The horrific shooting in Plymouth by Jake Davison in August 2021 has led to an ongoing discussion about incels, what they are, and how security services and wider society can intervene. Like other young men who are sympathetic to the incel subculture, Davison appeared to have been moving in and out of its websites, subreddits and fora. Whether or not he was an incel cannot be answered once and for all. This ambiguity has not prevented some incels from glorifying him as a ‘saint’ and welcoming the attack, as was recently reported in the Guardian. This is something that some incels regularly do in relation to mass shooters.
It is important to emphasise that the incel community does not exist. Incels are no unified movement, as media reports often suggest. They do not have a common goal. The term ‘incel’ can be seen as an umbrella term, which is itself part of the wider ‘manosphere’, a loose collection of diverse and differing websites, fora and social media accounts which tend to be anti-feminist and misogynist. While some incels advocate violence against women, others do not. Many nonetheless engage in symbolic acts of violence through their posts and discussions, while also talking about mental health issues and other topics. In this Insight, I provide some analysis of incel violence from a psychoanalytic perspective. The incel community is contradictory and complex. It cannot only be approached through the angle of securitisation as is often done.
As with any coverage of extremism, media attention will lead to more exposure to and interest by members of the public. It is difficult to say to what extent the incel communities grew in membership as a result of the Plymouth attack, only naming an increase in web traffic cannot be considered enough evidence here. Like any subculture, incels have been responding to events. Upon the release of the movie The Joker in 2019, many discussed committing mass shootings in cinemas but none occurred. This is not meant to downplay the threat that incels pose. Like other online communities and mainstream social media platforms, incels often engage in so-called ‘shitposting’ and, to a lesser degree, trolling. A psychoanalytic perspective on the topic can provide further analysis. Shitposting and trolling refer to actions whereby a user (or users) deliberately posts aggressive or offensive content to shock others. Trolling signifies instances of engaging others in senseless debate that is purely designed to offend or wind others up. Both instances bring a form of sadistic joy to the troll or shitposter. While it may be difficult to say when shitposting occurs and when posts are meant to be serious, incels’ glorifying of shooters has at least an aura of shitposting and trolling about them that can be further discussed. It is also important to emphasise that social media today is often characterised by a strong sense of irony as well as shitposting and trolling that many users – and not just incels or men of the manosphere engage in.
Creating Alternate Realities
The dynamics of shitposting, trolling, nihilism and irony that are so present in incel posts can be unpacked through a psychoanalytic analysis. As Bonni Rambatan and I argue in detail elsewhere, trolling and shitposting is characterised by the creation of a fantasy on the part of the user. In psychoanalytic terms, fantasies are seen as the creation of imaginary scenes in which the individual is the protagonist and in control. Fantasies have considerable unconscious dimensions and are also brought into existence by the unconscious.
The incel worldview is characterised by particular fantasies about how women allegedly behave, how masculinity has been impacted by feminism, what it means to be successful and desirable, and other themes. For many, posting about committing violence outside of the Internet may serve only as a fantasy. Of course, some have turned those fantasies into reality and there have been documented incel shootings.
In shitposting or trolling, the user forces their own fantasy onto others. This fantasy is often uncoupled from reality, for example in the case of conspiracy theories, or incels’ ideas around “hypergamy”, Chads and Stacys, or the black pill. Alternative realities are created that, in the case of incels, are shared collectively in their fora. Incels want to offend and shock others and find a kind of masochistic enjoyment in self-hatred and immaturity, but acts of glorifying violence for example are unconscious expressions of defending against their own powerlessness, alienation and isolation. What incels regard as true is continuously and rightfully challenged outside of their spaces. Incels seek to uphold their sense of reality (a fantasy) by posting and seeking affirmation by other incels. It is this very public and at the same time inward-facing dynamic of incels that strengthens their community and makes it very difficult to intervene. While incels may appear to be in control and powerful within their own communities, they reveal a deep sense of vulnerability and immaturity through their posts. They, and misogynists in general, defend against social change and changing gender relations. Their actions constitute nothing more than an attack on reality itself. This attack often displays obsessive characteristics whereby being an incel completely revolves around a constantly absent presence of a fantasy of woman. Incel discourses may appear contradictory. It reveals a desire for and attack on women at the same time which is based on fantasmatic constructions of masculinity and femininity. Incels have created a vicious circle where they can hate and fantasise about women and yet bear no responsibility for taking any action and can remain lethargic because, according to them, no woman wants to be with them anyway.
