By Erik Mertens
The piece is written in response to the recent article on incel violence. Overall, I am thankful that this article exists, because it lays a foundation for a serious discussion about an important issue that is forcing itself into public consciousness. Incidents of incel violence are violent extremism, some are even terrorism. By creating an online community, incels have created an identity, and thereby also created a target that can and should be aimed at more specifically with preventive measures. But is the phenomenon of male violence against women a new phenomenon? Isn’t what is new the fact that an online community has been able to formulate an ideology and garner widespread attention in contemporary society around and through such crimes? And are we doing ourselves a favor by leaving the political and psychological mess underlying this phenomenon entangled and instead targeting individual suspects?
Angeringly, men brutalising and even killing women in sexually motivated crimes is an all-too-old, all-too-common phenomenon. Needless to say, this does not mean that it is normal, or that it should not be considered a security threat when an extremist community forms around sexually violent tendencies. My argument, however, builds precisely on the fact that misogynistic violence is so deeply rooted, both culturally and psychologically.
But before presenting my (counter-)arguments, I would like to quickly restate some of the article’s main points:
- Governments should learn from the fight against Islamic extremism and other governments’ efforts, and “the most effective interventions should occur at the societal level”. A “public health approach” is advocated, which “allows us to address the feelings of isolation and alienation among incels and intervene at early stages to prevent violence from occurring”.
- “Understanding the threat posed by incels is difficult because it requires unpacking and critiquing the misogynistic views that underpin their behaviours”, but deeming misogynistic statements a security threat is a useful strategy because it helps lessen their impact.
- Incels are loosely connected to, and emboldened by, new political movements such as the alt-right and Trumpism, as they share a common reactionary thread.
- There is a link between support for violent extremism and domestic violence, therefore countering misogynistic statements helps against both.
While “interventions at societal level” and addressing “feelings of isolation and alienation among incels” preventively sound great, the article does not present much in the way of specifics on how to do so. The measures at the societal level presented are aimed at countering “these types of misogynistic statements and deem[ing] them a security threat” and not allowing “the mainstream media, politicians or public commentators to excuse or justify gendered violence when it happens”. Is this a promising approach?
Additionally, I think that “unpacking and critiquing the misogynistic views that underpin their behaviours” is exactly what is needed, whether some view it as a threat or not. But unpacking and critiquing should have the purpose of understanding a problem and solving it. It is not easy, but worth a shot. In the following commentary, I will show why I think the article “‘Incel’ Violence Is a Form of Extremism. It’s Time We Treated It as a Security Threat.” does not contribute much of value to this process of problem-solving, while still being an important contribution overall because it asks crucial questions and makes some valid observations.
Dealing with and understanding incels politically
As a critical, strongly left-leaning observer of many political developments over the last few years, I am afraid that the moralistic, surface-level, representational approach of socially progressive liberals has lost its effectiveness almost completely. To be precise, this approach is more than enough within some echo-chambers of media consumption, because these chambers tend to be filled with those we already agree with (which is what maintains our illusion that such an approach works). But outside these echo-chambers, it is less effective than a car without wheels.
This is because, and this concerns point 3), the alt-right and the reactionary right-wing has long adapted to it. For every standard left-wing, progressive, or socially liberal claim, there is a reductionist rebuttal or simple catch-phrase at hand to make the political opponent seem irrational, evil, or uninformed. For instance, the (ironic) right-wing outrage about outrage-culture and cancel culture simply confirms their idea about their perceived political opponents being overly sensitive, easily “triggered”, and therefore irrational.
Adding more to the pile of discursive mess by “not allowing public speakers to justify gendered violence” is exactly what the right wants, because it is exactly what the right has predicted, and prepared for. Just as the “incel wiki” from a logical, progressive, socially liberal, or feminist viewpoint reads as mind-boggling nonsense, the reactionary right reads a claim such as “Donald Trump’s comments on incel extremist XYZ are a security threat” as mind-boggling nonsense, no matter how true the claim is. The desire on the right to be right is, in fact, so strong, that with every piece of evidence against their worldview, it adapts and retreats into more absurd and conspiratorial territory: see QAnon, etc. Nonetheless, and this is where it gets tricky: the conspiracy theories produced on the right-wing, when read as modern myths or archetypal stories, are much more engaging and even subjectively relatable than much of what the political center or the left has to offer in terms of narrative. They are digestible stories that speak to deep-seated fears and desires.
