The meaning of “incel” and how men’s rights extremism fueled the Toronto van attack


Just a few minutes before Alek Minassian drove a rental van into a crowd of pedestians in Toronto on Tuesday, killing 10 people — mostly women — he left a message for the world on his Facebook feed.

“The Incel Rebellion has already begun,” Minassian wrote. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

For the average person, the only term they might recognize in the short declaration is Elliot Rodger, name of the manifesto-writing misogynist who killed six people on a shooting spree in retaliation for rejection from women. But Minassian’s last message before he took the wheel is a cornucopia of terms familiar to those who identify as “incels.”

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The word incel is short for “involuntarily celibate,” a term used by those who feel they’ve been cheated out of their confidence and masculinity by women who have declined to have sex with them. The term and culture that developed around it were born on internet forums like Reddit and 4chan, with an ideology that blames women and feminism for perceived loss of men’s status and privilege. For most members of this subculture, feminism and women’s equality are useful scapegoats for their personal feelings of inadequacy and alienation. For others, it leads to violent retribution.

To understand incels, “men’s rights activists” and other sexist subcultures that develop on male-dominated websites, you have to begin at the root of their ideology: the “red pill.”

Red pill, black pill

“Red pill” is a term borrowed from the movie The Matrix that describes an escape from dominant cultural thinking. Those of us who take the “blue pill” are the ones who look plainly at history and see that women face an unending litany of barriers that hinder their political, social and economic well-being, from subtle attacks on their confidence to outright harassment and discrimination. To take the “red pill,” for internet misogynists, means awakening to the “truth” that the power structure is, in fact, flipped on its head, and that it’s not women who are the victims of sexism, but men, who they think face unjust family courts and false rape accusations. The idea that women are the ones who face discrimination and disenfranchisement is, in their minds, the greatest deception of all, concocted in order to create a protected class for women to elevate their social status and shield them from criticism or repercussion.

Over the past decade, the red pill community developed an elaborate lexicon to describe this alleged system of oppression, such as Minassian’s “Chads” and “Stacys.” Chad, short for “Chad Thundercock,” is a stand-in for the world’s good-looking men — the buff and tattooed alpha males who have the most sex. Stacey represents the beautiful woman who chooses the Chad because she only cares about sex and status. Chad is often an object of an incel’s envy, but it’s Stacey who receives the full brunt of a misogynist’s resentment.

“Women are the ones who flock to the men who treat them badly, instead of going for the nice guys,” Elliot Rodger said in one of his eerie videos, many of which still remain on YouTube. “It is women who are to blame, and it is women who should be punished.”

The idea that women cruelly neglect the nice guy in favor of the hot jock is an old cliche, but men’s rights ideology takes this sexist stereotype and extrapolates it to the level of a comprehensive political worldview.

To find the solution to incel woes, red pill-oriented forums offer various self-help pablum. Incels are given elaborate instructions on “game,” a form of pick-up artistry where men take on seemingly anti-social behaviors, like subtle put-downs, with the goal of stoking women’s interest. The incel outlook is Darwinian, wherein sexual relationships between men and women are driven by primal instincts and biology. Stacey, in their formulation, wrongly chooses Chad because she’s driven by evolutionary cues to choose a virile mate.

There are some in the men’s rights movement that think society is too far gone. This brand of nihilism is sometimes called the “black pill,” or the tacit acceptance that nothing can be done. It’s this kind of outlook that can drive misogynists to violent ends. If misogyny is, as Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne once described it, the “the law enforcement branch of patriarchy,” then misogynist terrorism is the desperate extension of the enforcement of hate to its most dire vigilante conclusion.

Though murderers who’ve identified with the men’s rights movement haven’t explicitly endorsed black pill terminology, black pill thinking is often expressed alongside fantasies of violent retribution. Forums for incels regularly denounce violence, but have nevertheless been shut down when conversations veer dangerously in that direction.

Minassian isn’t the first violent misogynist to pay homage to Rodger, who himself spent time on Reddit forums like /r/ForeverAlone. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 children at a high school in Parkland, Florida, inadvertently launching the #NeverAgain movement, once commented on a video about Rodger’s manifesto that “Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten.” On one incel forum thread, a poster declared Cruz “man of the year.”

Another thing Cruz and Rodger shared in common was that they were virulent racists. And so it’s impossible to discuss male grievance without mentioning its similarly violent, perhaps more familiar cousin: white grievance.

Men’s rights and the mainstream

Men’s rights activism has repeatedly been described as “gateway drug” to the so-called “alt-right,” with good reason. Several far right figureheads cut their teeth on men’s rights blogging, and one often-overlooked aspect of white nationalist messaging is its promise to young men to restore them as head of a traditional household. The election of President Donald Trump and the resurgence of white nationalist organizing brought the white supremacy of the alt-right to the fore, but misogynist extremism has endured at the movement’s core.

Extreme misogyny and white supremacy aren’t just analogous, they’re entangled. Both see increased demands for equality, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, as coming at the deadly expense of the privileged group — white people or men, respectively. Both use some form of biology, whether it’s sexual psychology or debunked pseudoscience that shows racial differences in traits like intelligence, to bolster their arguments that more equitable societies are perversions of natural hierarchies.

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You don’t need to dumpster dive in the dark corners of the internet to find the language of men’s grievance, as well as its marriage to white grievance; both have slipped into the mainstream. In March, Tucker Carlson dedicated a whole series to “Men in America” wherein he linked declining fertility in men to increased immigration. Articles in major magazines and newspapers, written as part of a backlash to the #MeToo moment, that claim that men are predatory by their very nature channel the same biological determinism that fuels the red pill worldview. And any man who has faced rejection and cast himself as a nice-guy-finishing-last, typifying the woman who scorned him as a Stacy in search of a Chad, is standing at the doorstep to red pill thinking.

The ideology of incels, men’s rights and the red pill advertises itself as the rejection of dominant culture. But violent misogynist extremism can’t be addressed without first dealing with the misogyny in our dominant culture that gives that ideology its nourishment.