by Mary Harrington
Monday, 23
August 2021
Dark Web
10:56

The liberal safari into inceldom has only just begun

Meme-making anthropologists massively misunderstand online subcultures
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Lily O’Farrell

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.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

The typically blonde and middle-class link displays its invincible ignorance upfront with its banner “the concerning rise of the incel movement”.
The only way you could think incels are a “movement” is if you haven’t even bothered yourself to find out what incel is short for. To be one is an involuntary state of existence. If incels are a “movement”, then even more so are people with ginger hair. It’s a “movement” that literally nobody wants or chooses to join.
And how does this “movement” recruit? Is it presenting inceldom as something to aspire to? Does it have an agenda? Er, no. It’s just a number of socially awkward youths who think it’s unfair that they’re a bit ugly. To identify as an incel is like identifying as having an IQ of 80. Nobody wants to be you, or to resemble you.
It really does feel like the silly season’s moral panic.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It is alarming to see and hear broadcasters claiming to know Davison’s mind and using the murders as ‘proof’ that misogyny is rampant amongst men.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

Especially given that three of the people he shot were men.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Which proves the point of the discontent men – men’s deaths don’t count.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“that misogyny is rampant amongst men”

What do they know, they are just a bunch of angry Misandrists.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

… angry, disingenuous and looking to make money with little regard to reality.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Mostly spot on, though just in case any insecure red heads are reading this, it may be worth pointing out that in fact many thousands chose to join the ginger club. It’s often one of the most popular hair dyes. A great many men lust after ginger women.
A bit different for ginger men, I’d grant roughly half of women have at least a slight aversion to the colour. But many don’t care either way, and perhaps a quarter actively prefer it.
If ever that changes, then we gingers will form a movement, and one day you’ll wake up to find the red flag of the gingers flying above no 10!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Only a ginger can call another ginger a ginger.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Ha! A substantial minority might agree with that, but as per my post, many see gingerness as a neutral or even positive quality.

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It might be better to have that rule for Incels. As per other comments here, the term is sometimes used as an insult for those intentionally delaying sex. And over a year ago, James Bloodsworth wrote an Unherd article saying that ‘Incel’ is being used as an insult against young people who have nothing to do with Incel subculture, but are just feeling insecure about their romantic prospects (as most do at some points in their lifes.) Happily, many of your average social media commentators are more with it than the Liberal Safari types. The word ‘Incel’ is now increasingly used playfully, reducing its potency as an insult. Which doesnt realy help actual Incels of course, though at least ever improving AI chat bots & sex bots are alleaviating their suffering at least a bit.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It also gets rather nasty, because young asexual men are often accused of being incels even though they are not interested. Similar things apply to traditionalists who save themselves for marriage. Seriously, how the hell did so much of life come down to who you want or don’t want to screw? No wonder young people are unhappy.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Excellent article. Two of Davison’s five victims were men. Quite how they were victims of his misogyny is never specified. Nor were the reasons for the murders he committed known. And yet commentators claim to know the minute workings of his mind.
Mary is correct to suspect that the purpose of the claims that Davison was ‘radicalised’ online is to justify censorship and the imposition of the official views on society. Logging onto an incel website and entering a forum of discussion is not proof of misogyny, let alone murderous misogyny. The people logging into incel websites range from genuine misogynists including dangerous ones to people who are doing so to take the piss. It has probably not occurred to Lily O’Farrell that anyone else might be doing the same as her – investigating a phenomenon which they know nothing about. My guess is that most incels are not dangerous and many are not even misogynists. They are merely men trying to understand why they do not have a sexual partner at the time of life when their sexual drive is at its highest. Men who can see that most people in their age group who are happy have satisfying sex lives.
Those demanding action to defend women’s rights in Afghanistan don’t seem to reflect on the fact that they are asking for men to put their lives on line. There are of course brave women serving in the Armed Forces. However of the deaths amongst serving personnel in Afghanistan since 2001, 99% have been male. Dying to save women is of course part of male privilege.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

The people logging into incel websites range from genuine misogynists including dangerous ones to people who are doing so to take the piss.

