The strange and disturbing world of the ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates) has come into the limelight following the violent acts by some of them. After the recent killings in Toronto by a self-proclaimed incel Alek Minassian who killed 10 people by mowing them down on the sidewalk with his vehicle, mostly targeting women pedestrians, Jack Peterson who had until then also identified as one, tried in interviews to defend the group, saying that they were not violent nor did they hate women but were adopting an ironic pose. The reaction from his fellow incels was not what he expected.
The message boards threw the interviews back in his face. One poster wrote that he wasn’t a “true” incel. They called him a “normie”, incel-speak for someone who isn’t. Others said he wasn’t even terribly ugly, nor was he a virgin. One wrote that in Peterson’s media appearances he put “100% blame on incels” instead of focusing on “how women’s behavior has changed”.
Peterson had tried to tell the world that the incels didn’t hate women – only for the incels to cry foul.
“The response I got,” he says, was: “‘You’re misrepresenting us: we really do hate women. We’re not joking.’”
I think that Peterson has learned the lesson from his fellow incels’ harsh reactions to his defense of them that when people tell you who they are, it is prudent to believe them.
He claims it is a community riven by lack of self-confidence. Many of the posters, he says, are teenagers grappling with social anxiety or depression.
Most seem to be obsessed by their physical appearance: members regularly post pictures of themselves, only to be told how unattractive and ugly they are by other members.
In fact, many of the members are perfectly good-looking guys. Peterson agrees. “Looks are probably not the primary factor, here,” he says.
Peterson says an overarching theme is one of victimization – leading to the anger and frustration expressed by many on the forums, and a central theme in Rodger’s manifesto.
“A lot of incels think they’re owed shit from the world,” Peterson says. “The mindset is kind of like this: ‘I’ve been bullied and rejected my whole life so because of all the suffering I’ve experienced. Now the world owes me sex, it owes me friends, it owes me success, because of all the failures I’ve had.’”
Peterson has left the movement and is trying to become ‘normal’.
He hopes others will follow his lead. “Exposure to social situations, exposure to women – stuff like that will probably solve it for most guys,” he says. “It’s not this black-and–white thing you’ve created it to be, in these fantasies and these delusions that are often talked about on the forums.
“The first thing I’m really trying to do is really to get out there more in the world and become more social,” he says. “It’ll be tough to maintain this level of confidence and productivity if I don’t have a strong circle of friends.”
The internet produces contradictory dynamics. On the one hand it enables people to reach out and find like-minded people and thus can reduce the sense of isolation many feel. On the other, if the group of like-minded people form a closed circle that is hostile to the rest of the world, as seems to be the case with groups like the incels and hate groups, then it can actually increase the sense of isolation by having the group validate your sense of grievance and feelings of isolation.