brush over the white supremacists of the Mason-Dixon line, the NRA and Tea Party stalwarts of the Bible Belt, the men’s rights activists of cyberspace and the high school spree shooters of parental nightmares. The common feature, he argues, is their shared belief that certain degrees of status, privilege and social advantage, perceived to be their natural or god-given rights, have been snatched away by sudden social change. The resulting anger is targeted not at a globalised neoliberal economic system that has declared ordinary people expendable – irrespective of their race, class or gender – but immigration, civil rights and feminism. In a sense Kimmel is describing the irrational emotional fallout of the economic gender revolution detailed in books like Stiffed and The End of Men.
The thesis can only really be made to work by means of tortuous logic which excludes all expressions of violence and anger from non-whites, non-males or those, like Anders Breivik, who were forged in a very different cultural furnace. Kimmel also glosses over alternative explanations, most notably in his case studies of high school spree shooters, which quite clearly point to aggressive bullying and emotional abuse as the principal cause of the switch being flipped to overload.
Nonetheless there is more than a jingling ring of truth to his argument. When one looks at the horrific abuse meted out to feminist campaigners such as Caroline Criado-Perez for having the temerity to ask that a woman should feature on British banknotes, to Laura Bates for fighting back against street harassment and everyday sexism, or to Anita Sarkeesian for highlighting sexist tropes in video games, it is hard to see it as anything but aggrieved entitlement. The hate campaigns seem firmly rooted in outrage that uppity girls should be intruding upon men’s inalienable right to behave how they like, harass who they want, control culture as they wish and shape society in their own image. Like: “You’ll prise Lara Croft’s skimpy shorts from my cold, dead hands.”
It is easy, and indeed essential, to condemn such misogynistic hate campaigns. However if those attitudes are at least partially stoked by very real and profound economic and social changes that have left some men feeling disempowered, marginalised, maligned and neglected, is it enough to simply demand that they suck it up and deal with it? I’m not sure.
Our newly egalitarian culture has belatedly accepted (in theory if not always practice) that men do not have a monopoly on power and authority, whether financial, political or physical. The man is no longer the master of his household, but an equal partner in a domestic project.
The gender script for women has been largely torn up – a young girl has unprecedented freedom to grow into a doctor or a nurse, a soldier or a solicitor and/or a wife and mother while men, to a large extent, are stuck with a script for a role that barely exists. To be a real man, our culture still insists, is to be the protector and provider within a society that no longer guarantees to deliver that opportunity, and where male protector-providers are not entirely necessary. It is not much of a stretch to assume that this causes immense stress and psychological conflict, which is sometimes directed inward in despair and depression, sometimes outward in anger and violence.
Yes, men need to change and adapt to a rapidly shifting world. So too does the culture in which those angry white men are forged.
[“Angry Young Model” on Shutterstock]