October 25, 2014

Protecting Our Young Men From The Call To Jihad

There is a lot of talk in the news today about how young men are being "radicalized" by religious extremists and being seduced into going off to fight wars in foreign lands. It's a sad story to be sure, but it's a very powerful call for young men.

The call to Jihad, at its core, is really the same call young guys hear to join street gangs, to join our military, or even to be on a school sports team. These organizations put out a call to action that matches up perfectly with the psychology and physiology of our adolescent males. What our young guys hear is a call to be a warrior. The surprising thing for me is not that some young men are answering that call, but that even more young men aren't responding to that message.

If we want to prevent our young men from being lost in tragic ways to the warrior call, we have to learn a little about the adolescent male experience, and then come up with alternative activities that really speak to them. Here's a four-item, short course in what I've learned about why our young men are vulnerable to extremist messages or any call to become a warrior.

. . . why our young men are vulnerable
to extremist messages
or any call to become a warrior.

1. The Biological Imperative: From adolescence to around the mid-twenties, young males are biologically vulnerable in at least two ways that set them up for a warrior call to action.

They are experiencing something like seven to ten surges of testosterone a day. Testosterone has been referred to as an aggression hormone, and it causes young males to feel powerful as their muscles are getting stronger and their sexuality is emerging. Testosterone drives a combative nature and hungers for physical activity, testing through competition and physical challenges, to demonstrate skills and prowess. You can see all this working on neighborhood basketball courts or skateboard parks.

The second biological issue is a young male's well researched and poorly wired prefrontal cortex. Simply stated, it's the part of the brain that helps them to think through the consequences of their choices. Sadly, up until the mid-twenties (and possibly beyond), this part of the brain is still under construction and is marginally functional.

If you take this biological picture as a whole, you come up with a very restless young guy, who is feeling powerful beyond reason, who is naturally combative, ready for action, and who isn't thinking clearly about his choices. This is the perfect young warrior.

2. Tribal Nature: Simply stated, guys need a tribe. Men have operated in packs for eons. Look at the fans in any sports stadium. You'll find mostly men, wearing similar colors, and cheering on "their" team. This sense of belonging, membership, and being part of a pack, is very masculine behavior. For the young guys, being part of a tribe, having an identity as a member, is pretty important.

Males also like hierarchies, think of a military or bureaucratic structure. In a hierarchy, the pecking order is clear and a guy's place in the order of things is laid out. Beyond just belonging in a pack, you know your place in the masculine order of things.

Being in a male tribe gives a young man access to the book on manhood. A tribe gives a young man a smorgasbord of men he can look up to for guidance. He's surrounded by masculine role models and men who may teach him important life skills. There may even be a path of testing or ordeals necessary to achieve full membership and acceptance into the group. This is a perfect match with a young man's need for challenges and proving his worthiness.

Tribe = the book on manhood!

Getting blessings from older men and ultimately acceptance into the adult male club, getting a place around the fire, or honored status in the pack, is a big hunger in young men. A Jihadist group, street gang, or football team all meet the young guy hunger for a tribe.

3. Honor, Respect and Contribution: What our young males want is to be seen (at all) and then respected for who they are and for their unique gifts. They want to stand for something, and if it's a good or noble thing all the better. And though you might find it odd, young guys want to contribute, to make a difference, to be in service. After a community service project, I've see young men smile and stand straighter in the sunshine of gratitude expressed by the food shelf staff, habitat house owner, or elder food delivery service.

They want to stand for something. . .

What too many young guys get in our communities today is pressure for invisibility and often no young guy park or guy place to hang out. Their graffiti "art" is criminalized and over-painted as soon as possible. Their appearance is ridiculed and their music often disrespected. They slink around in alleys, the woods, or at the mall trying not to attract negative attention. So if someone offers them honor, respect, and an opportunity to contribute to an important cause, why wouldn't they say "yes."

4. Hope: Too many young men simply don't see any kind of a desirable future. There is little hope for good work, advanced education, or any legal economic success. Without those things, the idea of being a family man, father, provider, husband, are all just distant concepts for other people. So many young men have been fatherless or under-male parented and don't have good role models for any life but the street. Living with chronic hopelessness as the background to your life is sad business and makes angry and resentful young men. If someone shows them a quick path out of that place, and offers some hope of reclaiming self-respect with a few goodies attached, why wouldn't a lost young man choose that path?

There are lots more reasons many of our young men are vulnerable to the call to warrior. Whether or not they make good choices is really up to us. What is clear is that our young men need our support, intentional guidance, positive community, and especially good men around them.

When it comes to Jihad, like Ebola, we don't have to wait till the epidemic of under-male-nourished boys is at our door and starts taking even more of our young men from us. We can start acting now. It's not really that hard to do, we just have to be willing.

If you want to talk about what you, your group, or your community can do four young men, give me a shout and let's talk about what we can create. The young guys are waiting and the time is now!

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