Incels Aren’t a Punchline. It’s High Time We Took Them Seriously

We need preventative measures for dealing with misogyny.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

18 August 2021

plymouth mass shooting jake davison
Plymouth shooter Jake Davison.

Mass shootings don’t happen here. Our gun laws are among the few pieces of legislation that actually work as a preventative measure. Perhaps that has made us complacent. It certainly exacerbated the horror of last Thursday when Jake Davison, a 22-year-old living with his mother in a sleepy Plymouth suburb, went on a shooting rampage that left six dead, including himself. 

In the wake of the tragedy, a profile of Davison quickly emerged that’s become horribly familiar. A digital breadcrumb trail identified him as an “incel”, or an ‘involuntary celibate’, an internet subculture where members – mostly heterosexual men – are broadly defined by their inability to attract women or have sex. 

Posts by Davison – who bitterly admitted to still being a “virgin” – on Reddit forums for adherents to incel ideology showed him to be deeply misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and “hate-filled”. He railed against his mother, Maxine, the first victim of his shooting spree, calling her “vile” and accusing her of stealing from him. 

A neighbour of the pair confirmed that tension in the household had arisen in recent years thanks to Davison’s apparent radicalisation, telling the Guardian that “Maxine and Jake used to be close. You’d always see him helping her with the shopping at Lidl but they started to clash a lot”. Jake, the neighbour added, was “very quiet growing up. He was a troubled soul. He got into guns and he knew everything there was to know about them”.

Incels are not new to us. They are one strand of the looming threat posed by the radicalisation of young white men online; incel ideology overlaps and intersects with overarching white supremacist movements. It’s no coincidence that Davison’s online footprint reveals he was a committed supporter of Donald Trump and the UK Libertarian Party, nor that he engaged with YouTube content from the likes of alt-right personality Count Dankula, and ‘misinformation’ site Rebel News. 

But one of the questions Britain is grappling with in the wake of the Plymouth murders, is whether we have taken the specific danger posed by young men radicalised via incel culture, seriously enough. 

A lack of gravity.

Often, incels have been written off as a punchline (search the term on any given social media platform for proof), even after pockets of horrific violence from those subscribed to the ideology. 

Perhaps the lack of gravity we attached to incels was because the threat seemed distant – after all mass shootings are somewhat alien in the UK. But while incel culture itself has been covered in-depth by our media, it has not been accompanied by comparable preventative measures. 

In part, this seems thanks to the particular venn that incel ideology sits at the centre of. The mindset combines misogyny, along with thorny sexual politics. We still recoil from difficult conversations surrounding desire and who gets to fuck. 

The politics of desire.

Writing recently in the London Review of Books, academic Amia Srinivasan – who is poised to tackle at least some of these complex conversations in her upcoming book The Right to Sex – observed that, thanks to well-meaning feminist attempts to shape a sex-positive world, we have shied away from discussing the “[political] formation of desire”. 

“Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic,” Srinivasan writes. “It is instead merely wanted or unwanted. In this sense, the norms of sex are like the norms of capitalist free exchange.” 

This, she adds, ignores the complex political contexts that often shape desire, because there is no singular easy answer that can help us ‘remedy’ the plight faced by members of society who may be sexually marginalised (and identifying the “sexually marginalised” in the first place poses its own problems – as Srinivasan points out, “there is a risk that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement”.) She asks the reader to imagine a state that intervenes in the sex lives of its citizens to encourage us to “share” sex equally. Such a structure would “probably be thought grossly authoritarian,” Srinivasan observes, correctly. 

To properly assess the threat of the incel, we are overdue having these kinds of difficult conversations. But the problem of the incel also exposes a worrying helplessness in the face of online radicalisation. Even 20 years deep into the era of online forums, messaging boards and other sites where the seeds of digital radicalisation are sown, we seem at a loss on how to successfully combat those without being sucked into these hateful spaces. 

A lack of understanding.

Writer Rachel Connolly mused last week about the lack of education or understanding present among the general public when they observe someone beginning to exhibit worrying signs that could point to a burgeoning radicalisation. “I feel like the default position is ignoring it (or even sometimes encouraging it [because] it’s entertaining) but that obviously just leaves it to fester,” she wrote.

For too long, the incel has been used as a punchline because we’ve no other method for dealing with them. Incels cast themselves in the role of life’s losers – and we have responded by viewing them as such. But while many of them are risible, they are also powder kegs ready to blow. The question is, just what will it take to douse these particular matches? 

Could there be compulsory lessons in schools for young people on how to talk to their mates if they spot concerning behaviour (replacing punitive and racist ‘anti-radicalisation’ surveillance programmes like Prevent)? Or maybe digital literacy courses for older generations who are just as susceptible to getting sucked in – evidenced by the gaggles of middle-aged feminists transformed into transphobes by spending too much time on Mumsnet?

Websites like YouTube could replace their suggestions to click through to alt-right rants with video prompts for info clips outlining how to recognise the signs of online radicalisation in yourself and others. Or perhaps we could just pay a man to come round with a cold bucket of water to pour over someone mid-incel monologue? 

At the moment, I’ll be honest with you, I’m at a loss. But while we haven’t got all the answers yet, at least we’ve finally stopped laughing.

Moya Lothian-McLean is the politics editor of gal-dem and a freelance journalist. 

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