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Assessing Misogyny as a ‘Gateway Drug’ into Violent Extremism

Assessing Misogyny as a ‘Gateway Drug’ into Violent Extremism
24th January 2022 Maddie Cannon
In Insights

Researchers and practitioners in the field of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) have in recent years placed an increasing focus on the gendered dynamics of violent extremism across the ideological spectrum. This has ranged from the diverse roles and motivations of the growing number of women joining both Islamist and far-right extremist groups; the influence of political masculinities and femininities in individual and collective radicalisation processes; and the proliferation of violent attacks on women across Europe and North America associated with the highly misogynist culture cultivated on the alt-right ‘manosphere’. This Insight considers the political and epistemological challenges of this latter point. Are misogynistic viewpoints and outlets that foster misogynistic communities acting as a gateway into more openly violent extremist movements? Does this framing undermine the significance of systemic misogyny? I approach these questions by first critically examining the ‘gateway drug’ theory employed by researchers and commentators to illustrate the interconnections between misogyny and far-right extremism, then assess its implications for policymakers, tech companies and society at large.

The relationship between misogyny and forms of extremist violence is well-documented. A report by UN Women and Monash University in Asia points to strong associations between hostile sexism and violence against women and support for violent extremism and ideological fundamentalism. Further, it reveals misogyny to be “integral to the ideology, political identity and political economy” of violent extremist groups. Similarly, multiple lone attackers in the last ten years have had records of domestic abuse against women. The perpetrators responsible for the Islamist extremist attacks in Boston in 2013; Florida in 2016; Nice in 2016; and London in 2017 all had known records of domestic violence or ‘intimate terrorism’ prior to their attacks. In this sense, misogyny has been described as “the gateway, driver…early warning sign” or “entry point” to violent extremism for some men. While this symbiosis has been observed among both far-right and Islamist extremists, this Insight will focus on the manifestations of violent misogyny on the alt-right ‘manosphere’. This “online ecology” consists of a myriad of sites, memes and forums constructed around narratives of male insecurity and resentment, and the view of feminism’s progress as an attack on traditional patriarchal values and culture.

Kate Manne defines misogynistic behaviour as “hostility toward women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, who aren’t serving male interests in the ways they’re expected to.” This definition is most pertinent when describing the kind of misogyny most prevalent in the alt-right manosphere; “the dogma uniting these men is hate,” writes Rachel Guy, and women and feminism are the enemy. Members of online subcultures giving themselves names such as The Red Pill (TRP), Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), pick-up artists (PUAs), men’s rights activists (MRAs) and involuntary celibates (incels) coalesce around sentiments of aggrieved entitlement, victimhood and thwarted masculinity, believing themselves to be the true victims of a ‘gynocentric’ society. Men who feel threatened or emasculated by women’s employment, education or perceived equality “blame feminism for increasingly infringing on spaces where they expected to go unchallenged.”

Recently, incel communities have become an increasing cause for concern – not only on account of their hate-based online activity but their increasingly deadly violence offline. The first instance of public violence attributed to the incel community was the 2014 attacks by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who uploaded a YouTube video and 107,000-word manifesto expressing his frustrations over not having a girlfriend and his contempt for women and racial minorities before killing six people and injuring fourteen others in Santa Barbara, California. While both pieces of content were removed by many platforms in the aftermath of the attack, numerous copies continue to be circulated online, permitting his misogynist call to action to still “reach new believers to this day.”

Experts on male supremacism view the Santa Barbara attack as the point at which the online incel ideology took on a life of its own into a separate organised movement “characterised by [the] dehumanization of women, male sexual entitlement, and glorification of violence.” Rodger’s attack earned him a place of ‘sainthood’ on the manosphere and inspired numerous other self-identified lone actor incels to “go ER” (Rodger’s initials) and commit deadly violence against women across North America and Europe. These include – but are not limited to – the 2015 Oregon college shooting; the 2018 vehicle-ramming attack in Toronto and yoga studio shooting in Florida; the 2020 massage parlour stabbing in Toronto; the 2020 Arizona shooting at a shopping centre; and the 2021 shooting in Plymouth, England.

While the majority of proponents within this loose confederacy of male supremacist subcultures do not go on to become violent extremists, arguments have been made that its complex and often minimally-moderated nexus provides fertile ground for indoctrination into and acceptance of violent misogynistic narratives, and paves the way for an ideological readiness to use physical violence against women. In a similar vein, there is increasing evidence of misogynistic views opening the cognitive door to wider forms of hate-based extremism based on protected categories of people, such as race, ethnicity and religion. In an ethnography of the Canadian alt-right, one pickup artist revealed: “If you’re already ready to go against feminism…then becoming a ‘racist’ is not a big deal.”

