In April 2018, when Alek Minassian killed 10 people and injured 16 others in a van attack on the streets of Toronto, 28-year-old David (a pseudonym) watched the news in horror. He felt sickened by the slaughter, but there was one specific bit of news that made his stomach turn. On his Facebook page, Minassian had written, “The Incel Rebellion has begun” — referring to an online subculture of “involuntarily celibate” men, supposedly forced into a sexless life by society (and cruel women) — and praised Elliot Rodger, an infamous misogynist killer and incel hero. As media began covering the violent threat of the incel movement, David thought to himself, What the fuck happens now?
David, too, is an incel. But he asserts that incels aren’t by definition a violent or misogynist group. These killers, he tells me, “aren’t representative of the huge number of guys who are involuntarily celibate. They don’t represent the guys who really want to have meaningful relationships with women and would never, ever dream of violence.” It was horrible, he says, to see his subculture smeared as dangerous woman-haters. “I completely hate [Minassian] and anyone who is violent toward women, no exceptions.”
David isn’t alone in the belief that self-described incels can stand against — or simply avoid — the hate and violence the group is known for. He’s part of the IncelsWithoutHate subreddit, a group with more than 10,000 subscribers. The forum’s aim, David says, is to “detoxify the meaning of incel.” It describes itself as a place for “people who have struggled to obtain sex and intimacy,” but crucially, it “strictly forbids hate”; instead, it aims to “provide a positive and helpful community.” According to the subreddit’s terms and conditions, the group prohibits “assigning blame for misfortune” on particular groups of people (namely, women). Any member who encourages physical or verbal violence will be banned.
In practice, however, the majority of threads on r/IncelsWithoutHate still espouse the same arguments and talking points as its predecessor, the often overtly misogynist r/Incels, which is now banned. They rail against “lookism and heightism,” or the idea that society (i.e., women) discriminates against men without a strong jawline or a six-foot stature. They criticize “anti-male discrimination … targeted by the gynocentric system, by feminists.” And they take nihilistic self-loathing to an extreme, talking about other people’s intimacy as “suicide fuel” and asking, “Why would anyone want someone as pathetic and loathsome as me? I’m a pile of shit. I know no one’s gonna want me.”
“What’s clear is that the incels in these groups, by and large, believe the same things as the incels who have been banned from Reddit,” says Tim Squirrell, a writer whose PhD research focuses on online communities, specifically incel offshoots. “The core of their belief, philosophy, whatever you want to call it, is the same.”
After the Toronto van attack, “the mainstream incel community online no longer had control over how they were defined,” Squirrell says. “So now the incels are in a weird place: They want to hold onto older definitions of what ‘incel’ used to mean — people who were just involuntarily celibate. But they’re trying to distance themselves from the darker and more dangerous elements.”
That’s a difficult thing to accomplish in 2019. “In some ways, the damage can’t be undone,” Squirrell says. “You can’t really reclaim ‘incel’ as an identity. Even in [r/IncelsAgainstHate], there’s still that thinking that men are entitled to intimacy, to having sex and to be loved, and that society is putting them at a disadvantage. The same kind of self-loathing, the black-pill philosophy, is still there. And for people who use that subreddit as an alternative for r/incels, I don’t imagine anything in their thinking about how the world works has really changed.”
David, meanwhile, argues that the term incel has been “twisted and manipulated” by people who “parachuted into the original incel community [on Reddit] from online communities like The Red Pill or Men Going Their Own Way.” While these groups were and remain overtly anti-women, incel culture was meant to be healthier: a community of men who felt unable to find love. “There are a lot of assumptions about incels: that we feel like we’re owed sex, or that women should just bow down to us,” David insists. “But that’s not true at all. Being an incel means that you’re just incapable of acquiring intimacy. Sometimes that’s because of physical reasons or because of personality traits that you can’t change. But that doesn’t mean that anyone, including women, owes us anything.”
It’s true that incel culture has spun away from its Y2K-era origins. Squirrell points to a 22-year-old site called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, “which in the early days of message boards was designed to be a friendly and safe environment, and where you would go to actually get relationship advice.” But while today’s “incels against hate” may yearn to depoliticize the term incel, harkening back to a simpler time when lonely men and women could help one another find love, the problem, Squirrell says, is that it’s “too late to go back.” The movement is already politicized, and it won’t let go of its worldview.
“You would need something quite extraordinary to happen before that would change in any meaningful way.”
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