On Friday last week, a riot broke out in a public park near me.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, wondering why things had to get violent. And also wondering if it had been a gathering targeting more women, would the outcome have been the same? Sure, not all gamers are guys. And all the usual disclaimers. But there’s a certain demographic — young and male — that fits the profile.
Here’s the backstory…
Enter social media personality Kai Carlo Cenat III. He’s a famous gamer and influencer with a massive following. I’d never heard of him, but I’m not a gamer, so… onward.
Cenat made an unexpected announcement that he’d be handing out PlayStation 5 consoles in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Unsurprisingly, I would not recognize this if it fell from the sky, but women-pushing-50 aren’t exactly the target market.
Thousands showed up. The thing is, Cenat didn’t get approval from the city for such a gathering. I mean, saying there’s “free” anything is probably going to attract a crowd. I’d show up for free Oreos, probably.
And Cenat has 6 million Instagram followers, so the announcement wasn’t exactly quiet.
Point is, things got ugly. Fast.
The event escalated quickly, as excited fans spilled onto the sidewalks and streets, obstructing traffic. People started throwing things at one another, prompting a mobilization of over 1,000 police officers. There’s a lot of tension in this city — probably every city — between young men and the police. That’s another factor that probably didn’t help the situation much!
The rioters began to push back against police, getting into all sorts of altercations. Imaginably, the promised handout just wasn’t happening. A few hours into this chaos and 66 people — mostly underage men — had been arrested.
Mark Johnson, a digital culture lecturer at the University of Sydney explained it this way:
“What I’ve noticed is how rapidly a lot of the online crowd has essentially sought to politicize this, to move it from the realm of ‘large of masses of people sometimes don’t behave all that well,’ which is what this is, to ‘this is a much more social, political, and racial thing.’”
To further complicate things, many of the influencers and content creators we follow obsessively are pretty young themselves. They’re normal people “just like us,” hence the appeal — and the danger. Influencers build their influence on engaging with us and building relationships — and therefore expectations. The extension is that we expect “friendship” out of those with whom we have a “parasocial relationship.”
Pretty complicated stuff.
Did anyone actually get a free PlayStation? Nobody seems to know! And I happened to be walking my dog at that time, strolling rather cluelessly right into the scene.
While I understand the crowd’s anger at a free offer failing to materialize, what I could not understand was why things got so violent, and how it might have been different if the gathering was targeting women? No, it’s not all men. And no, not all women are inherently peaceful. And surely there are a lot of other variables at play here. Race and class and age and other intersecting identities. There are many things to think about, all of which merit consideration. I hope someone will take this on fully! For my part, I’ll stick to what I know — examining this through a gender lens because, well, that’s the way I see the world. So here we go.
Research shows that there are some gender variations in aggression, but the overall picture is more complex. Across cultures, men tend to be more aggressive than women, especially when it comes to physical aggressiveness. Men have a higher propensity for physical violence whereas women have a stronger propensity for verbal hostility. This fits the stereotype that women are more relationally or verbally aggressive while men are more physically violent. And by now we know that men are more likely to commit assault or armed violence against another man.
This is a difference that stems from childhood. Children’s physical aggressiveness, regardless of gender, peaks between the ages of two and four, but subsequently diverges as females learn to repress such overt behaviors more quickly than boys. There is a significant gender difference in physical hostility and violence by puberty. Society finds it more acceptable and “natural” when men are violent, as goes the well-worn phrase “boys will be boys” — seemingly used from the playground to the presidency.
The idea that boys are more likely to express themselves violently is a key to understanding toxic masculinity. Recent recommendations from the American Psychological Association warn against the negative effects of “traditional masculinity ideology” on mental health. The definition of this ideology is “upholding the values of anti-femininity, achievement, avoidance of the appearance of weakness, adventure, risk, and violence.” Although the APA standards have their detractors, it is well known that certain patterns of male aggression, notably violence against women and against men who identify as gender non-conforming, are closely tied to the acceptance of rigid gender roles.
Additionally, hormonal and neurological factors underpinning gender variations in aggression may exist. Similar gender inequalities in violence exist in romantic and marital relationships. Overall, men typically do have higher tendencies towards physical violence. So, for a situation like this riot, it is unlikely that it would have escalated to this level if women were involved.
We excuse a lot of this violence, but the truth is probably more complex. More often than not, we don’t give boys the tools to be able to access the wide range of emotions needed. The only socially-acceptable one seems to be violence. This is changing, surely, but too slowly. For now, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to create a culture of non-violence for all of us. One where we don’t need to riot — whether we get a PlayStation or not.
I don’t have answers, just a hell of a lot of questions. I’ll leave us with wise words from my 9-year-old niece:
“Girls can talk it out. Well, girls can get into fights too. But boys can’t talk it out. They usually use their body to express their feelings. But girls can talk it out. That’s easier… The boys just hang out together and then play and fight… They literally just stomp.”
Source: Richard Ericksson via Flickr