Meme-making anthropologists massively misunderstand online subcultures
After the recent mass shooting in Plymouth, there has been much discussion of the ‘incel’ subculture that many now hold responsible for Jake Davison’s murderous actions. Notably, the aftermath saw a flurry of appearances by (typically blonde and middle-class) morally correct female ‘experts’ on TV and radio, to offer insights about the new menace.
One such was cartoonist and creator of Instagrammable wokeness, Lily O’Farrell, with a series of cartoons describing her 18-month ‘deep dive’ into incel forums that landed her an appearance on BBC Woman’s Hour.
Her foray into this potentially hostile unexplored terrain has all the hallmarks of the intrepid explorers of the European colonial era. First they gain the natives’ trust by living alongside them before writing detailed ethnographies for consumption among respectable people back home.
I don’t know if O’Farrell meant to reference this pith-helmeted history of imperialist objectification when she depicted herself in camo trousers and backpack accessorised with binoculars, but it’s a shame she didn’t add puttees and a couple of native bearers as well.
Sarcasm aside, it’s probably inevitable that whichever regime currently dominates will send its favoured missionaries out to fact-find about groups deemed alien or hostile. In turn, they will try to recoup them for the ideological mainstream. Despite its protestations of anti-imperialism, the current regime is in that sense no exception.
O’Farrell’s cartoons list a series of common and fairly mainstream memes on her account. It glosses them with some simple observations about lack of opportunity, companionship or mental health support for young men. She then abruptly handbrake-turns into dismissing all such meme-based subcultures as a noxious outworking of patriarchy and as a terrorist threat.
The solution, we gather, is to treat meme-lords with suspicion, and (empathetically) strangle misogyny at the root. What this means in practice is less clear, though it surely cannot be a redoubling of those lectures about ‘toxic masculinity’ that drive young males to mutinous muttering in online subcultures hostile to women.
We can expect such moral adventuring to grow still more vigorous following the resounding and widely-publicised implosion of ‘nation-building’ efforts in Afghanistan. As has been now exhaustively observed in innumerable op-eds, the effort to instil liberal democratic values in Afghanistan — represented totemically by ‘women’s rights’ — turned out to be a colossal waste of blood and treasure.
But over 20 years of activity, this expensively futile project spawned a vast ecosystem populated by thousands of highly-educated consultants, experts and report-writers. Their remit was, in essence, military-backed liberal evangelism, and their grand project is now in tatters. People don’t give up easily on their dreams, though — especially when they’re used to making a living pursuing them.
So the liberal-evangelical industry formerly focused on Afghanistan is now, abruptly, a well-connected, highly articulate solution in search of a problem. This group is unlikely to remain silent for long.
And with foreign adventures most likely off the menu at least for a little while, the most propitious site for evangelical zeal will be deplorables closer to home. We can expect Lily O’Farrell to be the first of many pith-helmeted explorers, plumbing the bowels of the heterodox internet in search of benighted natives to improve.