The Capitol insurrection is the latest, most obvious data point, but violent white supremacy has long been the most persistent threat in America. It was, in fact, responsible for 41 of 61 terrorist plots and attacks in the first eight months of 2020 alone.
More largely, violence serves as a bonding ritual for such angry men, who are demonstrating (what they believe to be) a primal male instinct. The phenomenon is nearly identical worldwide, explains Swedish sociologist Christer Mattsson in a paper published last month in Men and Masculinities entitled, “‘We Are the White Aryan Warriors’: Violence, Homosociality and the Construction of Masculinity in the National Socialist Movement in Sweden.” Mattsson has studied right-wing extremism throughout his career, first as a social worker for skinhead gangs in the 1990s and now as an academic. His latest exploration, based on interviews with seven former neo-Nazis, reveals how violence fosters homosociality — i.e., intimate platonic same-sex relationships — to uphold men’s dominance in society by condemning those who threaten it.
I recently spoke with Mattsson about why these men proudly consider themselves neanderthals, how his subjects’ spiteful path mirrors that of incels and the fine line between homosociality and homosexuality.
According to Merriam-Webster, the first documented use of the term “white nationalist” was in 1951 to refer to “a member of a militant group which espouses white supremacy and racial segregation.” Is that when this movement began?
No, it’s been around at least since the 1920s, and of course, throughout World War II. The skinhead movement in the 1980s was much more visible and took the fight to the street. Members were typically raised in areas where the movement had been thriving for generations. The pattern has been established throughout the Western world — Sweden, Germany, the U.S. Their aesthetics may differ, but the rhetoric is the same.
All of the former neo-Nazis in your study had a violent upbringing. And you note, that in addition to being a source of recruitment and punishment, violence is also pleasurable and social for these men. How so?
Social settings and hierarchies within the movement are well-defined. In order to gain influence, you have to be able to both exercise and receive violence. This involves adopting nicknames that demonstrate a capability to exercise violence. Men find great comfort in these new identities, and some keep them after leaving the movement. Roger, one of our informants, still takes pride in being called “Lion” because it’s antithetical to his abusive childhood.
Along those lines, another of your subjects, John, was frequently hit by his mother. How did this factor into him becoming a violent skinhead?
John was born and raised in an area known for intense racism, and his family was impoverished. With no stable ground whatsoever, John fought to connect with peers. He’s good looking, capable of standing his ground with physical force and has a girlfriend from an upper-class family that admires him for being a dangerous boy from the outskirts of town. He also takes pride in scars covering his body — because that’s his identity.
John recalled an incident in which he banged an immigrant man’s head against a concrete floor so hard that he fractured his own hand and completely disfigured the man’s face. But he was laughing as he told you the story. Did he have any remorse?
It’s disturbing to hear someone laugh about such gruesome violence. He likened it to waking up from a nightmare in which the man’s eye is hanging out of a totally demolished face. “Sometimes it just comes back and kind of hits me,” he said. He wondered if the man had a lot of reconstructive surgery. To a large extent, these men are still as numb today as they were in the 1990s, and in the same emotional position as they were when they left the movement.
It’s hard to be remorseful for violence if you’re also nostalgic for it, though, particularly of the bonds such violence created with other neo-Nazis. You note that homosocial relations established through violence are fostered in these groups. How so?
Homosociality is how you come to understand masculinity in a single sex environment, establishing your recognition, identity and reputation. These men have similar experiences, attitudes and educational backgrounds that reinforce their identity within a very narrow sphere. In a violent masculine environment, these bonds offer both recognition and an absolution of guilt. If you exercised violence and were forced to stay with your victim after the adrenaline has left your body, unless you’re utterly disturbed, you’d identify your guilt. But if you instead rejoin the gang, you can talk about what happened, compare injuries and plan the next assault. Those are very intimate conversations.
But there’s a fine line between homosociality and homosexuality, no? Given white nationalists well-established hatred of gay people, how do they make sense of the intimacy they share with other men?
Indeed, homophobia in this milieu is very high, but admiring each other’s bodies is also accepted, if not encouraged, so long as the admiration focuses on tattoos and fighting weapons — muscles, scars, lost teeth and so on. I asked one man if he’d ever considered that he was in a homoerotic environment. He called me stupid for asking that question, but then thought about it some more and said, “You’re right. We stood in showers and looked at each other’s bodies while admiring specific areas.” White nationalism is very focused on the male body, specifically demonstrating its ability to impose and withstand violence.
Alternatively, another subject, Roger, was bullied in school for being weak. His path to violence is seemingly similar to incels like Elliot Rodger, who killed six people near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, or Scott Paul Beierle, who shot six women at a yoga studio, killing two of them.
These stories share many similarities. Roger, like John, had been severely beaten by his mother. He failed at school and had no friends or family to relate to whatsoever, so he was easy prey for the gangs promising revenge. All of my informants had been victims of violence in their upbringing and often focused on what we call “defensive violence.”
How did your subjects understand what it means to be a “real man”?
It’s all about having an armored body, being able to stand your ground and never showing remorse or weakness by talking about emotions at all. If one expressed emotional needs, he would immediately be feminized or ascribed as a homosexual. Being a real man meant being able to cope with emotions, and the coping strategy was most often violence. The movement gave them direction and orientation. This wasn’t just beating up a random person on Wednesday morning. It was beating up people — often immigrants, Jewish people or homosexuals — on Friday night at a defined time.
Another informant, Jesper, spoke about how important it was to pick a fight, or what you call “hooliganism.” He went to soccer matches because he knew he’d be able to pick a fight. Why was that so important to him?
If you’re a victim of domestic violence during your upbringing, violence is a means to solve problems. They’re all more or less suffering from chronic depression. How to feel better? Well, if your coping strategy for emotional needs is violence, this is what you will do. Jesper talked about the two last fights he picked before exiting the gang, and how his intention was to get killed in a fight.
Others, like Nicholas, said fighting was something he did for fun as a teenager, waiting in the bushes outside of a library for people to come out and pee.
Nicholas learned how to be a skinhead from older peers. If it were Friday night, they were going to beat up immigrants. If they found no immigrants, they would beat up anyone else and find a reason to justify it, like a guy peeing in the bushes who looked gay. That was enough. But it was also very social. They weren’t yet old enough to buy beer, so the easiest way to get it was to be with a skinhead gang and earn it by picking fights. Afterward, they drank beer, celebrating their ability to withstand and exercise violence.
Being a football hooligan provided a homosocial milieu, too, but they only met when there was a game. Skinheads could fight 24/7 if they wanted, and the violence was connected to a greater purpose. They were Aryan Warriors at war with “the other.” This is a fundamental understanding of the psychological drive toward violence. Either you accept your guilt and handle your remorse by redemption or confessions, or you blame your victim.
It seems they take pride in what they refer to as “caveman behavior,” one of your informants even wistfully calling himself a neanderthal. Why?
Behaving like a caveman is typical homosocial masculine behavior — allowing yourself to get utterly drunk with the lads in a way that would never happen with your wife, for example. Facets of homosociality can be unevolved and very close to caveman behavior. Whether it’s violent skinheads in Sweden, members of a fraternity celebrating sexual assault or Proud Boys storming the U.S. Capitol, I’m afraid you’ll find men wherever you’re researching violence.