‘Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!’
That was the message with which Alek Minassian, the man named by police as responsible for the vehicular rage murder in Toronto, launched a killing spree that he directed predominantly at women.
The code ‘C23249161’ might stem from Minassians’ brief service with the Canadian armed forces. More significant, though, was his reference to ‘incels’: an elaborate, misogynistic subculture of young men who describe themselves as ‘involuntarily celibate’.
If you haven’t encountered the incel groups on reddit and elsewhere, it’s difficult to convey their bleakness. Fetid caves of woman hatred, racism and self-loathing, they leave even the casual visitor craving a cleansing bath. But the attention now directed at them might help understand aspects of the contemporary right and its development.
Incels pride themselves on having swallowed the ‘black pill’: not the blue pill offered to Neo to continue his life of blissful ignorance nor the red pill that will reveal to him the horror of the Matrix so he can fight against it, but a third medication (not available in the Wachowskis’ films) that opens their eyes both to the depravity of the world and hopelessness of any attempt to change it.
The (mostly) young men who classify themselves as incels do so not merely because they lack romantic or (perhaps more significantly) sexual relationships, but because they accept their celibacy as a permanent and inevitable condition. Incels understand biology as destiny. They regard themselves as losers in life’s genetic lottery. They’re self-described betas, condemned by their faces and physiques to perpetual isolation while women (whom they deride as ‘Stacys’) seek out the muscular, handsome males (known in the incel lexicon as ‘Chads’).
In that message above, Minassian name-checked Elliot Rodger, who brought the incel mentality into the spotlight in 2014 by killing six people in an attack centred on a sorority house.
‘Tomorrow is the day of retribution,’ Rodger explained in one of several videos he uploaded, ‘the day in which I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you. For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me.’
After his murders, Rodger became something of a meme in incel circles.
‘I don’t know what you don’t see in me,’ he’d complained in his suicide message, with that ‘you’ directed at the women who’d supposedly rejected him. ‘I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.’
Most of the shitposters who subsequently used Rodger’s ‘supreme gentleman’ phrase probably posed more of a danger to themselves than to others (the subculture seems almost designed to foster self-harm and mental illness). Nevertheless, We Hunted the Mammoth’s David Futrelle is probably right to describe the movement as a genuine danger.
‘[I]t appeals,’ he says, ‘to young men consumed by bitterness who don’t think they have much to lose. And instead of helping them solve their problems it radicalizes them and ratchets up both their bitterness and their “nothing to live for” nihilism … With all of its talk of Chads and Stacys, the incel movement often seems more ridiculous than dangerous, but the plain fact is that terrorists are often motivated by ideologies that most other people would consider ridiculous. Things that seem ridiculous can also be very dangerous.’
A comparison might be made with the so-called counter jihadi movement that inspired Anders Breivik’s murders. Most of the keyboard warriors advocating violent struggle against Islam possess neither the inclination nor the ability to transform blogposts into action. Breivik, however, had both.
So, too, did Minassian.
That being said, to focus exclusively on internet groups as incubators for misogynistic rage killings distracts from the more common role played by the incel subculture and others like it.
After all, incel philosophy rests on assumptions widely held throughout the online right. A similarly crude sociobiology pervades the so-called ‘manosphere’, espoused throughout the better-known subcultures of men’s rights activists (MRAs), pick up artists (PUAs) and the other groupings associated with what Futrelle calls ‘the new misogyny’. A biological essentialism often lurks behind ideas associated with, say, the New Atheism of Sam Harris and the crackpot self-help stylings of Jordan Peterson, while the references to ‘cucks’ in the alt right and the alt light echo the incel fascination with masculine weakness.
The modern internet arose during the neoliberal boom of the late nineties and early 2000s, something that fundamentally shaped internet culture.
Think, for instance, of Wendy Brown’s description of subject formation under neoliberalism, a process that pits the individual in an entrepreneurial war of all against all. Under such conditions, failure – of any kind whatsoever – is necessarily deserved, with any proffered excuse a risible attempt to escape responsibility for a fault that can only be individual.