Given the sense of alienation that incels express, to which they respond with further self-isolation, more calls for monitoring and securitising incels cannot be the only answer. In fact, as a singular approach, securitising can further aggravate the situation and contribute to the victimhood discourses that incels and other men of the manosphere employ. Calls for securitising incels are widespread, for instance Tomkinson, Harper and Attwell (2020) argue:
What, then, does it mean to securitise Incel? The first step is to label it as violent extremism and present it as an existential threat to the state. We believe this is possible and justifiable because of the destruction of the contemporary state and social order outlined in Rodgers’ manifesto [a mass shooter who also was a self-identified incel], and because he and subsequent perpetrators have attacked an abstract and general category of potential victims. While Incels purport to seek vengeance on Chads and Stacys, it is clear that they see their fellow citizens – and the states in which they live – as the enemy. This construction of abstract, widespread, general victimhood allows us to articulate the public threat that Incel poses. Additionally, we believe that securitising Incel will help limit violence against women and extremist violence in general. Since these issues are clearly not being adequately dealt with at present, securitisation can unlock the tools to address that violence. (Tomkinson, Harper & Attwell 2020, 7)
Labelling incel extremism as an “existential threat to the state” is too strong as a term here. The state is also not a neutral entity. The Western state is partially based on and founded upon patriarchy and sexism. This leads to a tension within the assumption that it is necessarily the state and its law enforcement or security forces that can effectively respond to incels and radical misogyny. Tomkinson et al. argue that securitisation must happen as a first step because it will enable” access to resources and mechanisms of governance that would otherwise be unavailable” (2020, 5). I argue that securitisation should be a final step and not the primary approach. Instead, gender-based violence should be seen as a problem that the state in general as well as civil society must address. Regarding securitisation as a process that is above political debate, as argued by some, is utopian. For example, recent events in the UK have demonstrated that the Met police has a fundamental problem with sexism and misogyny amongst its male staff. Male politicians regularly make sexist and misogynist remarks too. Those are just two examples. The topic of mainstream misogyny is complex and I cannot adequately discuss it in this text. While Tomkinson et al. stress that a broader debate and intervention is important in order to avoid the further stigmatisation of incels, regarding them publicly as a security threat, risks contributing to their discourses of alienation and victimhood.
I therefore agree with the experts quoted in the recent article by the Guardian that only securitising incels only serves to further increase their sense of isolation and hopelessness. While incels are often highly articulate and reflexive in their posts, make accurate observations about inequality in society or an eroding welfare state in the UK and other countries, they are nonetheless fundamentally misguided in their views on women. In that sense, I feel it is appropriate to describe incels as at least ‘symbolic’ terrorists when they post online and also, as I have done, as exhibiting fascistic tendencies and fantasies. Nonetheless, access to mental health resources needs to be improved for incels and anyone else in society for that matter.
Most importantly, incels are merely a particular extreme symptom of the rampant sexism and misogyny that is visible on the Internet, in schools, workplaces and other spheres. Initiatives need to tackle the problem at that level and engage young men in conversations early on before they could join incel or other communities. Securitisation disavows the very ordinary forms of misogyny and sexism that we see everywhere today and in fact serves to strengthen those forms by locating ‘extreme’ issues elsewhere. Such acts then suggest that there are no foundational problems of sexism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination within society as a whole. It also deflects the extent to which all men as well as women and individuals who use other gender categories reproduce misogyny and sexism.
The Incel in us
Many commentators have been quick to (rightfully) criticise incels for their misogyny and deeply destructive views on women and others. However, at the same time, incels serve as a perfect projection surface on to which everyone can offload their own anxieties and discriminatory feelings in relation to women for example. By quickly condemning incels, we can reassure ourselves that ‘we’ – men in particular – are good subjects. The term ‘incel’ has also become a sort of joke in itself that is circulated on social media in relation to certain men. However, such an attitude is not helpful. Instead, a more analytical perspective on incels and other problematic male communities is needed today in order to understand the anxieties and fantasies that alienated men circulate online. Incels, and other men of the manosphere, have ostracised themselves but an online culture in which perfect bodies are shown on social media platforms and spaces where genuine dialogue can occur remain rare have perhaps also added to their reclusion. Psychoanalysis teaches us that we all have some elements of the incel in us: disruptive, destructive and discriminatory fantasies that are kept under wraps or may erupt, projected onto another human being, or transformed into more benign and reflexive ways of relating, thinking and feeling. Acknowledging this is the first step towards a culture on the Internet and beyond that may be safer and welcoming.