Tag: masculinity

A Gender Analysis of the Christchurch Terrorist Attack

I spent the morning of Saturday, 16th March the way many in Australia and New Zealand did: glued to the morning news, watching hours of analysis regarding the previous day’s terrorist attack in Christchurch, NZ. That morning, it was still believed multiple individuals were involved, but because of his livestream, the focus was on Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year old Australian man deeply embedded in the far-right movement.

After several middle aged, white male analysts were rolled out from Universities across Australia to talk about the how and why of this attack, the absence of a gender analysis was striking. How, in 2019, do so many experts in terrorism studies still not look at masculinity as a factor that drives these attacks?

This question drove me to post to Twitter that a gender analysis was needed.

While I appreciate the effort one individual went to to look up my Academia.edu profile to private message me and mansplain why I was wrong about the need for such an analysis, I must respectfully disagree. So, this post is a preliminary discussion based on my cursory glance at Tarrant’s manifesto, The Great Replacement, to unpack some of what this sort of gender analysis may reveal.

A fixation on reproduction is about control of women’s bodies.

Most of Tarrant’s manifesto is focused on what he calls “The Great Replacement,” which hearkens to a popular right-wing conspiracy theory that holds the white race (specifically, Europeans) is in decline and going to be overtaken by non-Europeans. This replacement is due to declining fertility rates in the West compared to, in the views of the beholders of said theory, robust fertility rates of non-Europeans.

Sure, at first glance, this would seem to have nothing to do with gender. But just as fascists in the 1930s held, such obsessions over fertility rates belie an underlying desire to control women’s bodies and most often go hand-in-hand with beliefs that feminism is ultimately to blame for the decline in fertility rates (NB. I don’t disagree that feminism and/or the advancement of women’s rights correlates and even causes declining fertility rates, but we can debate the merits of this another time).

If one were to probe Tarrant about how he thinks the Great Replacement might be halted, I would hazard a guess that immigration controls is just one step. Most who hold these views also espouse so-called ‘family values’ ideas about sex roles.

The White Male Saviour and Militarized Masculinity

The second key area ripe for a gender analysis is a further exploration of the conditions that have produced a vast and growing number of disaffected, middle-class men in the world who find the opportunity to pick up a gun and perpetrate mass violence an attractive alternative to their everyday lives. As I wrote in a 2014 article published in IFJP:

Changes in global economic and political processes have affected gender relations in domestic contexts, resulting in traditional entitlements being lost by some men (True 2012). Efforts to resist the globalization of these orders by marginalized men have increasingly relied on a resurgence of domestic patriarchy through militarization, problematizing neighboring masculinities or appealing to overt symbolic expressions of a distinct masculinity defined in cultural terms (Kimmel 2005). For many men who lack access to the opportunities of the formal international economy, illegal economic activity represents an alternative means to pursue wealth and attempt to attain the status afforded to the “economic man.” Because economic success is so closely tied to men’s social value, efforts to resist the hegemonic effects of globalization have also become organized chiefly around notions of gender. Violence may not only serve to resist oppressive economic and political conditions, but is also an alternative mode of asserting masculinity and reestablishing patriarchy to benefit men (Kimmel 2005, 416).

Meger (2014) “Toward a Feminist Political Economy of Wartime Sexual Violence,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 17(3): 416-434.

For Tarrant, his obsession with protecting white children from invading races is an obvious expression of paternalism. But there are many ways to be paternal, and the one he chose was through the end of a large semi automatic, military-style weapon. One need not delve far into feminist psychoanalysis to recall the metaphors of guns as penile extensions, first brought to mainstream IR attention by Carol Cohn (1987).

The Globalization of Right-Wing Extremism

Finally, a far less explored area ripe for gender analysis is how these disenfranchised, white men are finding each other through globalized social media networks and becoming radicalized to commit mass violence. In my own research, I have been fascinated by the number of foreign nationals fighting in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which both sides of the political spectrum see as the front-line for a potential third world war, based on ideology. Tarrant mentions only briefly in his manifesto having been to Ukraine. If it was to volunteer in the armed conflict, he wouldn’t be the only radicalized right-wing Australian.

There is something to be said for the way that both ideology and affective attachments to those ideologies are being circulated and promulgated online. The appeal of fascism is spreading amongst a particular demographic of men like wildfire. But if we keep thinking of them only as ‘lone wolves’ rather than connected through shared ideology and increasingly shared political agenda, we miss the political component that makes right-wing extremism as dangerous as jihadist terrorists against whom we’ve mobilized trillions of dollars of military, security, and political resources.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’