I would even argue that the right wing has not only adapted to, but actually prepares for counter-arguments and countermeasures by anticipating them. Incels, for instance, anticipate a culture war and persecution, and therefore, the measures presented in the article will confirm their warped worldview. This will provide them, in their minds, a justification for more violence, and appear like a call to arms to these men deprived of purpose.
Arguing that governments should “start combating misogyny in the same way they fight Islamic extremism” reveals the limited perspective of the article in a global security context. It overlooks that the narrative about, and responses, to Islamic extremism have been heavily shaped and weaponised by Western governments to justify and gloss over their imperialist, resource-driven interests in Islamic-majority countries, most of which heavily oppose organisations such as ISIS. Western nations have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians for geopolitical and economic reasons. Ironically, countries such as Saudi-Arabia, which provided support to violent Islamic terrorist organisations and arguably is itself one, receive money and weapons from Western nations. The common denominator, here, is power and economic interest, which drives politics under neoliberal governance. This is, obviously, not meant to justify Islamic terrorism, but to demonstrate that extremist acts and radicalisation do not occur in a vacuum, but are extreme or pathological responses to real societal problems. Instead of acting as though extremists were motivated purely by abstract ideas and abstract ideas only, let’s examine some of the real social changes and problems that are at the root of the fear and despair of incels.
Feminism has long argued that patriarchal gender roles and gender inequality hurt both women and men. Whilst clearly, the potential victims of incel extremists should be protected, let us also consider that incels are themselves, whether they know it or not, victims of the constricting gender roles and toxic gender dynamics that continue to pervade our societies. They are, as it appears, much more deeply rooted than some might assume; as I will try to show, it is not enough to view patriarchy as a purely ideational structure and simply “counter misogynistic statements”. In fact, patriarchy, when conceived of as a socially constructed system of domination of the so-called rational, productive, and instrumental forces over the so-called irrational, reproductive, and inherent energies in our worlds, runs deep into the entire fabric of modernity and liberal capitalism.
Dealing with and understanding incels psychologically
I wish the article would have developed a more clear picture on how to help and understand incels on a psychological level. In absence of this, the message appears to center around “targeting” and “intervening“, which I fear will only make the misogynist extremist individual feel threatened, causing him to lash out. The idea that policing and state surveillance can be used to solve cultural and interpersonal problems is part of the problem. Human beings thrive in functioning communities, when they feel valued. By switching fear for empathy, plenty of perspectives on incels can be raised, but the fundamental precondition for that is to see them as persons with value. And just for the record, I think Islamist extremists deserve the same empathy, because without it, their worldview that the world is a battlefield is confirmed.
But to achieve some understanding of incels, I think it is also crucial not to pivot to the other extreme and entirely dismiss everything they are communicating. To give you an idea of my perspective here, I see, for instance, suicide or suicidal statements and acts as a form of communication: “fuck you all, you all have left me alone” or “please, I need help!”. Another example is a teenager with bulimia. There is a rich literature on what tendencies bulimic teenagers reflect in our society. They are, with their disorders, individual manifestations of wider cultural disorders and disarrays. Similarly, incels are communicating something, and it would be a mistake to take their ideas at face-value, and react as though one was dealing with a purely ideational, coherent worldview and not a pathology, and then dismiss entirely what incels communicate. The key lies in taking a symbolic, archetypal perspective to connect the incel story to real life by using the power of metaphor.
