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Very Real

Misogyny Hurts Us All: Alek Minassian, Incels, and Online Forums

Alek Minassian may have identified as an “involuntary celibate” — here’s how online radicalization into misogyny hurts us all.

By Aditi Kini

Police say Alek Minassian intentionally drove a van into throngs of pedestrians in Toronto. The 25-year-old appeared in court on Tuesday and was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. With North America still reeling from the reported attack, a new facet to the story is emerging alongside reports that Minassian might have identified as an “incel.”

"The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!" posted Minassian on Facebook, as confirmed to the BBC.

Elliot Rodger was 22 when he killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus in May 2014. But what is an incel?

A short form of “involuntary celibate,” incels are men who gather in online communities to talk about their inability to find someone to have sex with. (They specifically do not include women, who they refer to by derogatory terms, because women have it “easier,” and gay people have more access to sex.)

On the surface, this community may sound like a support group, but its members have fashioned an entire ideology behind why they are “involuntarily” celibate: because the game is “rigged” from the start and attractiveness outweighs personality or “techniques.” (You can find all this information and more in this “introduction” to the Incels community.) This is what they call the Blackpill, a reference to The Matrix — taking the Red Pill, on the other hand, refers to another misogynist community that believes that pick-up techniques are the only way to approach women.

In November, I wrote an article about misogyny clusters and online radicalization after Reddit banned the r/incels community. The 40,000-something strong subreddit was flagged around the time members urged one user to castrate his roommate who was “suicide fuel” because he had a girlfriend. I was not prepared for the backlash: angry men posted about killing me on offshore websites. I was doxxed, then harassed. Simply writing about misogyny on the Internet--under my real name--made me a target.

Alek Minassian’s call to action on Facebook has created a furor in the media, which is scrambling to explain incel culture to a mainstream audience. This exposure is eliciting a variety of reactions among incels — some users are dismayed that their subculture might be exposed and then shut down, while others rejoice, calling Minassian a “saint” akin to the veneration Elliot Rodger receives in this community.

As the media and public try to make sense of the misogynist overtones in this and several other online communities, it is imperative to separate mental health from this issue. People are speculating that Minassian had autism — his mother was once quoted referring to a son with autism  — but autism is not associated with violence, reports The Star. Mental illness is often implicated in acts of violence, as well as in extreme forms of misogyny. In national tragedies, the spotlight turns to the scapegoat that is mental illness—the Internet speculation about the Florida shooter’s medication is exemplary of the rush to find something to blame, even though experts have repeatedly disavowed a link between psychiatric medication and mass shootings.

Mental illness, as a core concept, signifies deviance from a norm or an ideal. Americans think mental illness is a predictor of violence: 60% think people with schizophrenia are likely to act violently and 32% think the same about people with depression. Meanwhile, people with major psychiatric issues not on medication are almost 3x more likely to be the victims of crime.

Here’s the thing about violence and misogyny, though: They are far, far more common, and not remotely abnormal. Violent, anti-women sentiment, unlike mental illness, is ubiquitous.

In order to comprehend the issue of indoctrination in these internet communities, we also have to tackle the culture of misogyny that is at once normalized and diminished. Feminist have been pointing to the rising violent ideation among “Men’s Rights Activists” for some time now — and it seems that online ideation doesn’t end online, as Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian may teach us.

The link between misogyny and violence is exceptionally strong—especially when it comes to mass killers. According to the Huffington Post, 64% of mass shooting victims were women and children—with women comprising 15% and children 7% of total gun violence homicide deaths. Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger both hated women. Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was known for being abusive. Fifty women are murdered every month by a current or former partner.

The statistics linking violence and women are strong, but it’s only when tragedies like these happen—when misogyny, violence and mental health get tangled together—that misogyny is even addressed. Elliot Rodger identified as an incel and spent time on pick-up artist forums. The extremism of his misogyny was further diminished by mainstream media that was quick to describe his actions as “mentally ill.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik argued that Roger’s women-hating philosophy was “peripheral” to the issue of gun culture.

But here’s the rub: we cannot address online indoctrination without addressing the culture of hatred of women. The degradation and vilification of women because of lack of sexual access — among the #MeToo movement one incel posited that “reverse” rape should be included as well — is an extremist version of modern anti-woman rape culture. For social media platforms to address and moderate these sorts of extremist content, we need to intentionally build towards a culture where sex is not expected of women, where sexual entitlement is not encouraged, where dehumanization is simply unacceptable.

[A photograph of Anne Marie D'Amico, a victim of the mass killing, is shown at a vigil on April 24, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images]