18 Mar What Studies of Male Violence and Humiliation Tell Us about Putin and the Current Crisis
Much of the world is rightly shocked, angry, and concerned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine alongside overt threats from Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons. Reports are that he is increasingly isolated, appears to some as “unhinged” and now is lashing out about how poorly things are going in Ukraine. The world is rightly nervous. Our knowledge about masculinity and male violence could help us now because a humiliated man is a dangerous thing.
Understanding why people, especially men, sometimes do destructive acts against their own self-interest and survival, who even kill their own children, should be considered as we proceed. Research shows that humiliation and isolation are strong predictors of men doing violent senseless acts, such as young men in classrooms shooting their teachers and classmates, a middle-aged man renting a hotel room for the sole purpose of killing strangers at a concert located below, or a newly fired father going home and shooting his family. James Gilligan’s thirty years of study has shown a clear relationship between profound experiences of humiliation in some real or imagined way and a link to male violence. This may be as true for masculine cultures as it is for individuals. Russia is a society where power and masculine energy have been dominant for centuries. Putin’s KGB past means he has had a career where violence and the use of force were rewarded. Men who kill with their own hands aren’t the same as men who order others to kill, but we must learn from what the science of masculine violence tells us.
Most westerners can’t imagine that at one time Putin was quite popular in Russia before he took complete authoritarian control. When the cold war ended, the west began heaping humiliation on the former Soviet Union as a failed nation, then over the last two decades many called it an irrelevant country that was no longer a player on the world stage, except for its nuclear arsenal. A decade ago, to my surprise, many ordinary Russians told me that though they hated the old Soviet system, at least they were then seen as a world power. For a masculine culture, pride is everything. They liked that Putin was strong in asserting Russia as a force still to be counted.
George H.W. Bush was routinely criticized for not publicly doing a victory dance when the Berlin wall was taken down. He wisely sensed how precarious change was in Russia and even said, “Let them have this moment,” not wanting to rub defeat in their faces. He may have sensed that humiliation wasn’t a good strategy.
Western rhetoric about the failed Soviets was followed by country after county in the Eastern Bloc turning west and joining NATO. All of it was humiliation to Putin whose stated legacy was restoring Russia’s past glory. To the west, Ukraine is one country turning towards our way of thinking, but for Putin it likely is the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of his self-respect. Arguably Russia will be weaker for invading Ukraine, so this war may be more about humiliation than world domination. Right now, world leaders fall over themselves to speak of isolating Russia, bankrupting Putin and bringing the country to its knees, and of aiming to “collapse the economy of Russia.” This is dangerous language in the context of humiliation when the US and the west are entering a scenario of winner-take-all manhood. It’s important now that our response is not about that – this is not a time for trading dares but to bring about safety and peace for the Ukrainian people. We need to cease the focus on bringing Russia to its knees and instead gather our efforts on bringing it to its senses.
When men are isolated and humiliated, one of two things can happen. They either take it out on themselves by suicide, or they take it out on the world with violence. Going nuclear would accomplish both. We have witnessed desperate isolated and humiliated people without histories of violence shoot innocent people. While Putin may not feel humiliated, it would be prudent for us to act accordingly as if it was so.
While staying strong in our resolve to sanction Russia, we may want to tone down our rhetoric that he is unhinged, that he is a two-bit thug who bumbled into a war with no idea what to do, and we might want to avoid dismissing Russia as a cold war relic. We not only need to reach out to Putin, but also reach out to other Russian men and women, to avoid demonizing Russia. It’s not just Putin’s humiliation, but a humiliation of Russian men and women, and Russian manhood, that we should avoid.
An isolated and humiliated man is a very dangerous thing. And this man doesn’t just have a gun, he has the capacity to end civilization as we know it. Men and male cultures, when humiliated, often become more violent. If the image of a brooding, sullen, and now angry Putin is true, we have reason to be concerned.