The incel story and why listening closely may be worth a shot
If we want to understand the incel story, there are many metaphorical elements to be uncovered. For instance, dating apps and social media introduce a logic of numeric value and superficial appearance so deeply into dating and social life that it is not, in principle, wrong when incels start viewing their entire value to be determined by their bodies, the shape of their face, their bone structure, etc. It is an irrational fear, but not a fear that cannot be explained by major cultural changes in the recent past. Like a bulimic teenager, incels have developed a pathology out of an unhealthy, even hateful relationship to one’s self-image. Sex, in their minds, functions more like a social currency, not as a sacred exchange of life energy or a biological reproductive procedure. Is that a surprising thought when social media machines are structured around a ceaseless pursuit of quantifiable social currency?
Sex has long attained a symbolic meaning related to status. In a society that raises boys to desire being masculine, and views masculinity in connection to violence, “hardness”, and being an unflinching bully-hero who, in the movies and in much of the non-fictional media, always “wins” the objectified trophy of an over-sexualised woman, the “Chad” and “Stacy” story is not surprising. It’s almost laughably uncreative, which reveals its archetypal roots. In those movies, the hero usually single-handedly takes out villains who are conspiring in a plot to gain evil power. The lone-wolf archetype, too, is a staple in our culture. Creating art and entertainment that does not rely on these clichés is a constructive way to not only counter, but counteract these worn-out plot devices.
In a society that reduces purpose in life to making money, consuming, winning, and hedonistic pleasure, many, especially young people, are yearning for a deeper purpose. Conspiracy stories in which an enemy attempts to destroy and take away everything you want are alluring when one is looking for a mission, even if that mission is to become a martyr of hatred. When an online community draws them in and tells them that they are being treated unfairly and persecuted (which is an appealing message to people who feel unloved and lonely), this toxic environment provides a sort of sadistic and masochistic pleasure dynamic that becomes irresistible: on one hand, these young men want nothing more than to serve a purpose or power greater than them. On the other, this form of digital self-harm and submission to a virtual authority leaves them yearning for sadistic domination over a “lower” entity.(1)
I think the phenomenon of incels can be understood, and should be treated, as a story. These archetypes of “Chad” and “Stacy“, and the demonisation of women who are seen as less worthy, simplify and narrate a complex reality so as to reflect the subjective experience of these desperate young men. This story then serves as the shared myth of an online community that gives them the feeling of belonging and brotherhood that often substitutes for other forms of love, a bit like a monastery or the military. In the absence of such structures, or when the internet becomes used to such an extent that ‘traditional’ structures glide out of view, new online communities will form that even spill into daily life. When they do, there must be structures in place to respond to and prevent these acts of extremism. But that is not nearly enough: the cultural and psychological roots of this phenomenon must be taken seriously, and not reduced to only being misogyny, rather than a complex reflection of problems in our societies.
In a feeling of deep despair over the questions “why am I alone?” and “why am I without a sexual or romantic partner?”, incels desperately cling to a notion of logic and predictability, resulting in a pseudoscientific worldview similar to Hitler’s misunderstanding of Darwinism. Their disappointment in life, and their lack of self-love and fulfilment, must find an outlet, and the existential vulnerability of facing the mysteries of love, change, and self-actualisation must be avoided at all costs: the ego is protecting itself. Similar to the retreat into conspiracy on the reactionary right, incels find, on the internet, a perfect tool for ego-protection. After all, everything imaginable can be dug up online.
But it’s always tempting to simplify the complexity of humans. Ignoring it usually also goes along with repression, both internally and externally, and repression usually just exacerbates the problem, to explode at a later moment. The fact that Eliot Rodger wrote a manifesto is a perfect illustration of my main argument: not only does it cement the political aims of incels and therefore serve as an argument for categorising them as terrorists, but it also shows that they have something to say. Something that shouldn’t be taken at face value, but understood by looking deep into the psyche by means of metaphor – a Jungian approach. I’m not trying to suggest here that incels are making valid points, but that we should listen closely to find out what deeper roots this phenomenon has.
- See Erich Fromm, “Escape From Freedom” for a detailed description of this phenomenon in a political context.
Illustrations by Dhrupadi Ghosh