On 12 August, twenty-two-year-old Plymouth man Jake Davison gunned down five people, including his mother and a three-year-old girl, before shooting himself dead. At first glance, this act of nihilistic violence defied explanation. But it quickly emerged that Davison was active in online incel communities. Like other incel mass killers, including Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger and Toronto van attack perpetrator Alek Minassian, he left a disturbing social media trail in which he vented hatred of society, hatred of women, hatred of his mother—and, in the end, hatred of himself.
The term “incel” originally denoted “involuntary celibate,” and was coined with that meaning by a woman. But it now refers to an online subculture of misogynistic men who blame society for their sexlessness.
It is not unusual to feel lonely, to feel as if we don’t fit in, or to doubt that a potential partner would choose us over someone else. It isn’t even unusual, particularly for young people, to feel angry at a society that doesn’t seem to have a place for us. But it is a huge leap from this to becoming a spree killer. Only a minority of sexually frustrated young men become active in online incel spaces; only a minority of those become radicalised; and only a minority of the radicalised become violent. But actual or attempted acts of incel violence have now become common enough to demand some explanation. Only three weeks before Davison’s shotgun rampage, the US Justice Department charged twenty-one-year-old Ohio man Tres Genco with illegal possession of a machine gun and attempting to carry out a mass shooting. Genco had prepared for the attack by attending army basic training, buying two firearms and tactical gear, and closely surveying a sorority house at a nearby university as a target. Like Davison, he was active in online incel spaces and was an admirer of Elliot Rodger. So, how do incel websites create killers?
From Victimhood to Nihilism
For a young man, finding a girlfriend can be challenging—particularly if he isn’t conventionally attractive and his social skills are below par. The distribution of likes on dating apps, particularly for men, resembles the Gini coefficient measuring wealth inequality in the most benighted kleptocracies. Studies have shown that young people are having much less sex now than they were twenty years ago, with the biggest decline being among men. Popular culture ridicules romantically unsuccessful men even while some violent and abusive men enjoy plenty of female attention. There is a recognised racial bias in online dating. Even beyond sex and relationships, there are advantages to being good-looking in many areas of life, and luck plays a bigger role in success or failure than we like to think.
The incel movement’s response to these challenges is to tell its members to give up. It is which states that women are solely attracted to men for their looks—particularly their height, frame size and facial bone structure. It argues that all men can be objectively rated on a scale from 1 to 10, and that women’s preferences do not vary. At the top of the scale are “Chads”—tall, thick-wristed, square-jawed, broad-shouldered men with narrow eyes. Like the Great Old Ones in H. P. Lovecraft’s mythology, they are semi-mythical, and both feared and worshipped by incels. Russian bodybuilder Ernest Khalimov represents the ideal man, or “GigaChad” (the GigaChad meme is an example of incel symbology crossing into mainstream online culture). At the other end of the scale are the incels: biologically inferior men shunned by an uncaring society. You have no hope without the right genes; therefore, you should give up. There are many supremacist movements, but incels are unusual in being a supremacist movement of people who think that they are inferior.
To incels, women are automatons, completely enslaved by their drive to mate and have children with Chads in a phenomenon called “hypergamy” (this is not the formal meaning of the word, but it’s how incels use it). In the past, hypergamy was restrained by social institutions: patriarchy, the need to find a husband for financial support, and condemnation of promiscuity compelled women to accept lower-value men. Before the rise of online dating, women were also forced to settle for partners they were able to meet in everyday life. However, with changing social mores and the rise of online dating (called the “Tinderpocalypse” by incels), hypergamy has been able to run wild, leading to a small minority of men monopolising sex (the 80/20 rule). The incel community is therefore politically reactionary. But while mainstream conservatives argue that people should take responsibility for their own lives and try to better themselves, incels see themselves as perpetual victims, rejecting self-improvement as pointless.
Of course, women are not all dazzled by Ernest Khalimov, as impressive as his jawline may be, and the sight of incels lecturing each other confidently on what women find attractive is a textbook example of the Dunning–Kruger effect in action. The data cited by incels as proof of a sexual famine shows that the majority of young men are still having sexual relationships. Men are older than women in a majority of heterosexual relationships, so we would expect a disparity between the numbers of sexually active young women and young men. With growing economic uncertainty, many more young people are living with their parents than they were twenty years ago. As more of our lives have moved online—even before the pandemic—fewer people tend to meet face to face. Incels show a remarkable lack of empathy for the problems women can face. Most critically, perhaps, there is no evidence that the average young man who identifies as an incel looks any different from the average young man who does not.
Not many incels are willing to show their faces on film. But when they do—for example, in Sara Gardephe’s 2011 short film Shy Boys: IRL, a YouTube AMA by Jubilee, a feature by HBO, or Rodger’s own creepy YouTube videos—it becomes immediately obvious that facial bone structure is not their main problem.
