The Department of Criminology at the Erasmus School of Law…
Beyond toxic masculinity: Incels’ violence and the resurgence of ‘radical’ identity political movements
On the 23rd of April 2018, Alek Minassian drove his van into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street, killing ten people and injuring several others. Investigations in the aftermath of the attack revealed that Minassian belonged to what mass media have identified as an awkward movement of sexually frustrated young men commonly known as ‘incels’. According to several reports, the movement would have gained prominence on social media following the Isla Vista attacks during which Elliott Rodger killed 6 people before taking his own life in 2014. As a self-proclaimed incel, Rodger left behind a manifesto in which he detailed his plans for instigating a “beta uprising” against all the sexually active men and women that had deprived him from love and sex. His influence on the Toronto attack was clearly stated in the Facebook post Minassian published a few minutes before going on a rampage: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliott Rodger!”
As a self-proclaimed incel, Rodger left behind a manifesto in which he detailed his plans for instigating a “beta uprising” against all the sexually active men and women that had deprived him from love and sex
Incels and Involuntary Celibacy
But what does incel stand for? Contrary to what has been claimed, incelness is not just a movement of angry, misogynistic nerds that consider sex as a natural right. Instead, it includes a variety of profiles who, for various reasons, cannot get intimate with the opposite gender. According to the website incels.me, ‘Incel’ stands for ‘Involuntary Celibacy’ and aims to bring together men who have “no possibility of finding a partner, either to get validation, love or acceptance from” despite repeated attempts to do so. Most common types of Incels include individuals who have not had – or never had – a sexual or romantic partner in a significant amount of time, or abstain from engaging in relationship either because they are unattractive, insecure, or struggle with mental illness. Some have tried surgery, therapy or dating apps, but a majority of members sees celibacy as inescapable. Central to their discourse is indeed the belief that romantic success largely depends on a combination of genetic and personal characteristics such as being “charismatic, tall, good-looking, confident, muscular” and that there is little to be gained from entering the game of seduction and gender interactions. Thus, while some incels believe that they can maximise their odds with external help, a majority sees themselves as part of a subset of ‘beta’ males doomed to lifetime loneliness. And instead of working towards solutions to improve their situations, they radically embrace their genetic status by articulating their whole identity around it.
Although the website incels.me condemns any form of misogyny, it cannot be denied that a fringe of self-proclaimed incels expresses a virulent sense of hatred towards a society which promotes physical appearance over ‘what is inside’ and which glorifies the “Chads” and the “Stacys”; that is, in incel slang, good-looking and sexually active men and women. Feminism is ultimately blamed for encouraging women’s sexual liberation, which deprives “beta males” (as opposed to “Chads”) from their right to romance. Some extreme incels go as far as encouraging sexual violence, acid attacks and murders to overthrow what they perceive as an exclusionary system.
Several commenters situate the rise of the incel movement within a toxic masculine culture that has spread through the “manosphere” (a collection of online masculinist communities) in Western countries. Referring to a set of cultural stereotypes about how men should behave in society, toxic masculinity promotes behaviours such as being dominant, tough, or repressing emotions. As such, it can be considered as ‘toxic’ for society and men themselves, for it encourages homophobia, misogyny, and gender-based violence. But neither sexual frustration nor toxic masculinity can account in itself for the radicalisation of young men that see themselves as genetically disadvantaged. It only serves as a justification for (incitement to) violence. Instead, we should question the resurgence of ‘radical’ identity politics among Western youth generations over recent years.
