Male-supremacy as a violent political ideology

By Shannon Zimmerman

Last Saturday, a man armed with a large knife entered the Westfield shopping centre at Bondi Junction in Sydney. He proceeded to attack over a dozen people before being killed by a policewoman. Video footage appears to show the attacker avoiding men and targeting women. Five of the six people killed in the attack were women, and most of those wounded were also female. Police have confirmed that a gender may have been a potential motive. At the same time, they said that this attack does not appear to be ideologically motivated.

While it is still too early to determine the Sydney attackers’ motivations – it is worth pausing to examine why misogyny, or a hatred of women, has been so swiftly dismissed as an ideology.

Misogyny is one of the world’s oldest prejudices. It can be traced back to the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, where Pandora (a woman) releases sickness, death, and other misfortunes upon the world by opening a container left in the care of her husband. The story of women as the instrument of men’s downfall has since then been repeated innumerable times. This vilification of women, and women’s subsequent subordination, has become deeply embedded in gendered social orders and religions across the globe. So influential is gender in politics that gender hierarchies have been called “the first political order”.

Rather than being a marginal phenomenon, misogyny is a central feature of numerous ideologies. Gender essentialism and male supremacy play a clear role in the motivations of key extremist and hate groups across the political spectrum, from the KKK to the Islamic State, underpinning their beliefs, values, and principles. These groups rely on gender tropes, often appealing to ‘traditional’ gender roles as a way of increasing their appeal. Sociologist Michael Kimmel has shown that the political psychology of terrorism is gendered. All the things that extremist groups have to offer, such as identity, camaraderie, community, and meaning – as well as the obstacles to achieving those things – are all gendered.

The importance of misogyny within extreme ideologies has increased with the growing presence of extremist groups online. An online ‘Manosphere’ of deeply misogynistic blogs, chatrooms, and message boards has emerged. Within the manosphere, anonymity combines with digital disinhibition, to create an environment where users feel not only comfortable but emboldened to share their misogynistic views. This online environment also has its own radicalising factors. Algorithmic bias and filter bubbles present users with increasingly extreme content in an effort to garner more clicks. At the same time, the ‘like’ and ‘upvote’ features of many of the sites in the Manosphere reward and feature posters who express the most extreme views. The result has been the steady growth of an online cohort of individuals holding violently misogynistic views. For some growing groups, such as the involuntary celibates (incels) and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), misogyny forms the core of their political ideology.

In addition to being a component of many political ideologies, misogyny is a major motivating factor for violence in its own right. There are established connections between the perpetrators of lone wolf mass violence attacks and hatred of women. One study showed that 86% of mass shooters had a history of domestic violence and 50% specifically targeted women. Many mass killers are driven by a gendered grievance, such as a desire to restore traditional gender roles or reclaim masculinity they felt they had lost. These gendered grievances are often tangled in with multiple other factors that led to violence, but the role of misogyny should not be discounted.

Nowadays, misogyny is most clearly associated with male supremacy – the belief that cisgender men are superior and have the right to subjugate women, trans men, and nonbinary individuals. Male supremacists believe they are the victims of an oppressive feminist system that has robbed them of their rightful place in society. Their perceived victimhood is used to justify acts of violence and they use misogynistic acts to impose their ideology on others through the threat of or acts of violence. For example, a male supremacist attack in Bend, Oregon was explained by the fact that the shooter had been unable to get a girlfriend. Incidentally, the father of the Bondi attacker mentioned that his son may have targeted women “because he wanted a girlfriend and he’s got no social skills and he was frustrated out of his brain”.  In these cases, it was anger and frustration at women for not fulfilling their perceived ‘role’ that led to a mass violence attack. So far, over 50 deaths have been attributed to individuals solely motivated by misogyny.

In February of 2021, the head of the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation noted that a growing number of individuals did not fit the better understood left-right spectrum of ideologies but were instead motivated by niche issues such as fear of societal collapse or a particular conspiracy theory. He specifically mentioned violent misogynists as one of these groups and concluded that actions undertaken by these groups would be considered ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism’. This means that if an attack was directed at women – because they were women – it should be considered an ideological attack.

Despite this broader definition of ideologically motivated violent extremism, there remains hesitation to put violence directed predominantly at women in this category. Perhaps this is because much of this violence is still considered to fall within the so-called ‘private’ sphere, despite the impact it has on women more broadly. It may also be because perpetrators are often identified as mentally ill, which seems to abrogate the presence of any overarching ideological driver, as though mentally ill individuals are incapable of holding a set of beliefs. Whatever the reason, overlooking male supremacy – and its corollary misogyny – as an ideology that can lead to mass violence means we overlook a major factor in extremist violence.

Dr Shannon Zimmerman is a Lecturer in Strategic Studies with Deakin University

Image Credit: PEXELS

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