Philip Saragoza, MD
In this feature WTS Senior Associate Phil Saragoza describes the growing problem of men who identify as “involuntary celibates” and the implications for threat assessors.
On April 23, 2018, 25-year-old Alek Minassian intentionally drove a van over sidewalks in broad daylight in downtown Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring many more. Hours later he sat across from a detective in an interview room and explained why: “I was thinking that it was time that I stood up to the Chads and Stacys.” These are labels threat assessors need to recognize – used enviously and derisively by the online community known as the “Incels,” short for “involuntary ceIibates,” to describe physically attractive, sexually active men and women, respectively.
The roots and online spread of the incel movement. Incels first gained notoriety after 22-year-old college student Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured many others before committing suicide at the conclusion of his May, 2014 rampage in Isla Vista, California. In a series of YouTube videos he created during the months and weeks leading up to the offense, Rodger lamented his life having become a “living hell” after puberty, expressing feelings of “torture” and “injustice” over having never experienced physical intimacy with a woman. As is commonplace among Incels, he expressed indignation over his perception that women rejected “gentlemen” like himself while choosing “obnoxious brutes” as sexual partners. He explained his planned mass murder as an act of retribution over these perceived unfair ills of society. Nearly four years later Alek Minassian hailed Rodger’s actions as brave and inspirational for his own killing spree, even revealing to the detective that he had exchanged online messages with Rodger years earlier upon discovering the Incel community in online boards on Reddit.com and 4chan.
Minassian is not the only one to pay homage to Rodger. In fact, Rodger’s initials are often invoked in online communications between Incels, with variants of the expression “Going ER” used to convey respect or even encouragement for those who might contemplate carrying out lethal violence in service of their common ideology. Baele, Brace and Coan (2019) describe that, like many other extremist worldviews, the Incels’ view revolves around notions of social categories and a narrative that explains the dynamics between them. Incels see themselves as the “in-group” of physically undesirable individuals suffering sexual exclusion by the “out-group” of the Chads and Stacys. As is also commonplace with extremist worldviews, Incels tend to view these intergroup dynamics as having cultivated a crisis that can only be addressed through some dramatic action, either the “uprising” or “rebellion” championed by Rodger and Minassian, or, much more often in the self-loathing Incel community – suicide.
A broader continuum of anti-feminism sentiment and hatred. The worldview of Incels represents the most extreme pole of a broader assembly of men’s interest groups that have developed in recent years, especially through online networks; collectively, these groups are known as “The Manosphere.” Nearly all of these groups share an ideology based on what is often referred to as “Red Pill” philosophy, whose name is derived from the 1999 film The Matrix. In the film, the main character is presented with the choice of taking a blue pill and continuing to live in comfortable ignorance, or taking a red pill and becoming aware of the true machinations of the world.
Men subscribing to Red Pill philosophy believe that they have been awakened to the “truth” that Western culture has been overtaken by feminism, and that one key aspect of this societal change has been a shift in the dynamics of sexual relations between men and women that is unfavorable to men. Red Pill thinkers view women as pursuing men based on the notion of hypergamy – that is, seeking to partner with the highest-status men possible. By extension, they believe that only a small minority of men, the “alphas,” are seen by women as truly sexually desirable, leaving the remainder of men, the “betas,” to compete for partnership through providing other things to women, such as financial security. “Pickup Artists” are one influential sect of the Manosphere, purporting that beta males can essentially be coached into alphas by acquiring communication skills and other tools that will make them more sexually appealing to women. Incels, however, believe that they are doomed to their fate by their poor genetic features – be it height, bone structure, mental conditions, or even wrist size (referred to as “wristcels”). Their resignation fuels considerable resentment toward women, the men women choose for sexual partners, and society as a whole. In addition to acts of mass violence, this resentment has also materialized in threats to harm others, and celebrating or inciting rape and other forms of violence.
Look for targeted violence risk factors and warning behaviors. Threat assessment professionals should familiarize themselves with the ideologies and common language of Incels and, necessarily by extension, the Manosphere. The failure of sexual pair-bonding has been recognized as a characteristic of lone actor terrorists, and is fundamentally shared by all Incels. However, the Incels and other potentially violent misogynists indoctrinated into Red Pill philosophy also share other known risk factors for targeted violence, including personal grievance and moral outrage framed by an ideology. Include these three more distal risk factors in assessing and monitoring individuals holding these extreme views, and especially follow their online activity. Monitoring should shift to active case management with evidence of warning behaviors: pathway behaviors, fixation, novel aggression, leakage, last resort, energy burst, and identification. An especially important signal is any evidence of a shift from fixation on a belief to actual identification, i.e., the individual of concern now desires to become a “soldier” to violently advance a cause or belief system.
Mr. Minassian’s trial is expected to begin in March, 2020. Criminal proceedings typically provide a great deal of information useful to our ongoing understanding of targeted violence and thus how to prevent it. The evidence presented at Minassian’s trial may well demonstrate the chronology and nuances of his indoctrination, the warning behaviors on his pathway to violence, and any opportunities for interdiction that might have prevented this terrible tragedy.
Baele, S. J., Brace, L., & Coan, T. G. (2019). From “Incel” to “Saint”: Analyzing the violent worldview behind the 2018 Toronto attack. Terrorism and Political Violence, pp. 1-25.
Jaki, S, De Smedt, T., Gwóźdź, M., Panchal, R., Rossa, A., & De Pauw, G. (2019). Online hatred of women in the incels.me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. doi: 10.1075/jlac.00026.jak https://doi.org/10.1075/jlac.00026.jak
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