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It’s concerning to see boys at war with themselves and the world. But what if radicalisation held some powerful insights for us? Radicalisation isn’t new. Attractive to boys adrift from society, it has surfaced in gangs, neo Nazi groups, football hooliganism and the like. But never before has radicalisation gone global, or been so extreme.

Traditionally it was boys from fractured or marginalised communities, lacking good male role models and surrounded by violent narratives, who were vulnerable to such influences. Now this profile has broadened to include boys unable to relate to mainstream values.

Few would argue that radicalised boys are amongst some of our most vulnerable. Suffering a keen sense of isolation, and often confused, these boys ache to find some purpose, to be useful, to belong.

Unconscionable groups such as IS are extremely successful in reaching such boys, because they get what it’s like to live on the fringes. They don’t see boys as flawed, as problems needing to be solved, but as invaluable resources. Using sophisticated social media and other strategies, they succeed brilliantly at giving boys a sense of purpose and belonging, excitement and adventure, the chance to be a man.

What do we offer by comparison – a popular culture where belonging is about looks and possessions, and where a boy’s ache to be a hero is often only articulated in violent video games.

Currently we’re failing boys, especially marginalised boys, because we still don’t fully understand their need to achieve something meaningful, their ache to be a hero. Why else would we offer boys a degraded sense of belonging and heroism? Why else would we provide so few pointers on how to be a real man?

Like all those who groom boys, radical groups pay close attention to what boys are thinking – to their aspirations and anxieties – so they know exactly which buttons to press. Radical groups offer boys what they most desire – the chance to make something of themselves, to belong, to be a man. In return, boys willingly put themselves in harm’s way, participate in horrendously violent acts and are prepared to die even. Deeply disturbing though this is, we can also see how much boys are prepared to sacrifice to have their needs met.

How often do we give our boys the chance to be useful, to belong? How often do we positively stretch them? Currently there’s a serious disconnect between where boys are at, and where we need them to be. Our boys need to know intimately what it means to be an empowered man. So we as a society need to get clear about what male empowerment looks like.

What we do know is that the world needs emotionally intelligent men who are at ease with themselves and others, men well able to deal with challenging situations. The men most likely to succeed are highly literate, good communicators, and positively engaged in their families, their workplace, their community, and the wider world.

How then can we turn things around? It’s time to ditch the negative narratives around boys, and provide a much more nuanced vision of what they can become. Boys need effective youth forums, moderated by the kind of well-trained young professionals boys can relate to, aspire to even. Boys need safe spaces, where they talk comfortably and openly about their challenges, and trust they’ll be given meaningful workable solutions. As part of this we need to help boys distinguish between their child (powerless) and adult (powerful) selves. Participation in boy-friendly literacy programs, such as the UK Dads and Lads reading initiative, could be of benefit here too.

Boys also need to feel part of the wider community, to be given the chance to be useful, to belong. What if they were to have access to carefully constructed work experience programs after school and/or in school holidays, to gain more skills, to mix with strong role models of differing ages? Surely there’s a role for Chambers of Commerce, Rotary and Lions here? And what if, with the assistance of Men’s Sheds and other such groups, boys were invited to help with community projects, and acknowledged for their efforts in local papers, and other public forums?

Boys might also be encouraged to express themselves creatively through a variety of mediums – short film festivals, photo essays, street art? What if there were more teen initiatives that celebrated cultural diversity? And what if these and other programs were supported by boy-friendly community and arts awards?

As repugnant as groups such as IS may be, perhaps they have something to teach us. Our boys are an immensely valuable resource. What if in facing this new challenge, we’re on the cusp of an immense opportunity? It’s a privilege to help forge a new generation of empowered young men, to assist boys become part of something greater than themselves, to uphold our dream of a society enriched by its diversity. To achieve this we need to be far more attentive to boys, to get what our boys currently need.

About Maggie Hamilton

As a writer and researcher Maggie gives frequent talks, is a regular media commentator and contributor to magazines, and keen observer of social trends. Her landmark books have been published in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Italy, China, Lithuania, Korea, the Arab States and Brazil, and include What’s Happening to Our Girls?What’s Happening to Our Boys? and most recently Secret Girls’ Business, a fun, funky empowering book for teenage girls. www.maggiehamilton.org and [email protected]