It’s a very similar worldview to that described in Dale Beran’s fascinating description of the early years of 4chan. In his account, the young men who developed key aspects of internet culture were, on the one hand, acutely conscious of their own fragility (as self-described nerds and geeks) even as, on the other, they embraced a worldview with zero tolerance for losers. They dealt with that contradiction by developing a mode of humour developed predicated on emotional disassociation. The trolling that they pioneered honed in on all manner of targets, from Scientologists to morals guardians. But they were particularly given to punishing anyone demonstrating overt sentimentality – hence their notorious campaigns mocking and pranking the friends and family of suicide victims.
That grotesque disregard for normal human sentiment echoed the sensibility of the market ideology associated with the tech industry as one of the most developed sectors of twenty-first-century capitalism.
‘Before the internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore.’
That passage comes from Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, an outfit that describes itself as a ‘Human-in-the-Loop platform [that] trains, tests, and tunes machine learning models for the most innovative companies in the world.’
Biewald’s obvious glee in the disposability of human beings would sound, in any other setting, entirely sociopathic. But in the context of online entrepreneurship, he’s merely giving a matter-of-fact account of the world works.
Should we really be surprised, then, at the proliferation of internet groupings based around ideologies of human inequality? Aren’t the various forms of sociobiological pseudoscience merely the rationalisation of what’s taking place all around us? Online and everywhere else, the strong trample over the weak – and get rewarded with immeasurable wealth for doing so. Under such circumstances, ideas that that explain why the oppressed deserve what’s coming to them will always appeal.
The black pill reveals to the lonely men who swallow it something that they already know. It reminds them that they’re losers – and that they’ll always be losers. But it also provides them with a classic psychological compensation: namely, someone to blame.
Even on their own terms, the incels’ hatred of Stacy makes no sense. If genetics condemns ugly men to isolation, it presumably renders Stacy equally prone to seek out the biologically superior Chad. But, logic or no logic, the constant denunciations of women as simultaneously slutty and frigid, all-powerful and pathetically weak, remind the incels that, despite everything, they’re still men.
Miserable, unhappy and pathetic, yes, but still better than women.
Though the incels take most of their ideas from the broader manosphere, they also define themselves against it. Rodger, for instance, spent much of his time on a forum called PUAhate: a group dedicated to denunciations of so-called pick up artists. He’d read the PUA manifestoes and watched the PUA videos, and yet he remained alone, nearly as angry at the PUAs who’d betrayed him as at the women he couldn’t approach.
The internet, in its vastness, fosters diversity, even among its outcasts. To the rest of the word, the distinction between the various factions of online misogyny makes no difference at all. To those devoted to the subcultures, the minute differences take on the same distinction as the theological disputations separating evangelical sects – or, for that matter, the ideological principles separating political parties.
That’s why the left needs to think more about the incels and what they represent.
If you begin frequenting, say, an incel group, you’ll be presented with a FAQ explaining the core elements of incel lore. You’ll be able to ask questions; those questions will be answered by more experienced members. You’ll encounter the movement’s leaders, its gurus and its heretics. Debates will unfold, and in the course of them you will learn how to argue using your new friends’ methodology and examples, both of which you’ll hone in arguments against, say, visiting PUAs.
It all rather resembles what the old left would have called ‘cadre development’.
The extraordinary transformation of Jordan Peterson from obscure crank to international celebrity makes more sense in light of the internet’s role in creating organic intellectuals for the right. He emerged from academia – but his superstardom depends on the fanboys who flood comments threads with Petersonian talking points, join in his twitter pile ons and harass anyone who criticises his quackery. These people, far more significant than Peterson himself, serve as a kind of alt right cadre – and they learned their chops in the swamp of rightwing and atheist Youtube channels.
There are, no doubt, some online spaces serving a similar role for the left. But progressive activism depends on a solidarity ill-suited to the medium. The internet brings people together but rarely in a democratic, collectivist fashion. More typically, it works to aggregate millions of individuals into a unity forged around a single authority: a charismatic figure or publication. The default structure thus resembles the organisational model associated with right-wing populism – or, indeed, fascism.
For the most part, political movements constructed entirely online translate only weakly into direct, real-world mobilisations. Alek Minassian was, in that sense, an obvious anomaly. It’s not merely that most incels don’t use deadly violence, it’s also that most incels don’t take their ideas into any kind of overt action at all.
Obviously, we need to do whatever we can to prevent the emergence of mysognistic terrorists, since it’s now painfully clear the violence that even a single fanatic can unleash. But we also need to think of a larger issue: the long-term political consequences of so many young men steeled in the ideas of the far right.
Image: Adrian / flickr