August 16, 2021

The psychological backdrop to Britain’s first mass shooting in over a decade is, of course, deeply disturbing. Jake Davison, aged just 22, needed only 12 minutes to carry out his horrifying killing spree in Plymouth last Thursday.

In the days since, much of the coverage given to the attack — both in the UK and abroad — has focused on the new type of terrorist threat posed by “incels”, or involuntary celibates. The police, for now, have ruled out terrorism and links to far-Right groups as motives for Davison’s actions; what drove him to such violence remains unclear and the investigation is ongoing.

And yet, at least in the way much of the media has covered this tragedy, the matter is all but settled: Davison was an incel, another young man driven to violence by a nefarious online movement that breeds terrorists.

But as someone who has spent years researching incels, such assuredness leaves me uncomfortable. Though the language changes from one news outlet to another, their reports are all essentially the same: “Plymouth shooter was a product of a violent, misogynistic ‘incel’ subculture.” The pieces tend to include quotations from former or current government officials, or experts in terrorism or gender-based violence who explain the danger facing our communities when thousands of young boys are radicalised online, just like Jake Davison.

The source of all this speculation is Davison’s digital footprint, the collage of his social media presence, including a now-deleted YouTube channel and a now-suspended Reddit account that chronicles a long history of isolation and self-doubt. He was a frequent poster in various Reddit communities, known as “subs”. Some were popular with incels; a few were “photo-rating subs”, where users are encouraged to rate each other’s appearances.

Interestingly, despite the certainty of many who have described him as an “incel”, Davison was also active on an anti-Incel “watchdog” sub, and two others dedicated to debunking the tenets of the incel ideology known as the “Black Pill”.

Of course, these things are never black and white. Davison certainly talked like an incel, using their terminology  and citing concepts from evolutionary psychology popular in “black pilled” circles. He uploaded a number of confessional-style video bogs lamenting his lost youth and his inability to lose weight, as well as the crippling insecurity that prevented him from talking to girls. In one video, he spoke emphatically about why women are biologically hardwired to select men based on appearance, to be “picky” for reproductive reasons. Just days before the attack, he claimed that “women are arrogant and entitled beyond belief”.

But most of his videos just showed him lifting weights. In one, entitled “Older vid when I was a bit leaner”, he starts posing to the camera, with an Eminem track blaring in the background.

Still, according to the definition provided by incels themselves — a man unable to form a romantic or sexual relationship despite desiring one — Davison would have met the criteria. He was a virgin at the age of 22, and had never had any kind of a girlfriend.

But Davison himself did not self-identify that way. The one time he mentioned the word in a video, he paused to clarify that he did not include himself among their ranks, but considered them “people like [himself]”. This detail appears to have been lost on much of the media — as have Davison’s broader criticisms of the incel movement.

Three months ago, he described on a Reddit thread how much of the misogyny of the incel movement was “just toxic negative bullshit” and explained how he was excited for the end of lockdown, to begin driving lessons and start socialising more. Soon after, he responded to a post in the same subreddit by a depressed 17-year-old, encouraging him to overcome his insecurities, stand up to bullies, and not “let the blackpill or whatever shit you read online drag you down”.

Davison’s final post to the site, written just two days before the attack, was less optimistic. He explained that he was a loner by nature, something which he used to accept. But now he felt that he should have tried harder. “It’s vital you try your best to integrate with people, fit in and establish a solid social life and develop socially you can’t afford to be a loner as a young person it will only destroy your life,” he wrote. He sounded defeated but introspective, like someone taking accountability for his choices, not “echoing” an ideology.

None of this is to say that Davison wasn’t influenced by, or protective of, the incel community. But does that mean the media is right to ascribe his horrific attack to that relationship? I’m not convinced it’s as clear-cut as that.

Indeed, it’s striking just how inaccurate and irresponsible some of the commentary by self-appointed incel experts has been in recent days. Take the claim, made in the Guardian a day after the tragedy, that incels “actively recruit” young men, recalling the tactics used by extremist groups such as ISIS. I’ve spoken to dozens of incels for my research, and not one of them has suggested this happens. Overwhelmingly, these young men find the content on their own, which isn’t difficult to imagine for young people with internet access.

Most are “lurkers” who do not even interact with other members of the community. They also do not “actively incite” acts of violence, such as an “Incel Uprising” or the “Beta Rebellion,” as has been suggested. Unlike in other groups, who offer the promise of some kind of reward for such actions — the caliphate, the ethnostate, or eternal salvation — there is no common goal that binds incels together or mobilises them toward violence.

That is not to minimise the potentially toxic effect of a fatalistic, misogynistic echo chamber in which misery and failure are celebrated, or to deny the possibility that some very vulnerable individuals with a predisposition toward violence might come across their community and use it to ascribe their vengeance to some greater purpose. The murder of ten people by Elliot Roger in 2014 tragically demonstrated this is possible.

But the coverage thus far has focused on the “incel angle” to the exclusion of everything else, at times even cherry-picking details in a way that feels intellectually dishonest. For if we’re going to look at the case of Jake Davison honestly, we have to look at the whole picture.

We know that an assault allegation from September of 2020 led police to seize Davison’s firearm and revoke his licence the following December. It was returned just a week before the attack, for reasons that are unknown. The Independent Office of Police Conduct is investigating the decision to do so.

We also know that Davison’s mother, Maxine, and other relatives reportedly “begged police and NHS to help him with mental health problems — he had been diagnosed with autism and attention deficit disorder — though the timeline is unclear. Neighbours have commented that he was “a troubled soul”, who had always been very quiet and close to his mother, but had recently begun to clash with her.

For now, that is all we know about this devastating atrocity and the man who committed it. Yet somehow, armed only with (understandable) indignation and a few hot takes from social media, we seem to have lost sight of the perpetrator behind this awful attack, preferring instead to blame the atrocity on incel culture. In some ways, this is an understandable response to tragedy. It is more comforting, after all, to seize upon a simple explanation — in this case that incel culture is to blame — than accept that the situation is more complex.

But doing so makes it impossible for us to have the more important discussion about how we got here in the first place — and why certain men are drawn to incel culture. What is it about these communities that makes them appealing? Is it our increased isolation and lack of human contact? Or is it, as incels suggest, the fact that they feel marginalised in our current “woke” culture? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but if my research has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t help incels — and, in turn, protect our daughters — until we have that honest conversation.