Una Mullaly: Toxic masculinity the common thread in American hate

It’s difficult not to see Charlottesville as a turning point – but we don’t know to where

A car drives into a group of counter-protesters approximately two hours after violent clashes at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Video: Brennan Gilmore


It’s hardly a surprise that Christopher Cantwell, the white supremacist made infamous by a chilling Vice report on the violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, has a relatively large online footprint. Who doesn’t? It’s less surprising still that a chunk of his online presence is made up of anti-women rants across blogs, websites, YouTube and so on.

A common denominator of the wave of American hate currently being unloaded, torch-bearing and vile, is a hatred of women. James Fields, who has been charged with driving a car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville and killing Heather Heyer, previously violently attacked his own mother. Violence against women is a frequent common characteristic among perpetrators of extreme violence, mass shootings and terrorism.


After years of people (women in particular) warning about harassment and trolling online, about the growing violence in the language directed at women and minority groups online; about how disgruntled young men were being empowered and radicalised by pockets of anti-everything-but-them hate online; about how those who hate women mobilised around the central figure of Hillary Clinton; about how a narrative that the most privileged people in society were some how being oppressed, we see what happens when this ends up on the streets. It is no surprise that such anti-woman (not just anti-feminist) language and actions occur at a time of a new wave of feminism. It is a backlash, as seen before in similar “men’s rights” movements of the 1970s. Chauvinism and toxic masculinity are the calling cards of those who descended on Charlottesville.

It’s difficult not to see Charlottesville as a turning point, but to where, we don’t know. The potent mishmash of legacy Ku Klux Klan groups, militia groups playing at commando, conspiracy theorists whose points of view have gone mainstream and all the way to the White House, white supremacists, Nazis and, crucially, the new kids on the block who have spilled over from the internet into real life should teach us something about the reality of how hate becomes viral. Much of this stuff has gone on a journey from meme to mob, from keyboard warrior to torchbearer. Most of it is male, most of it desires a version of hypermasculinity. How can men teach each other not to act in this way?

Another failure has been the amplification of such language, and the paralysis of many across online platforms, media, politics and so on to contest such rhetoric. Racists and bigots have been particularly successful at using “free speech” as a phoney defence. The shields of “irony”, “sarcasm”, “satire” and trolling “for fun” have also been used quite successfully, despite having no basis in fact. What is more worrying still is that, as this language and these mindsets have been amplified, people who surely do not share the views of those who brought terror to Charlottesville have sometimes succumbed to utilising a shared vocabulary.

Culture wars

Alarm bells should ring when you hear people talking about the tyranny of “political correctness”, or patronising “social justice warriors”, who give out about “identity politics” or “the Left” or “leftists” in general, who equate a reaction to violence with the initial instigating violence itself, who talk about the oppression of privileged groups, who talk about “culture wars”, who criticise civil rights movements they have played no role in, who criticise the “tone” or “messaging” of rights movements or campaigning, and so on. Such commentary will find plenty of allies online, and mainstream media plays a large role in amplifying it, in its unending quest for conflict, reaction and hot takes.

The problem for those who absentmindedly adopt this language is that its originators are being disingenuous from the get go. What happened in Charlottesville was not about a statue, or protecting history, no more than online campaigns against women were about “ethics in video game journalism”. So certain terminology or phraseology originates from a coded or disingenuous place, and then is taken up by people who think it’s legitimate and ignore the context and subtext.

Let’s see how quickly “alt-left” – a nonsense term designed to equate those protesting against hate with those who hate – will be picked up by columnists and in Facebook statuses and tweets and radio talk shows. Perhaps as quickly as “alt-right”, a term coined by a white supremacist in order to soften his message and now widely used. If there is a Venn diagram with any overlap between how generally decent people articulate their views and how racists and bigots articulate theirs, perhaps it’s time to interrogate that.

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