The scariest aspect of young, radical white men, to me, isn’t the rampant sexism or racism or homophobia or even the ticking time bombs turned terrorists and mass shooters in their midst. It’s that they’re all too human and that I understand and even empathize with how they became that way.
Sexism, racism, and homophobia are repulsive ideologies, full stop. Nationalism is a cancer, and young, radicalized white men are, without a doubt, responsible for their own actions and beliefs. They are absolutely in control, and this is in no way intended to absolve them of their individual actions and negativity.
But the first step to winning over your opposition is to understand them. I believe young, radical white men are, by and large, the result of a specific breed of angst placed into the pressure cooker of online echo chambers. I believe this because, if things had gone differently, I might have been one too.
As a teenager growing up in the bubble of a middle-class white community, I embraced the South Park philosophy of making fun of everyone. I enjoyed “pissing people off” who seemed to take everything too seriously. I didn’t care about anything too much because why would I?
Except I did care. I cared that I was socially awkward. I cared that I was very, very short for my age. I cared that I had trouble talking to girls. The reality was that I cared about a whole lot of things that affected me directly, but I had no idea how to confront or fix those problems.
The ideological straw men I’d imagined — outraged liberals who took everything personally — were fiction.
I turned my anger outward. I acted like nobody understood me because I was smarter and more complex than they were. I became an obnoxious, offensive asshole who “said it like it was,” and if you didn’t like hearing the truth, too bad for you. I was loud and mean and always “just joking.” I told a black friend of mine that he didn’t need to worry about college applications because affirmative action meant he could get in wherever he wanted. He told me I had no idea what I was talking about. I eventually learned he was right.
When I started college and entered the “real world,” I realized that the ideological straw men I’d imagined—outraged liberals who took everything personally—were basically fiction. They were replaced by real people reacting to real issues that affected their lives. One of the greatest benefits of diversity is that when you get to know people from different walks of life, your stereotypes and preconceived notions tend to fall apart.
I realized my outlook on the world had been holding me back. The way I approached others as “types” meant I never needed to worry about someone being smarter or more talented or disliking me. I was an individual, and they were not. If I didn’t get into my top choice college, that’s probably affirmative action. If I didn’t hear back from a summer job I applied for, must have been a diversity quota. If a girl I wanted to date was interested in someone else, she only likes tall guys. There was never any real introspection. And, while it’s possible I didn’t hear back from that summer job due to a diversity quota, it’s way more likely I didn’t hear back because another applicant was a better fit or because job hunts are always a crapshoot.
Things might have turned out differently for me had the internet then been like it is now. I might have stumbled across a men’s rights forum or an incel group.
Ultimately, my sense of superiority was a defense mechanism to avoid facing my own shortcomings. And the diversity I encountered during college completely shattered my defense.
But things might have turned out differently for me had the internet then been like it is now. I might have stumbled across a men’s rights forum or an incel group when I was still in high school. They’d probably have told me that I couldn’t change my situation. That my genetics were the problem. That women didn’t want short guys. That women were superficial sluts. That the other guys, the ones with superior genetics, were normies, Chads, and alphas and that I could never be like them no matter how hard I tried. That liberals and feminists and boogeymen wanted to destroy the only advantages I still had—my whiteness and my maleness.
Maybe, at my absolute lowest, I might have believed them. Because then, I couldn’t blame myself for my problems and my inability to fix them. Affirmation, even the negative kind, can be soothing. You say things like “I’m beyond help,” “I don’t need to change,” and “The world is at fault, not me.” When you’re hurting, you look for ways to deal with that pain.
I didn’t grow up with internet culture in full swing. Today, people can form their entire identities around virtual, curated personas of themselves. For many, this is a sure positive: Whatever your interests, there’s a community. We’re more connected than ever. But for a subset of vulnerable, angry, socially awkward young men, the anonymity of internet echo chambers poses a life-destroying trap.
There are consequences of being in that kind of internet world that bleed into real life. Racism, sexism, homophobia: Once these sick thoughts take hold, they affirm and reaffirm themselves in every aspect of your existence. Every rejection is further evidence that the world is against you, that women are evil, that minorities are bad, that everyone else is the problem, that you’re the victim. Hatred breeds more hatred.
These ideologies are a load of bullshit, and in the real world, someone will likely call you out on it—at least if you’re not isolated in a bubble. But that’s a big if. Not everyone has access to college or diverse groups of people to challenge their views. Many people really are isolated in real-life echo chambers full of people from the same background who believe the same things. And while the internet is full of pitfalls, it also offers a solution. There are more diverse voices online than anywhere else on earth. It’s just a matter of seeking them out and doing the hard work of considering that the things you believe might not be true or correct.
Young, insecure, socially awkward white men occupy a precarious position in our current culture. Many of them grew up feeling ignored, isolated, and disenfranchised from the rest of white society and eventually have to face ideas like white privilege. When someone feels disadvantaged in every way, hearing that they’re privileged can evoke a gut reaction of anger. And when that angry gut reaction is met with affirmation in their echo chambers—as opposed to level, honest conversation and education—that anger becomes their truth. In anonymous echo chambers, their feelings of loneliness, isolation, and rage are the only facts needed.