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Opinion When young men play the victim – and then take the lives of others

Jamil Jivani is the author of Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity.

Kanye West’s return to Twitter a few days ago has generated many headlines. Among his various fortune cookie-like declarations and political statements, one tweet in particular stuck with me: “Self-victimization is a disease.”

Since my hometown of Toronto was struck by a van attack on Monday, I’ve had many public and private conversations about this tragedy, in which 25 people were killed or injured. I keep coming back to Kanye’s tweet, because I think it inadvertently sums up what we know for sure in many incidents where young men consider themselves to be victims and then go on to take human lives.

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As of this writing, 25-year-old suspect Alek Minassian’s motivations for driving into pedestrians on Yonge Street are unknown. Nothing has been officially said of radicalization or terror cells. Some have suggested Mr. Minassian belonged to misogynistic online groups made up of frustrated young men. Mr. Minassian could be a lone actor, as mass shooters in the United States tend to be. He could also be severely mentally ill.

Whatever details emerge, we know that playing the role of a victim is often at the root of the rage young men express as violence at this scale. The world has been unfair to them personally, these angry young men believe, or it has been unfair to others they identify with. One way or another, they say, their hometown or neighbourhood or rival gang deserves to suffer. Their moral compass allows for unspeakable acts because of the supposed injustices inflicted upon them or the moral corruption of everyone else.

Most people can relate to feeling deeply dissatisfied at some point as young adults. We don’t always have the families, jobs, love, money or governments that we wish we had. But it takes a heightened sense of self-victimization to project your personal dissatisfaction onto others and feel entitled to take a human life.

Ideologies that encourage young men to turn their personal dissatisfaction into violence promote self-victimization without restraint. This is true even for ideologies that are superficially very different from one another. As Amarnath Amarasingam and Julia Ebner of the counter-extremism organization ISD have explained, the worldviews of extremist groups are “terrifyingly intertwined.” Jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, for instance, promote a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam by convincing young Muslims (who are often recent religious converts) they are unhappy because Europe and North America are prejudiced, hateful places for Muslims. Far-right extremists and neo-Nazis similarly tell young white men that life is difficult because immigrants and diversity advocates are turning the West into a prejudiced, hateful place for whites.

Other ideologies that encourage violence, such as the inner-city gangster subculture responsible for many of Toronto’s 17 other homicide victims this year, similarly teach victimhood. Young men learn that being a gangster is acceptable if you’re poor or you need money you can’t easily get elsewhere. These gangsters are taught to think they’re victims of others’ immorality and as victims, they can justify being immoral in return, which is why so much gun violence is retaliatory.

Self-victimization has grown far beyond extremist groups or gangs. It has seeped into many parts of our society. The online groups Mr. Minassian is thought to have been a part of identify as involuntarily celibate men who may see themselves as victims of feminism, women and sexually prolific men. Some uses of terms like “male privilege” or “white privilege” advance a worldview that ranks identity groups from most to least victimized. Many university campuses have become places where hearing offensive or disagreeable speech is treated as equal to being a victim of physical violence. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who takes up a lot of space in the minds of young people despite being disliked by so many, has consistently presented himself as a victim of his opponents in the news media, courts, FBI, Senate and Congress.

Following the van attack, Canada’s political leaders and most prominent media personalities were rightfully cautious about how they discussed the incident. They were careful to avoid the word terrorism and cut short any speculation that the van attack was connected to other national security threats. As these influential voices figure out how to shape the public conversation about this tragedy, they could learn something from Kanye West. We need to identify, call out and fight back against ideologies that encourage our young people to play the role of victim in our society and then act against us by taking human lives. We can’t stop every young man from being angry, but we can compete to influence him to do something positive and constructive with that anger.

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