The cross-ideological connections between misogyny, male supremacism and far-right extremism are well-researched and widely accepted in many mainstream and academic conversations. This spate of disruptive violence has led to the conceptualisation of violent male supremacism as a ‘gateway drug’ to wider white supremacist, anti-Semitic or exclusionary ideologies. The specific calibre of ‘manospheric misogyny’ establishes clear lines of superiority between groups and sets out to dehumanise those deemed to be inferior (in this context, women) in order to justify violence. Men are encouraged to see women as sexual objects devoid of agency or humanity that they must dominate. This rhetoric is framed as a higher calling; these men don’t see themselves as sexist, but instead “fighting against their own emasculation and sexual repression at the hands of strident feminists.” It then becomes easy to repurpose this ideological framing and apply it to ethnic or religious ‘others’. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find the similarities between this narrative of existential threat to (white) male identity and that of the ‘great replacement’ or ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theories which have come to influence much far-right discourse.

The perpetrator of the 2019 attack in Halle, Germany on a Synagogue and a kebab shop claimed that the reason he could not get a girlfriend was due to the number of migrants in his local area. In a recent paper, DeCook and Kelly state that while this was used as evidence of his ‘incel tendencies’, insufficient attention was paid to the fact that both women and migrants were blamed for his plight; “the attacker expresses entitlement to these women not only as a man, but specifically as a white man.” The narrative of men of colour taking ‘our’ women is another widespread white supremacist trope, demonstrating the intrinsic link between misogynist violence and far-right extremism. As mentioned previously, some have taken this cross-pollination as evidence of a gateway between the two ideologies, but correlation does not imply causality. DeCook and Kelly, among other feminist scholars of the far-right like Rothermel, instead conceptualise it as evidence of the intersectional, systemic and intrinsically linked nature of misogyny, racism and xenophobia.

Speaking at a RUSI Conference on ‘Global Perspectives on the Transnational Far-Right Threat and Response’ in November 2021, Rothermel argued that the gateway drug thesis serves to depoliticise and trivialise online harassment and violence against women by presupposing a sequence “whereby antifeminist [and] misogynist ideas are presented as a first step or precursor to what is presumed to be more extreme ideologies.” Conceptualising this ideological cross-pollination as a unilinear and sequential trajectory positions misogyny as a kind of apolitical, watered-down ‘extremism lite’. Rothermel warns that this kind of thinking is symptomatic of the ongoing normalisation of systemic misogyny in society:

“We are in danger of perpetuating a way of thinking that trivialises misogynist violence as a kind of minor, apolitical, less extreme and excusable type of violence which in turn can then provide legitimacy to male supremacist and misogynist narratives and reinforce systemic violence from such groups.”

Further, the fact that states continue to debate whether incel-related attacks and acts of deadly misogynist violence should be classified as terrorism is symbolic. While there is significant variation in global definitions of terrorism, it is widely recognised as a public act of violence intended to provoke a state of terror and intimidate a group or population. Despite overwhelming evidence of the incel attackers’ ideological motivations; the use of violence in pursuit of a political aim; and the dissemination of manifestos and live-streams to make a public statement and cause fear and disruption – all characteristics of a terrorist act – governments are still reluctant to recognise this violence for what it is. One exception lies with Canada who, in 2020, announced its first incel-related terror charge against a seventeen-year-old male who stabbed a woman to death in Toronto.

Addressing the ever-evolving threat of male supremacist violence and the culture of “violence, heroism, and terror” nourished on the alt-right manosphere will require a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach involving a wide range of voices. At a policy level, nebulous parameters surrounding legal definitions of terrorism and violent extremism and governmental hesitation to include incel-related violence in counter-terrorism frameworks have knock-on effects on tech companies’ efforts to develop P/CVE moderation policies to address misogynist content. Eviane Leidig at the ICCT called for a systematic approach and the establishment of industry standards to “ensure cross-platform posting behaviour is appropriately monitored and examined.” At the same time, further difficulties lie in identifying, labelling and removing content from amorphous online movements with no official membership or terrorist designation in comparison to coherent branded groups like Islamic State or Atomwaffen Division. It is up to the academic community to help identify how online trends manifest from highly decentralised groups, and what policy jurisdictions this online abuse falls under to better label and remove this type of content.

While it must be noted that misogynist or male supremacist violence does not currently pose a major threat to national security, it represents a “new kind of danger, a testament to the power of online communities to radicalise.” With regards to how violent misogyny finds refuge in the online space, tech companies should be encouraged to take responsibility for the role played by social media platforms in the creation of extreme, homogeneous echo chambers and the “promulgation and amplification” of terrorist and violent extremist content (TVEC). The same amount of rigour should be applied to moderating violent misogynist content as other forms of TVEC. Recent innovations in artificial intelligence, such as Jigsaw’s tool Perspective, use machine learning to identify and measurably reduce toxic language and encourage healthy dialogue across a range of digital platforms. As the scope of Perspective expands, developers are engaging with ways to “broaden the capabilities of machine learning models to detect more nuanced forms of toxicity such as misogyny and doxing.”

While antifeminist hate speech and violent misogyny are often personal in tone, they are “most productively understood as a political phenomenon.” Curbing both online and actual violence against women is possible, but will require a fundamental discursive and societal shift – one in which violent misogyny is understood as a form of extreme political violence in and of itself, not just a fringe phenomenon or a ‘gateway drug’ to other ostensibly more extreme ideologies.