We Need to Look at the Way Academia Talks About Inceldom

Note: A version of this work was published by The Conversation Canada and can be found here. La version française de cet extrait de la conversation est disponible ici.
In almost all guest lectures on the critical study of the far-right in Canada and beyond, audience members ask “how do you write about the far-right?” What many of these people are actually asking is, “how do we write about them in an ethical way?” This is something that CIFRS takes seriously as part of our research dissemination work. In this blog post CIFRS co-founder Luc Cousineau discusses some of the pitfalls scholars experience when writing about the far-right and other extremist groups, as well as some of the ways we can mitigate these issues.

In December of 2021, scholars from the NYU School of Professional Studies Centre for Global Affairs, in partnership with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office of New York released a report titled Incels: Inside the world of involuntary celibates. Drawing on incel memes, information captured from incel forums, as well as popular and academic literature, the report provides readers with a substantial overview of the misogynistic incel community – a community that has captivated academic and the public attention because of the egregious acts of violence that its members have carried out. In the NYU report (authored as part of the NYU M.S. in Global Affairs SPS Center for Global Affairs consulting practicum), there are a number of things to celebrate, including the development of a lengthy and practical glossary of incel terms, excellent descriptions of incel ideology, worldview, and theory. There are also high-quality graphics that help the reader understand some of the more complex elements of incel thought, including the perceived hierarchies among men, among women, and between men and women. These parts of the report will be useful contributions to the growing conversation about incel ideology and its effects on everyone.

While there is much to celebrate about this report, it is also emblematic of common errors made when those writing reports for mass consumption do not have the long-term research-based exposure to, and nuanced understandings of, these contentious communities. Many of these errors, at least from an academic perspective, are subsumed in a general category of research ethics, and while it is not the purpose of this article to explore the nuance of research ethics and their implications on research and publications, it does merit some discussion.

In the context of contentious communities (like incels and other extremist groups), researchers must navigate a line between exploring community discourse and exposing that discourse for consumption by a wider audience. The ethical dilemma here is that working from a research perspective that is critical of the ideologies espoused in these communities (you would be hard pressed to find a [credible] academic that is openly sympathetic with misogynist incel ideology), we should be acutely aware of how our research might serve to amplify and venerate the people we seek to expose, and inoculate society against. It is certainly possible to walk that line, and authors like Debbie Ging, Angus Lindsay, Lumsden and Harmer, and Adrienne Massanari provide us with good examples, but in the context of misogynist incels and reports like this one that get wide distribution and coverage, some common practices are problematic.

As far-right, men’s rights, and manosphere researchers, we applaud the work of Woodward and their colleagues on this report, but feel it is important to highlight four challenges that are present here – issues that are common, and must be acknowledged and managed for academic work and public discourse on far-right communities (including incels) to accurately reflect public realities. Indeed, mitigating these issues is a core aspect of our work at CIFRS when it comes to public dissemination of our research findings. The first attends to labels and the categorization of incels, relative to each other, and relative to other groups of far-right and/or misogynistic men. The second is the persistent need within the popular and academic literature to name and highlight the violence committed by these men. Third is the mis-labeling of attackers, suspects, and men who exist on the periphery of the social order as incels. And last is the presupposition that violence is somehow isolated to, or inflated within, the incel community relative to other men’s groups – it is not.

What the communities say about themselves matters, even if we might not agree.

Incel communities, like any leisure or interest community, is a self-defining and rule-bound collection of individuals with a common interest (Glover, 2016). Like other communities, virtual communities require feelings of membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection (Radlauer, 2007). Communities of interest are malleable, fracture and amalgamate into various structures, and incels are no different. Most significant of these elements of community for the purposes of our discussion here is that of self-definition, since much of the academic and popular media work on incels is focused on defining and categorizing these groups from the outside.

Incels, for the most part, see themselves as a group distinct from other male cultural groups, and while they have connections to groups that we might include as part of the manosphere like Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), they are less likely to self-describe as part of the manosphere. Exit workers with Groundswell Project describe them as a kind of extra-territorial colony, so while they do not vociferously object to inclusion in the manosphere, they see themselves as distinct – like the way many Greenlanders might be relative to the Kingdom of Denmark.

Similarly, the manosphere at large does not necessarily claim incels either. Ian Ironwood’s (2013) book, The Manosphere: A new hope for masculinity, authored as a defining text from within the movement, does not mention incels as a part of the manosphere’s internal culture. While this might be due (at least in part) to the term not gaining prominence until after the Isla Vista shooting in 2014, incels had been active since 1993 and the term referring to involuntary celibacy in the academic literature since 2001. This points to the need for nuance when discussing incels as part of the broader manosphere.

What is significant about all of this is that by including incels as a sub-division of the manosphere, we are in danger of simplifying their particular ideological positioning, which may limit our understanding of the impact of their particular approach (speaking specifically of misogynist incels) with regards to violence.

The more we name, highlight, and remember these attackers, the more likely we are to create worshipers, copycats, and martyrs.

