Toxic Masculinity and Lone Wolf Radicalization

Toxic masculinity and masculine insecurity are easy targets for promoters of self-radicalization, leading more young men towards violence.

Of the one hundred and thirty-three incidents of far-right terror carried out by individuals in the United States since 1995, all but one were perpetrated by men (SPLC, Terror From The Right). On a global scale, when one thinks of the ‘lone wolves’ who have been responsible for racist terrorism, very few women come to mind. Perhaps with the exception of Beate Zschäpe – who herself was a member of a cell rather that a bona fide lone wolf actor – almost all of the self-radicalized perpetrators of far-right violence around the world have been white men between the ages of 20 and 50. It seems essential then to examine the relationship between gender and radicalization, specifically looking at ideas of masculinity and the ways that propagators of a radical and racist ideology mobilize them in order to drive their audience towards violence.

Although the very idea of a ‘lone wolf actor’ has been questioned, self-radicalization is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon, which extreme-right actors have relied upon for decades. The anonymous and widespread distribution of targeted radicalizing media to vulnerable individuals has been a cornerstone of Louis Beam’s leaderless resistance concept since the late 1980s, and from the outset it relied on the mobilization of toxic tropes of masculinity. As part of the radicalization process, propagators of hate – whether online, in print or in audio form – seek to associate manhood and masculinity with violence, tapping into and amplifying long-standing social tropes of militarised masculinity and violently rugged ruralism in order to justify violence and murder simply as expressions of righteous masculine rage. By framing violence almost as a necessary condition of manhood, authors on the extreme-right are able to capitalize upon the male supremacist anger, grievances insecurities of their wider readership and ultimately inspire lone-wolf terror.

Furthermore, by selling narratives of heroism and adventure – much like the material published by ISIS – violent racist activism is made to seem exciting, glorious, and even as a road to fame and notoriety. This is an attempt to mobilize and manipulate the desire for power and relevance that are central to hegemonic masculinity, and again frames violent activism as a natural and almost ideal expression of masculinity. In order to compound this, lack of action is often framed as feminine, and the language of both personal and societal emasculation is used in many cases to further encourage and even shame consumers of radicalizing media into action.

William Luther Pierce – whose novel, The Turner Diaries, radicalized and directly inspired the Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh, among many others – saw the radicalizing power of violent activismand hyper-masculine tropes. By making a clear distinction between ‘man and higher man’ in his second novel, Hunter, Pierce speaks to the fear of irrelevance that is a foundation of toxic and hegemonic masculinity. In creating a dichotomy between the passive ‘couch potatoes and ball game fans’ and the ‘supermen’ of the revolutionary vanguard, Pierce was attempting to tap into the delusional and self-aggrandizing elements of right-wing hyper-masculinity. It is fairly evident that Pierce anticipated that most ideologically sympathetic male readers of the book would see themselves in the position of his novels’ protagonists rather than in the more passive role, and his separation of ‘leaders and led’ was most likely an attempt to mobilize a form of toxic, violent masculinity in his readers. This was intended with the impact of radicalizing them and fostering a delusional saviour or martyrdom complex that most often gives inspiration to violent lone-wolf attacks.

This phenomenon has been amplified even more in the age of mass communication, and the internet has greatly increased both the scope and effectiveness of this form of radicalization process. The ideological echo-chambers of social media and far-right forums create an environment in which the tropes of idealized masculinity can be mobilized to much greater effect, spurring on a gendered identity crisis that promotes violence on an unprecedented scale. A side effect of this increased propagation of rhetoric that deliberately capitalises on masculine insecurity has been the (unforeseen) rise in ideological misogyny and incel violence, which itself is a mutation of an already deeply gendered far-right ideology and mindset.

Ideas of masculinity and masculine insecurity are thus some of the most powerful motivating factors in the process of radicalization, and are consistently mobilized by the far-right in order to drive individuals towards violent extremism. Through the mobilization of hero and crisis narratives and through the self-confirming cycle of activist notoriety, violence is transformed from something anti-social and aberrant into a heroic, ideological act of self-sacrifice that mobilizes the most toxic traits of masculinity. If we are to effectively prevent violent extremism from the racist-right, it is vital that we address the stereotypes of masculinity that are so easily manipulated and mobilized by those seeking to inspire violence.

Mr Simon Purdue is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and is a Doctoral candidate in World History at Northeastern University. His profile can be found here:

© Simon Purdue. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

Keywords: masculinity; radicalization; gender; terrorism; violence.