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24 August 2021

Why we have to change the way we talk about incels

Mocking angry young men may feel cathartic, but it won’t stop radicalisation.

By Sarah Manavis

Among the social media posts that appeared in the first 24 hours after the mass shooting in Plymouth on 12 August, one in particular received an avalanche of attention. On his now-suspended Twitter account, one man, Andrew Gatley, wrote that, to stop violence perpetrated by “incels”, single men aged 18-25 could be “designated” a woman. 

Gatley’s proposal came following the news that the shooter had subscribed to misogynistic incel (short for “involuntary celibate”) ideology – the belief, held mostly by men, that female sexual liberation has caused them to be serially deprived of sex despite their perceived worthiness. In response, hundreds of people noted the obvious issues with this blatant objectification of women, and the moral horror of stripping them of their right to consent. (Comparisons were made to The Handmaid’s Tale.) Others were shocked that anyone could suggest such a thing in 2021. 

But alongside these reactions was another kind of response, which appears whenever incels are mentioned in the mainstream: people mocking incels as “losers” or “sad virgins” who “can’t get laid”. This is almost always the conclusion of discussions about incels – that these men ultimately should be categorised as risible figures who are undeserving of female attention, and should be denied it as a form of retribution. 

This mockery, and the intention behind it, is understandable. Women have every right to ridicule men who hope to rob them of their agency and, in some cases, kill them. But this is where the conversation often stops, as though derision itself might mitigate future violence. 

[See also: Why the Plymouth shooting was preventable]

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Over the last few years, it has become clear just how hard it is to deradicalise those who have internalised such extreme ideologies, whether they are incels, anti-vaxxers, followers of QAnon, or Covid conspiracy theorists. We mock the absurdity of these theories, make belaboured efforts to explain why they’re wrong, and try to raise awareness of the red flags indicating that someone might be being radicalised. Clunky solutions are occasionally put forward (such as, in the case of the Plymouth shooting, giving incels the official status of a terrorist group), which soothe the general public, but don’t fix what has now become a widespread social problem. 

Without understanding and actively addressing the patriarchal social conditions that are driving hundreds of thousands of men and boys worldwide to this strain of misogyny, this problem will never be solved. We know the patriarchy creates social pressures for men to be hypermasculine and hypersexualised; that it disincentivises lonely men from seeking mental health support. We also know that terms like “red-pilled” and “cucked” are signs of radicalisation. But what are we doing about this? Why are we pointing at the problem without trying to fix it? 

The uncomfortable truth is that we need to talk about the social factors that have caused these ideologies to soar, with an explicit aim to provide support for the men and boys most likely to succumb to them. It should be possible to remain unsympathetic to the violent, misogynistic, entitled lines of thought without maligning the lonely boys who frequent the nefarious sites where such thinking thrives. As the Oxford University professor Amia Srinivasan wrote for the London Review of Books in 2018, we must explore “the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion”. It’s easy, and strangely comforting, to mock incels. It’s harder, but far more useful, to understand them.

[See also: Banning strip clubs won’t help the fight against gender-based violence]

Many people – particularly women – may be reluctant to help incels. Why should we give more attention to people who subscribe to an ideology that has led to so many deaths, driven by a hatred of women? But to deradicalise young men, and to prevent more radicalisation from happening, we must address the toxic social conditions that have brought us to this point. 

Solving this problem will mean doing less to malign incels for the things that have led them to this ideology – their virginity, their isolation. Though it feels simpler and more empowering to hit them where we know it will hurt most, derision and social exclusion will do nothing to change the conditions that cause so many men to subscribe to this strain of misogyny. 

There must be a conscious, practical effort to understand what has created the turmoil leading young men to become incels, and a greater attempt to deconstruct the patriarchal systems that encourage them to channel that turmoil into violence. Until we do, and as long as we address incel radicalisation solely through shame, this problem will only continue to grow.

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat