Finer minds than mine have discussed this function of the culture of young male violence. The pronouncement of US anti-violence educator Jackson Katz on gang culture amongst young black males in the States can be applied equally to disenfranchised boys of every race in London:
“If you’re a young man growing up in this culture and the culture is telling you that being a man means being powerful… but you don’t have a lot of real power, one thing that you do have access to is your body and your ability to present yourself physically as somebody who’s worthy of respect. And I think that’s one of the things that accounts for a lot of the hypermasculine posturing by a lot of young men of color and a lot of working class white guys as well. Men who have more power, men who have financial power and workplace authority and forms of abstract power like that don’t have to be as physically powerful because they can exert their power in other ways.”
So you’re fifteen, and the whole world is against you. Teachers and pop songs tell you you can do anything, should be anything, anything you want to be, but poverty and class and race and prospects and precedent say different. Telly and magazines bleat trite nonsense about love lasting a lifetime when your family is bitter and broken and as poor and messed-up as you are; pills from the doctor and packets from your dealer are the only thing keeping all of you from despair, you’ve got no models for being a man without meanness and posturing, all you’ve got is raw, raging energy, your muscles and your mates.
Of course you want to fucking kill something.
Manhood. Sounds tough and meaty in the mouth, a word torn off with the teeth and lips. Promises something constructive from self-loathing. Just because nobody’s carrying placards doesn’t mean this isn’t social rebellion. After all, nobody knows better than the British left how much easier it is to attack each other than to fight the system.
It may come as a surprise, but society is not a set of matched binaries. Although women incontestibly have it harder, it’s not only girls but boys, too, who face discrimination on the basis of their gender and of their sex. The expectations and cruelties of western masculinity are not equal but equally devastating to the young people brought low by someone else’s idea of identity. In this horrifyingly unequal culture, young men as well as young women can find themselves powerless, albeit in smaller numbers. And in exactly the same ways, the most visceral and primitive elements of the received gender role, the parts that afford the most personal power and pride in a world bereft of pleasure and opportunity, are the ones you seize on when you’ve got no other system left for self respect. For girls, that’s often chauvinistic porn-culture; for boys, it’s violence, posturing and gang-membership.
And it’s been played out for years, in the suburbs and the backstreets of the richest and most glamorous cities in the world. But this month, two nice white kids have been killed: cue a moral panic and campaigns in the Hate and the Sun. And suddenly the biscuit-eating public is frightened again. Mums and dads of the baby boom generation: get real. Violent hypermasculinity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s a symptom of poverty and desperation and hopelessness, and you made us.