Perhaps the most discussed of the hot button ethical issues in academia when studying far-right and misogynist individuals who commit violence is whether to identify them. Like using the word incel itself, naming well-known attackers like the Isla Vista shooter or the Toronto van attacker gives our work shock value and a different kind of impact. This is an important consideration for scholars as we hope our research reaches a wide enough audience to make a positive impact on society. Yet, when we do this, regardless of our intention, we increase the profile of those attackers, and in some instances, we elevate them to positions of cultural phenomena.

Perhaps the most significant of these is the Isla Vista killer, who killed 6 people in a multi-site spree in 2014. The killings perpetuated by this young man are heinous, as is the manifesto that he left behind, but at the risk of sounding glib, six deaths in a mass killing in the United States barely registers as significant given the volume of killings perpetrated in that country each year. What has made this particular incident persistent in cultural memory is the nearly perpetual coverage and re-inscription of the name and motivations of the killer in popular and academic media. The publication and re-publication of the killer’s name, face, and motivations have elevated them to a level of media prominence that has situated them as a “saint” within the misogynist incel community, and a commonly known and referenced name. Indeed, the Toronto van attacker was explicit in his admiration for the Isla Vista attacker.

The danger in this, of course, is that by publishing and re-publishing this information we make them an icon – something to be sought after and emulated. We support and perpetuate the incel community’s veneration of individuals who have died for the cause – martyrs to the alter of the un-sexed. If we are interested in the de-radicalization of individuals and the disempowerment of online communities of hate like those of incels, then complacency or active participation in the creation of martyr mythologies is both counterproductive and deeply dangerous. As a result, CIFRS explicitly adopts a policy of non-naming in our reporting. We also do not link to materials produced by shooters, attackers, or terrorists (e.g., manifestos, suicide notes).

When we label attackers incels when they have not claimed that identity, we inflate their power.

Perhaps the most egregious error from the Canadian context in the NYU report on incels (and this is true in other places as well), is the inclusion of the perpetrator in the 1989 Montreal Massacre as the first incel. While it might be true that the Montreal perpetrator had some characteristics that would align him with today’s incel ideologies (especially those of the misogynist incels), he was not an incel. Given that we know the term incel as it is used today does not begin until 1993, and the violent strain of inceldom has a much shorter history than this, it is simply not possible for him to have been an incel. To include him in any accounting of incel violence does a disservice to those working to disrupt violence against women, as it flattens the nuances and complexities of misogynistic violence. How are we to respond to violent rhetorics and actions if we assume all acts are the same?

The fact is that the Montreal perpetrator’s inclusion in the history and lore of incel violence is a fabrication by the incel community to give their ideological positioning's deeper roots. Also dubbed a “saint” by the community, having links to an attack that occurred before most identified incels were born gives a historical significance and presence to their position, and a kind of legitimacy that incel communities are so desperately seeking. When those outside the community who are seeking to expose, critique, or otherwise discuss incel communities use incel mythos to reshape the histories we present (as has occurred in the NYU report), we allow a violent and supremacist subculture to re-write cultural history for everyone. This is dangerous on levels that mirror the re-writing of historical narratives that come with cultural shifts towards partisan violence. We believe that it is important to situate contemporary acts of violence within historical contexts, particularly Canada’s unique history as a settler colonial state, but doing so must not obscure the new, borrowed, and imported facets of far-right and misogynist discourse.

The issues are much deeper than incel communities, and our singular focus on this esoteric group is blinding.

In the context of media coverage and academics, incels are sexy. They get views, and the real danger that a small percentage of them pose to others keeps them in the collective consciousness. But for most adherents to the most extreme parts of this ideology, inceldom is the end of a pathway, not the beginning. It is highly unusual for an individual to be radicalized directly into violent inceldom. Rather, adherents are much more likely to have been introduced to elements of incel ideology in other spaces (like pick-up artist [PUA] or MRA spaces) and moved slowly into inceldom, then into violent misogynistic inceldom. The sexiness of covering incels can blind us to this pathway. It also facilitates a move to innocence whereby focusing on the violence of incels, we ignore the more mundane and everyday instances of violent misogyny.

The significance of this step-wise approach to radicalization is that there are opportunities along the way to stop individual movement to radical ideas – places where men can be intercepted before they are encouraged (or encourage others) to do real violence. Even once they have become incels, there are opportunities for de-radicalization and de-conversion like the work done by organizations like Groundswell Project in the UK. If we allow ourselves to focus solely on the incels, and in particular the most radical and violence sub-group of this community, then we lose all of the opportunities afforded to us for intervention before they reach this extreme.

At CIFRS, we support and encourage continued writing, examination, exposure, and de-radicalization work on communities with far-right, misogynistic, fascistic, and other dehumanizing ideologies. We believe that scholars and others working in these areas are doing important work for social improvement and form an important part of the vanguard to keep far-right accelerationism at bay in Canada. We offer explanations of these common challenges in writing and coverage of these groups as indicators of how we can all do better as we work to make Canada a safer and more equitable space.