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25 April 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 12:15pm

Incel: the online cult for sad, sexless young men is terrorism by any other name

It has become a cult with violent intent; misogyny in its most extreme and dangerous form.

By Mic Wright

In 1997, when the internet was young and far more innocent, a woman called Alana built a text-only site as a community for people who were – as she termed it – “involuntarily celibate”. She was a virgin in her mid-twenties and felt lonely and isolated, afraid that she would be alone forever. She told her story to The Globe & Mail in the aftermath of this week’s van attack in Toronto, an act suspected to be heavily influenced by an ideology called Incel. 

Incel — a typically Internet contraction of that initial term formulated by Alana — is a lifestyle defined by the inability to find a consenting sexual partner. It has its own lexicon of terms which can seem impenetrable to outsiders and tends to manifest itself in young men for whom women have become the enemy. The subculture turns women into a dangerous other, both desperately desired and passionately hated all at once. 

So what began as a positive move by someone seeking out others experiencing that particular kind of loneliness, mutated horribly over time. Alana moved on and began to date, leaving her site in the hands of someone else by 2000. It wasn’t until 2015, when she read an article about the mass killer Elliott Rodger, that she realised that “involuntarily celibate” had become Incel, an internet subculture that flourished and mutated in the fetid swamps of 4Chan and Reddit.

Despite Incel emerging blinking into the light of the mainstream in the aftermath of Rodger’s gun attack at the University of California, Santa Barbara – when six people were killed – people seem to have rapidly forgotten about the subculture. It has hit the headlines again this week after, Alek Minassian, who appears to have defined himself as Incel, participated in Incel communities and reportedly posted a message on Facebook heralding an “Incel revolution”, allegedly killed 10 people using a van as a weapon.

Minassian’s Facebook post has been reported as genuine by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which said its source was the social network itself, and NBC News has also reported that the link has been substantiated by investigators. 

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Journalists have been rushing to understand this corner of the online world again and the people who obsessively inhabit it. For reporters unfamiliar with the Incel subculture, Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, which was published last summer and covers 4Chan, Reddit and other forums where alt-right and other far-right sub-cultures have risen to prominence, has been a quick study aid. 

Nagle presents the alt-right as a nest of interlinked subcultures, groups that do not always like each other and which are entirely inclined to internecine battles. The so-called Manosphere – from which Incel and Volcel (those who describe themselves as voluntarily celibate) groups as well as Pick Up Artists (PUAs) and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) stem – is not a place of harmonious agreement, other than in the shared desire to blame women for all ills.

Those who identify themselves as Incel, bitterly call people who do have sex “Chads and Staceys”, as the Toronto attacker appears to have done, reportedly sharing cartoons and memes that present women as shallow seekers of hard-bodied perfection. They tend to vociferously deny the rejection by women and wider society that they see as so unfair is down to their own behaviour of choices. 

All of this would simply be pathetic were it not for the violence that permeates discussions on these Incel forums. The Toronto attacker’s Facebook page contained references to “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger” and that is not an isolated thing. Across Incel forums, references to “Going ER” and “Doing an ER” are common. This is radicalisation: men who identify themselves as Incel are being encouraged by other Incel men to take their frustration and channel it into acts of direct violence.

Incel is misogyny weaponised. It turns self-pity into a lifestyle, an identifier that puts its adherents at direct odds with the societies they live in. We are the “normies” and therefore, in the minds of the most extreme Incel individuals, we deserve to die. We are to blame for their suffering and our apparent happiness – as demonstrated by having relationships – is rubbed in their faces constantly. You may not think you are a Chad or a Stacey but if you have sex, you’re the enemy.

One self-defined “former Incel” suggested underneath a Canadian Broadcasting Company tweet about the Toronto attack that such events would not occur if the government supplied men with girlfriends. When challenged about this “joke”, he asserted that far from it being a joke this was a serious suggestion as he knew how the attacker felt and that “society treats single men like trash and it needs to stop. The people in power, women, can change this but they refuse to. Blood is on their hands.”

That is not even at the extreme end of Incel thinking. It is a mainstream opinion within the subculture, a group of men who fervently believe that women are actively discriminating against them and that they are life’s victims.

On Incel forums, the Toronto attack has been referred to as “life fuel” – ie something to inspire and lift the mood of Incel men – and the attacker is already being sanctified in the same manner as Elliott Rodger. One poster on wrote: “I hope this guy wrote a manifesto because he could be our next new saint.”  

In other threads – some written prior to the Toronto attack – posters wish for other violent actions. One example wished for “mass food poisoning deaths… a pipe bomb or two.. hopefully somebody finally uses a fucking truck to just ram down roasties,” [another derogatory Incel term for women] “during a school parade or something.” The author of that post has since speculated whether the Toronto attacker was inspired by his words. That is, of course, not possible to prove or disprove at this point.

While the main Incel subreddit was shut down last year, successor forums are popular and boards on 4Chan and the forum SlutHate (formerly PUAHate) – where Elliott Rodger was a regular – do brisk business with these hateful obsessives. There are counter-forums, notably IncelTears, which discuss and dissect the behaviour of the subculture.

Even writing this piece is likely to draw the ire of the Incels. Like any radicalised group, they strike out viciously towards anyone who criticises them. While in the past it was possible to dismiss these groups as mere oddities on the fringes of online culture, with Rodger and now the Toronto attacker, it’s clear that the radicalisation at work in these groups is a significant problem. 

In the UK, referrals to the government’s Prevent programme related to far right activity rose by a quarter in the year to March 2017 and I’d suggest that similar attention be focused on these online-born and bred ultra-misogynist cults. Because, in the end, that is what Incel has become — a cult with violent intent, misogyny in its most extreme and dangerous form. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center added extreme misogynist organisations to its list for the first time this year. 

The inclination to dismiss these men as sad losers dwelling in their parents’  basements is understandable but in a post Elliott Rodger world, it’s clear that we are not simply dealing with a movement of miscreant misogynists but a cult where the boiling rage contained within these forums can and does spill out into terrorist acts of monstrous ferocity. Incel was a joke but it’s very, very serious now and we should consider it no less of a problem than any other form of radicalisation.

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