THERE is no getting past the fact that the majority of terrorist attacks are committed by young men. They are often quiet and reclusive, perhaps with a troubled past or stunted emotional development. Most tellingly, though, they often have a problem relating to women; how many terror suspects have had historic accusations of domestic abuse, or internet histories peppered with misogyny or violent pornography?
Last week’s van attack in Toronto has highlighted this issue in the most brutal fashion. 25-year-old Alek Minassian, the alleged attacker, belonged to the so-called ‘involuntary celibate’ community, or incels. This aggressively misogynist cult, with its own unique culture and lexicon, casts all of its members as victims of a gynocentric society in which their lack of sexual experience – blamed on both the women who reject them (‘femoids’ or ‘stacys’) and sexually-successful men (‘chads’) – has left them as outcasts and pariahs. Discourse is characterised by bitterness, spite, misogyny, rape apologia and endorsement of violence, sexual assault, and murder.
This ugly worldview is reinforced by an echo chamber, where dissent is quashed and the testimony of nerds and outcasts who have learned to respect women is ignored. Their most notable congregation was at /r/incels, a subreddit on the social media site Reddit, which was finally banned at the end of last year. Reading through archived posts is to encounter a litany of deranged and deluded comments, backed up by a robust support group whose role is to keep all its members committed to the dogma. The highlights are genuinely grim: users who enter the community merely feeling rejected by women will leave having been encouraged by the echo chamber to justify rape, blame sexual assault on its victims, and cast women as second-class, almost subhuman citizens.
Like all cults, incels have their prophets. Alek Minassian praised the ‘supreme gentleman’ Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old who murdered six people in a drive-by shooting in Isla Vista, Florida in 2014, before turning the gun on himself. Rodger had suffered with mental health issues his whole life, and was a long-time victim of bullying. His 107,000-word manifesto railed against his victimhood, his loneliness, and his virginity, and cast his attack as an act of revenge against a spiteful world.
Unsurprisingly, there is also considerable overlap with the alt-right, which fosters a similar sense of community among societal outcasts, although incels frequently display hostility towards other misogynist movements, such as pick-up artists (PUAs) and ‘redpillers’.
In a society that fetishises virginity and emasculates men who are sexually unsuccessful, it’s not hard to see where it all went wrong for the incels.
In a society that fetishises virginity and emasculates men who are sexually unsuccessful, it’s not hard to see where it all went wrong for the incels. Many of them experience social anxiety, or fall on the autism spectrum. Others have severe body image issues, or are simply too ‘odd’ or ‘nerdy’ to thrive in the cut-throat environment of modern masculinity. For instance, both Alek Minassian and Christopher Harper-Mercer, the perpetrator of a similar attack in Roseburg, Oregon in 2015, had failed to adapt to military life during their time as army recruits. Some are just mean, unpleasant, and entitled, encouraged to lash out at a society that promises young men success, sex, and attention, but delivers none of it.
Some hilarious jokers and tone-deaf commentators have facetiously suggested that all incels really need to quell their anger and sense of rejection is a night with a prostitute, or the more insidious idea of ‘sex redistribution’. This is wrong for several reasons, not least because it identifies women as commodities. Sex redistribution puts the onus on women to ‘cure’ incels, reducing their worth to their sexuality in a way not unlike the incels themselves; more importantly, it fails to recognise what actually motivates incel ideology. Behind all their misogyny and sinister fixation on virginity, it’s not really about sex at all.
Instead, incels are an extreme consequence of the culture of toxic masculinity inherent to our society. They are the product of a culture that teaches men to supress their emotions, denies them the vehicle with which to express their anxieties, and reduces women to sex objects. Instead of teaching young men that sex isn’t some sort of holy grail, and that women are to be respected, we have allowed entitlement, dehumanisation, and toxic behaviour to fester across our popular culture, mass media and politics. Men are taught to reject and repress emotion as ‘unmanly’; to become a man in our society is to dismiss communication, sensitivity and respect towards others as weak. Gloria Jean Watkins, wrote in The Will to Change under her pen name bell hooks,
‘The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: we sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.’
For want of a proper vehicle with which to express their anxieties, men like Minassian and Rodger are telegraphed down a violent, misogynist path.
Incels, then, are not simply sex-starved. When Minassian and Harper-Mercer tried and failed to find community and purpose in the military, and Rodger at college, they were driven into the only support group that seemed to explain their failure, with its ready-made scapegoats in women and ‘chads’. For want of a proper vehicle with which to express their anxieties, men like Minassian and Rodger are telegraphed down a violent, misogynist path. bell hooks continues,
‘Anger often hides depression and profound sorrow. Depression often masks the inability to grieve. Males are not given the emotional space to grieve. [They] are still being taught to keep it in and worse, to deny that they feel like crying. Unable to cope with the loss of emotional connection, boys internalize the pain and mask it with indifference or rage.’
Because they have been denied a way to properly engage with their emotions, incels can only understand their loneliness as a product of their sexlessness. As a result, even sexually-active incels – yes, they exist – continue to engage with the community because the simple act of intercourse does nothing to alleviate their feelings of rejection, only increasing their anger. Indeed, they will typically explain away their apparent ‘success’ as being illegitimate in some way, usually because the women they have slept with are merely ‘sluts’, or only engaging with them out of pity or social necessity.
We can’t help incels by offering them sex. That Rodger and Harper-Mercer also expressed animosity towards black and mixed-race men reveals a hatefulness that can’t simply be explained by their virginity. So how do we stop more terror attacks being committed in the name of the supreme gentleman?
Mass media holds some of the answers. Examine carefully what we see in film and on television, and you’ll find it littered with casual sexism, both subtle and explicit. From the spiteful nerds of The Big Bang Theory whose open misogyny is rewarded with attractive girlfriends, to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, where a woman is portrayed as the implicit cause of a good man’s descent into evil. Popular culture has fuelled a pervasive attitude where men are the heroes, and women are sex objects or worse, the villains.
Why not reconfigure our popular culture to celebrate a positive form of masculinity, in which respect for women, thoughtfulness and sensitivity are held up as desirable traits? Why not base depictions of romance between men and women around mutual respect and affection, rather than sex, and an imbalanced power dynamic? Why not depict ‘nerdy’ or ‘odd’ men as being functional, healthy members of society, rather than objects of mockery and derision? Transforming our popular culture won’t solve this problem, but it will at least start to show young men like Minassian and Rodger that their anxieties aren’t a weakness, and that their seemingly-perpetual virginity isn’t a crutch.