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20th January 2020 Joana Cook
In Insights

In recent years there has been a growing concern from people who have identified as ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate) due to a number of attacks carried out particularly in the U.S. and Canada. But what are incels? How has the online space become relevant for those who have conducted attacks? That will be the focus of this insight.

Incels (involuntarily celibate) are not a clear, physical group with leadership and carded membership. Instead they are more of a subculture, a loosely affiliated group of like-minded individuals who are largely connected in the online space and self-define as incel that date back to the late 1990s. They have had message boards on platforms such as 4chan, reddit, and have had by some counts tens of thousands of persons associate with the online community.

Baele, Brace and Coan have described portrayals of incels as a community that “holds misogynistic views so extreme that violence is regularly advocated; participants in Incel online discussion groups see society as fundamentally hierarchized along sex and attractiveness lines that favor women and exclude men who are not good-looking from any romantic or sexual relationship” (hence the Incel label). Incels have been broadly linked to anti-feminism, male supremacy, the Men’s Rights Movement (both part of the ‘manosphere’ – a group of online communities which reject gender equality) and even white supremacy. One study which examined the language used in online incel forums highlighted frequent misogynistic and homophobic language used, and specific references to gender, physical traits and sex.

Incels tend to portray people in three hierarchical categories based on physical appearances. On top of this group are ‘Alphas’ where women are referenced as ‘Stacys’, and men are referenced as ‘Chads’. This small group is considered the most popular, attractive and desirable. The second tier of persons are considered ‘betas’, otherwise known as ‘normies’. This group comprises the wider majority – the average-looking members of society. The third tier is comprised of incel males – a group deemed to be unattractive, unpopular and undesirable to women in that society.

These categories are defined in two ways according to Bael, Brace and Coan. Drawing off the film, ‘The Matrix’, Incels frequently utilize a ‘pill’ vocabulary where ‘blue’ pills “artificially disconnects him from reality into a delusional agreeable world”; ‘red’ pills that “makes him aware of reality and its anxieties” and finally the incel-exclusive ‘black’ pills that “if one symbolically swallows it makes him aware of the immutability of reality” and thus produces “nihilistic despair.” The second way these categories are defined are due to naturalization and the use of (fallacious) biological arguments.

For those that have gone on to conduct attacks, they may focus on targeting persons deemed to represent, contribute to, their self-perceived incel status. As Ging notes, “contributors to these boards appeared to be using social media to organize a campaign of revenge against women, “social justice warriors” and the “alpha males” who had deprived them of sexual success.” There are three high profile cases in recent years that have been claimed by self-proclaimed incels.

In May 2014 in Isla Vista, California,  Elliot Rodger killed six and injured fourteen in an attempt to instigate a “War on Women” for “depriving me of sex” before committing suicide. In 2015 in Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, California Christopher Harper-Mercer killed nine people and committed suicide. In his manifesto he lamented having no girlfriend, being a virgin, and compared himself shooters including Elliot Rodger, Vester Flanagan, the Columbine kids, Adam Lanza and Seung Cho. In April 2018 Alek Minassian killed ten people and injured sixteen when he drove a van onto the sidewalk in Toronto. Prior to the attack he had posted, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” He had also communicated with two other murderers inspired by the Incel ideology.

The above points provide the briefest of introductions to incels. What they do suggest though is that long-standing streams of misogynistic violence and grievance have taken new directions online in the modern age. While only a small number have thus far conducted mass violence, concerns are raised about other less high profile forms of violence promoted online, which may take shape offline and how such trends should be approached in terms of preventative and intervention measures.