Youth movements and the radicalisation of identity politics
Identity politics can be described as a process of consciousness-raising whereby a group of individual sharing similar characteristics or experiences, come together and articulate a sense of ‘we’ around some aspects of their identity such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations and other social categories people identify with. Early examples of identity political movements include the American gay liberation movement that emerged in the 1960s and urged lesbians and gay men to counter societal shame by openly living their sexual orientation, or the civil right movement that advocated for racial equality. While such movements emphasised the sameness of human dignity regardless differences, more recent examples of identity politics indicate a shift from inclusiveness to exclusive group-based interests. This I call ‘radical’ identity politics. It refers to contemporary movements which differ in terms of ideology, but share a number of similar characteristics: their members are predominantly young people, who perceive themselves as unfairly disadvantaged – or at least express growing discontent towards the current state of the world – and gather around constructed identities and a dualistic worldview. They are ‘radical’ because they see identity as a solid and unified – rather than a liquid and fragmented – good that should be imposed onto society, and this not through dialogue nor compromise, but through the exclusion of other social identities. And while these movements are mostly composed of a moderate majority that acknowledges the significance of the ‘Other’, an extremist fringe resorts to hatred and violence. Some illustrative examples of ‘radical’ identity politics include the Alt-right, which sees multiculturalism as a growing threat to whiteness; global jihadism, which advocates for the eradication of any obstacle that could prevent the reorganisation of the Global Ummah according to the rule of God; radical feminism, which sees women as systematically oppressed and marginalised by a patriarchal system created by and for men; as well as a multitude of social and political movements that seek to create a new social order, just like the incels.
One of the question that inevitably arises is why we are witnessing a radicalisation of identity politics today? Research on religious and political extremism shows that recent forms of radicalisation in the West can be interpreted as a response to late-modern transformations that have taken place over the past decades: the explosion of mass-media, communication, new technologies, migration and cultural exchanges have brought in our frame of reference what once used to be far, challenging our definition of who we are and where we come from. Traditional structures that once bounded communities together (such as nationalism and religion) have disintegrated and been replaced with larger, impersonal institutions that do not provide psychological and social support anymore. As a result, individuals today have to create meaning for themselves and define their role in a society that has become increasingly pluralised, and in which young people struggle to find their place. This in turn fuels a general climate of uncertainty which exposes individuals to a diversity of crisis situations, leading to a search for what Kinnvall calls ‘identity signifiers’ – that is, real or imagined identities, collective ideologies, and absolute worldview. And that is precisely what the incel movement is about: it offers to isolated young men an online community of members that see themselves as genetically inferior and struggle to find acceptance and love in a society that primarily values physical attractiveness and charisma. But while identity signifiers may provide a sense of meaning and belonging, it can also nurture conflicts between various social groups: in their search for absolute certainty, individuals may indeed feel threatened by competing identities and may seek to impose their own ‘universal reality’ onto others, irrespective of differences. The role of the Internet, in this respect, should not be ignored: it facilitates the emergence of new social identities and simultaneously exposes individuals to a plurality of worldview that threatened the definition of who they are and what they believe in. And while some withdraw within their own community of like-minded people, others like Elliott Rodger and Alek Minassian resort to violence to instigate a “beta uprising” against the “Chads” and the “Stacys”.
And that is precisely what the incel movement is about: it offers to isolated young men an online community of members that see themselves as genetically inferior and struggle to find acceptance and love in a society that primarily values physical attractiveness and charisma. But while identity signifiers may provide a sense of meaning and belonging, it can also nurture conflicts between various social groups: in their search for absolute certainty, individuals may indeed feel threatened by competing identities and may seek to impose their own ‘universal reality’ onto others, irrespective of differences
What can be done, then, to prevent identity political violence? Provide platforms for social dialogue. Make young people feel that they matter. Encourage them to participate in society – not behind their screens but through activities that promote inclusiveness, for instance in schools, in the workplace and in public spaces. Certainly the incel movement is laughable, but ridiculing them will only feed more hatred towards mainstream society. Instead, we should seriously take into account their grievances and listen to them. It is only by making them feel that every human beings have their place in our society regardless their height, weight, physical features, shyness, and social awkwardness, that we can bring a bit of humanity back into a world perceived as dehumanising, and thereby prevent the commission of further ‘genetically-based’ violence.
 See for instance Geelhoed, F. (2014) Striving for Allah: purification and resistance among fundamentalist Muslims in the Netherlands. The Hague: Eleven International Publishing.
 See Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford university press; Kinnvall, C. (2004). Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the search for ontological security. Political Psychology, 25(5), 741-767; Kinnvall, C. (2004). Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the search for ontological security. Political Psychology, 25(5), 741-767.
 Kinnvall, C. (2004). Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the search for ontological security. Political Psychology, 25(5), 741-767.