But nihilism is a comforting ideology, and being a member of an incel community offers a sense of identity and belonging to those who feel lost and isolated in the wider world. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, men on the autism spectrum can be particularly vulnerable to blackpilled thinking.
From Nihilism to Violence
Most men who identify as incels don’t pose a threat to anyone except themselves. So how does someone go from incel to terrorist? Extremist ideologies form concentric circles, like a bullseye or target. There is a small core of people actually able and willing to use violence against their real or imagined enemies. They are surrounded by others who approve of violence but don’t want to be the one to pull the trigger. There is a further, much larger cohort who disapprove of violence but still sympathise with the goals of the terrorists. And most peripheral of all are those who abhor the terrorists but find their motives understandable. Sometimes people on the periphery can be sucked into the centre, as if caught in a whirlpool.
Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has observed that a group can often become collectively more radical than any of its members were when they first joined. On top of this, hyper-online 4Chan culture encourages people to post the most sociopathic content they can think of, so as to appear “edgy.” It is impossible to tell who is being serious when they say they are “going ER” (Elliot Rodger—i.e. carrying out a mass killing).
Only a small minority of the already extreme minority actually kill anyone. Sometimes incel violence has vague political goals, like forcing governments to somehow “redistribute” sex or “regulate” the sexual marketplace. More commonly, it is simply an act of revenge against society in general, and women in particular. Elliot Rodger left a lengthy manifesto documenting in detail how he progressed through small acts of petty violence to the murder of six people. In his first year at university, he threw a cup of coffee over two women who did not respond when he smiled at them. He later threw another cup of coffee over a couple kissing in Starbucks, which left him “shaking with rage-fueled excitement … I had never struck back at my enemies before, and I felt a small sense of spiteful gratification for doing so.” A couple of years later, upon seeing a group of college students kicking a ball around in a park, he wrote: “rage boiled inside me as I watched those people who thought they were better than me enjoying their pleasurable little lives together.” He bought a super-soaker from K-Mart, filled it with orange juice, returned to the park, soaked them while “scream[ing] with rage,” then ran back to his car and drove away. He was left “giddy with ecstatic, hate-fueled excitement. I wished I could spray boiling oil at the foul beasts. They deserved to die horrible, painful deaths just for the crime of enjoying a better life than me.” Soon afterwards, he bought his first handgun and felt “a new sense of power.”
The incident with the super-soaker inspired Genco. “I put some orange juice in a water gun, I was planning to spray some foids [women] and couples like ER did, when I finally did do it, it was ER’s birthday and I didn’t even know that,” he wrote on an incel website. “Felt like I spiritually connected to the saint [Rodger] on that day” (radicalised incels often refer to Rodger in religious terms, and depict him in religious iconography). Genco was not the only incel to be inspired by Rodger. Shortly before he killed ten and injured sixteen with a van in downtown Toronto in April 2018, Alek Minassian made a Facebook post:
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!
“Supreme Gentleman” was a title Rodger gave himself in his manifesto; the rest of the message is filled with incel-speak that sounds as if it could be a joke, if it were not for the fact that people actually died. Obviously, the veneration of successful killers on incel sites can inspire other killings.
Voltaire’s maxim that making people believe absurdities can make them commit atrocities remains as apt as ever. A dysfunctional view of women and relationships, nurtured and unchallenged in online echo-chambers, can lead to virulent misogyny. And virulent misogyny can lead to violence.
Removing vulnerable men or boys from the online echo chambers can break the chain. But the internet cannot be censored, and while this is one of its great advantages it also means that incel content will remain readily available. Individual platforms haven’t had much luck censoring incel sites in any case. Reddit, for example, now bans incel subreddits. But they keep popping up, forcing the site’s admins to play a game of whack-a-mole. And other incel sites are hosted outside western countries, beyond the reach of western regulators and law enforcement.
Still, Genco’s arrest shows that law enforcement is getting better at heading off incel terrorist attacks before they are carried out.
Fortunately, most of the young men who are drawn into online incel communities ultimately deradicalise themselves, growing out of them before they get anywhere near that far. There are now also informal groups to help incels leave their communities, like the subreddit r/incelexit. Deradicalising incels before they fall too far into the ideology is far better than policing those who have already become violent, but it isn’t easy. As with most ideologues, challenging incels or making them feel even more isolated can easily induce them to double down. Simply telling them for the fiftieth time that Danny DeVito is short and married doesn’t seem to help. Incels need to be in the right frame of mind to be deradicalised, recognise the harmfulness of the ideology, and take personal responsibility for their own progress. Otherwise the blackpill continues to offer them a seductively easy explanation for their predicament.