Youth violence and group identity: understanding radical protest

Young people who feel excluded from mainstream politics often join extreme groups to ‘belong’. AFP/Wojtek Radwanski

Many young people in Europe think violent protest can be a legitimate response to the political system they feel no connection to. They believe government pays very little attention to them and have very little trust in political or social institutions.

Throughout the coverage of the unrest in England last month, one voice was conspicuously absent: that of young people themselves.

Occasionally the television or radio audience would be treated to a fresh young face denouncing the violence and articulating his or her support for the dominant, hegemonic, position of the status quo.

But few bothered to ask young people what they really thought. Yet a recent report from the British Council did just that.

Listening to Radicals: The Findings from the European Survey of Youth Mobilisation (ESYM) is the culmination of three years of research, based on interviews with young people in Nordic and Central Europe. It uncovered a shocking sense of disenfranchisement from government, and a willingness to engage in violence.

Perhaps most interestingly, there was little difference in attitudes of men and women. Rather, their attitudes appeared to be an expression of the groups they were involved in.

The study

ESYM interviewed nearly equal numbers of men (53%) and women (47%), from Bratislava, Brno, Budapest, Krakow and Warsaw, ranging in age from 18 to 30, with the median age of 22.

But these were no ordinary young people, nor were they a representative sample of young people from these cities.

Rather these activist respondents were found through “snow balling ” referrals from an initial contact found through investigations of each culture.

These are highly mobilised young people, well more than half of whom (60%) participate in a political conversation or activity daily, and more than three-quarters participate at least once a week. They also largely see themselves as outside the mainstream.

In Bratislava, Brno and Krakow fewer than 20% agreed that they held mainstream political or social views, and more than half of all respondents from all five cities felt that they had to “veil” or otherwise conceal their political beliefs because the mainstream was not ready for them.

The respondents held a broad range of social and political positions from young Protestants, Catholics and Jews, to those from the far left or right, including self declared neo-Nazis and neo-fascists.

Some described themselves as radical environmentalists; others were ethnically motivated like the Roma. Over 200 identified as being motivated by civil rights struggles, including feminists and gay activists.

In all 805 young people were interviewed about their political and social activists, and their attitudes about violence.

A broken system

Not surprisingly these young activists felt the political systems under which they live were broken.

Only 13% of all respondents answered “yes” when asked if they believed that their political system functioned well; 80% adamantly said “no”.

75% of the respondents from all five cities stated that did not trust their governments, and more than 70% stated that they did not trust political parties.

Not a single gay activist in Budapest felt that their views or those of their parents were represented by the political system. Similarly, only 17% of Roma activists, 12% of radical socialists, 7% of environmentalists and 2% of Jewish activists agreed that their views were represented.

Active and voting

Many young gay people in Poland said their views weren’t represented by mainstream politicians. Flickr/Bildungsr0man

Yet amazingly these young people vote! 80% of all respondents agreed that it was important to vote and participate in the political process, even though they mostly thought voting only promoted mainstream views.

Voting was important because it demonstrated that the mainstream was not listening to them.

They stated that it made their other political actions more legitimate, and they are engaged in a broad range of political actions.

Numerous respondents from the far left and right, radical environmentalists and nationalists all reported joining in illegal demonstrations, including street blockades and building occupations, and a handful reported that they engaged in violent attacks on other activists or the police.

Group identity

Youth violence is often described as an individual problem. Of the three forms of violence described by the World Health Organisation – collective, self-directed, and interpersonal – youth violence most often is seen as part of the last form, but it should be seen as part of the first.

ESYM found attitudes regarding the legitimacy of violence differed not by age or gender, but by political affiliation.

Moreover men and women who identified as belonging to the same political or social affiliation in the same city, expressed nearly identical attitudes toward the legitimacy of violence.

This was most profound among young men and women who identified themselves as belonging to the far-right.

Men and women, again in nearly equal numbers, expressed nearly identical support for violence as a form of political expression and legitimate under a number of circumstances, including the necessity to change the government, or to defend other members of the group, even from the police.

Often violence reduction programmes are aimed at men only, because they are the ones that commit violence. In this study only men admitted to being violent.

But if the definitions of masculinity within a group, and group identity expressed as articulations of group values, are such that women members expect men to engage in political violence, male-only programs will not address the expectation in the group.

Belonging before believing

Late adolescence and early adulthood is the time when young people solidify their political and social identities.

To both demonstrate and realise belonging in a group, it is important young people perform the values of that group.

Members of any group will repeat similar narratives reflecting group values, motivates, and goals. It’s an important way to experience belonging.

For many young people, belonging is far more important than believing. That is they come to articulate the values of a group because they want to belong.

The ESYM findings suggest that young people do not seek out a group because it aligns with their world view; rather it is the opposite.

Young people seek out a group that offers them a sense of meaning, worth and recognition. The better they are at articulating the values of the group, the more these young people are given a sense of self-worth and belonging.

All too often, governments mistake the emphatic articulations of political rhetoric as being professions of faith, rather than articulations of the need to belong.

Groups, like governments, require that their pledges of allegiance follow particular scripts. Members know the words, whereas non-members do not.

Deviation is not allowed, for it suggests that one has not yet mastered the script of belonging.

The fact that young people say certain things may be as much about repeating a script well, as it is a proclamation of individual and personal belief.

Where next?

Greater range for experimentation with political views and with more open spheres of articulation will actually strengthen political and public spaces, affording social trust to political opponents, and including them rather than making them enemies.

The next phase of the ESYM is to develop programmes that promote inclusiveness, rather than making young people suspects for their beliefs.

Just as the ESYM research was a collaboration of many partners, its next phase will be a series of collaborations between governments, community organisations, and academics.

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