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Plymouth shootings

The rise of online misogyny

Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

When Jake Davison blasted his mother and four passers-by, including a father and his three-year-old daughter, with a shotgun in Plymouth last week, the police were quick to say it wasn’t terrorism. “I wondered how they could be so sure,” says Joan Smith in The Guardian. The government definition includes serious violence against one or more people, endangering someone’s life or creating a serious risk to the public: “Tick, tick, tick.” In online posts and videos, the 22-year-old bemoaned his virginity and appearance, and compared himself with “incels” – involuntary celibates, who blame their inability to get sex on women. More than 50 deaths around the world have been linked to incel attacks since 2014, and 40% of those referred to the UK’s anti-terrorist Prevent programme have a history of domestic abuse. “Extreme misogyny needs to be recognised as an ideology in its own right.”

If we expand the word “terrorism” too far, we’ll “start to see radicals everywhere”, says Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. Children have ended up in anti-extremism programmes for behaviour that was “comically misunderstood”. Let’s focus instead on how the police allowed Davison to keep a gun and avoid giving incelism “the attention it craves”. And good luck trying to figure out who the dangerous incels are, says Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator – “there isn’t exactly a membership card”. The word is so loose, it’s become a term of abuse among teenagers online, so you can imagine the time and money the police would waste poring over “the whole stupid lexicon of red and black pills” (see box). And what about those innocent men who don’t blame women for their celibacy? Forget calling incels terrorists: “Sometimes a nutter is just a nutter.”

Yet it’s undeniable that incels are telling us something about modern life, says James Marriott in The Times. Reading their forums is like “browsing a dark parody of the regular internet”. Members obsess over their appearance, post selfies inviting “brutal criticism” from others and whinge about personal slights. But even though the movement is connected to the decline of traditional gender roles and the rise of feminism, we mustn’t end up “pandering to a nasty minority”. To reduce the incel threat, Canadian philosopher Jordan Peterson has controversially suggested “socially enforced monogamy”, the idea being that long-term monogamous relationships make men less violent. But what about all the women who, in this plan, would have to marry incels? For all their “eye-catchingly pessimistic ideas”, incels are just vengeful losers of the kind who afflict societies everywhere. But while we don’t need to “redistribute sex” or ban dating apps, we can’t ignore incels – because, as Davison’s rampage shows, “they are dangerous”.

What do incels believe?

Incels, or involuntary celibates, blame female “oppression” of men for their lack of sex, rather than any failing of their own, says Charlie Tye in The Conversation. They often refer to having swallowed “the red pill” – an allusion to the choice made by the lead character in The Matrix, who took a red pill that revealed the hidden truth about society. Those who move on to the “black pill”, as Davison reportedly did, are an extreme faction who advocate violent male supremacy.

All incels believe in a rigid masculine hierarchy, at the top of which are chads – “hyper-athletic attractive males” who have no problems getting sex. Beneath them are the “betas”, less attractive men with whom women have sex for financial gain. At the bottom of the pile are incels. As warped as all this sounds, “there is every indication this community is growing”.