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Boys at the Crossroads: navigating masculinity, anger and incel culture

Epigram attended Boys at the Crossroads: Insights and Innovations in Young Masculinities, a conference event held by Bristol Young Men’s Network, to discuss the impacts of masculinity, violence and mental health on boys and young men.

By Cristina Pinuaga, Third Year Law

Boys at the Crossroads: Insights and Innovations in Young Masculinities, a multidisciplinary conference event, was held by Bristol Young Men’s Network, alongside University of Bristol researchers and several other organisations, to discuss the impacts of masculinity, violence and mental health on boys and young men. Encouraging critical and practical responses to young men's experiences, the event focused on approaches to tackling male violence and toxic masculine norms that impact people of all cultures, ages and genders.

Epigram attended a discussion led by Let’s Get Angry!, an organisation that provides people with a safe space to express their anger without feeling judged or shamed. Professionals who work with young men in sectors like the prison system, social services and schools filled the room to share their experiences. Keynote panellists in attendance included Finn Mackay, sociologist and radical trans-feminist campaigner and Daniel Guinness, managing director of Beyond Equality, a charity working with young men to create safer and equitable communities.

‘All behaviour is communication’—the discussion opened with the notion that humans are intentional beings, whether rational or not, and every expression of behaviour has a purpose or explanation. For young men, anger can often be trivialised and disregarded, viewed as a hollow and inconsequential release of testosterone with no coherent meaning behind it. Instead, Let’s Get Angry! drew attention to how these expressions of anger and rage are frequently a product of years of internalised trauma without any productive outlet.

The conversation centred on the dichotomy between masculinity and mental health faced by many young men during their formative years: on one hand, anger is presented as the only legitimate ‘manly’ expression of emotion, permitting a much-needed release without seeming weak or vulnerable. Yet the issue that anger exists within a culture of shame, also problematised and penalised, was voiced throughout the event. Let’s Get Angry! Highlighted that this conflict can lead to a cyclical repression of emotions until eventually, Pandora’s box bursts open.

Quoting Bola, Let’s Get Angry! summarised men’s relationship with anger: ‘Men are socialised into violence and aggression to the point that by adulthood aggression is the lingua franca for their experiences.’ They posited that anger and violence are so deeply attached to the archetype of manliness—what it is to be a man—that eventually, this overarching tendency to assume that anger is the only acceptable expression of emotion renders the acknowledgement and processing of their emotions pointless.

The conversation would have been incomplete without a consideration of the impact of male emotional turbulence upon relationships and wider social structures. Anger is a double-edged sword, argued attendees: it can also be wielded by men to perpetuate male privilege and sustain power, especially at the expense of women and other genders, whilst further undermining their own entitlement to vulnerability.

The event closed with a panel discussion of questions from attendees, with professionals giving their overarching insights. One contribution concerned the appeal of masculinity’s harmful effects, particularly to boys in their formative years, referring to the recent surge of conservative and traditionalist ideologies spearheaded by internet personas such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate.

Boys at the Crossroads | Young Men's Network Bristol

Recent years have also witnessed the rise of ‘incel culture’, a movement pioneered online and predominantly amongst young men, that seeks to blame women for the social battles faced by men, such as a lack of sexual intimacy, job security or social competency.

Daniel Guinness, managing director of Beyond Equality, highlighted that there is no ‘Real power’ in the financial and structural power men collectively enjoy in society. In a period marked by financial struggle and political instability, Guinness claimed that the ‘Imagined past’, the old trope of ‘When men went to war and women were in the kitchen’, provides the comfort and stability that men’s actual reality cannot deliver. And ultimately, it’s people like Peterson and Tate who sell this idea.

Nonetheless, the overall message of the closing panel was one of hope and change. Organisation representatives and academic panellists alike reiterated their aim to uplift young men in our communities, who have been failed by a system that implicitly or explicitly seeks to keep them angry, emotionally stunted and isolated.

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The attendees were left with a final word of encouragement to check in on their friends, relatives, and the men around them who might be suffering in silence, without the resources to access the help they need. Students, now more than ever, are suffering from the consequences of lockdown’s legacy—isolation, social anxiety, detachment—and may be at a heightened risk of falling victim to the trappings of toxic masculinity.

Perhaps then, the most valuable takeaway from the event was the message that to effect social change and work towards gender equality, we must begin with an open conversation around the structural frameworks that enable such harmful social norms.

Featured Image: Young Men's Network Bristol

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