Absolutely. I don’t do so as much these days but I used to troll housepricecrash.com with comments about how much money I was making as a landlord, the Bellylaugh with comments about how great the EU was, moneysavingexpert.com with horse racing tips and lottery strategies, Labour websites with defeatism and links to stories about filthy hospitals, and Libdem websites with demands for justice for that dog that Jeremy Thorpe had arranged to be shot.
This tends to get you banned, especially by lefty websites where dissent is not tolerated, so the variation is to go completely over the top, agree with the site’s dogma and egg the local clods on to sound even worse.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jon Redman
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I like to post that America needs President Kamala, now. to heal a divided nation.

Peter LR
Peter LR
1 year ago

The events of the last couple of weeks have made me realise that we are awash with analysis but bereft of answers.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter LR

and also bereft of real questions …

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

If the bien pensants really want to understand the incel phenomenon a trip into Britain’s colonial past in Muslim SE Asia might help: It looks very much like the Amok concept, where men of low status and even lower self control typically avenge themselves against a society that is not giving them wealth, respect or sex. “A widely accepted explanation links amok with male honour (amok by women and children is virtually unknown).[Running amok would thus be both a way of escaping the world (since perpetrators were normally killed or committed suicide) and re-establishing one’s reputation as a man to be feared and respected”

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago
Reply to  mike otter

The importance of the Christian practice of monogamy is underappreciated. Where polygamy is legal and economic inequality is high, there will be large numbers of men who are sexually frustrated. Many will prey on women whom they are permitted to rape by a society looking to force women into accepting polygamy. In the video below, it claims that one in eight Bangladeshi men ADMIT to having raped a woman.
A Crime Unpunished: Bangladeshi Gang Rape – YouTube
Others in the past would have joined the armed forces where being victorious in battle meant bringing home sex slaves.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  mike otter

I think you have hit the nail on the head – there are many instances in the news of usually young men ‘running amok’ out of sheer frustration and anger – maybe ‘extroverts’ naturally take to killing others whilst introverts tend to kill themselves. Maybe ‘going postal’ was running amok, every shooting in the US has the hallmarks of running amok. For clarity’s sake lets keep the terminology simple – and ‘amok’ IS the historical precedent here – rather than attempting to attach yet another new variation on the theme (incel) which only serves to muddy the waters even further !!

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

Incel culture is worrying and is connected to the ‘trans’ movement in that both hate women and want to obliterate them in different ways but I think linking the Plymouth gunman to the incel philosophy is tenuous. It has been chosen as an explanation because the media and the Left are too heavily invested in the real one to admit to it. This incident, along with many other unreported suicides of uneducated young men who don’t kill anyone else first, was caused by lockdown.
No pubs, gyms, social activities or sports was survivable for the laptop class, earning money in their own homes, going for walks, reading, listening to music and doing their gardens. For the uneducated young, with no work or money, no intellectual hinterland, no interests and no personal space, it was a living hell. Why he was allowed a gun is obviously another issue but perhaps the police would have had time to investigate him properly if they hadn’t been enforcing stupid Covid rules and harassing people for using the ‘wrong’ (actually entirely correct) pronouns on Twitter.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago

Incel culture “worrying” ?

Much, much less so than Islamist culture.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Murder is more worrying than burglary. It doesn’t mean that, if you were burgled, you would be happy for the police to ignore it.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

What don’t you understand about the word involuntary? Not being able to get a girlfriend is not an ‘philosophy’!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

It is also damned hard work getting your act together to look attractive to the opposite sex… I dont see ‘incel’ woman getting grumpy about their singleness -they probably just get on and GET A LIFE !

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

It just happens to be a cat’s life.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Single, childless women are usually educated, professional and high status. Single, childless men are usually uneducated and low status. Divorced single men have been kicked out by other women for a reason. It never takes long to find out what that is.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

Is it because nowadays, once you are married, you can just peel the husband off his wallet, discard the man, and keep his money and his children.?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“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.”

Excellent paragraph.

And if these Muslim/Toxic Masculinity watchers wanted to have real opportunities to sit in their blinds watching their quarry behave – I recommend Sweden, Germany, anywhere massed young men of very different culture have been placed amongst regular, Western, society – young men who have almost no chance for normal romantic relations – but can watch it going on all around them.

I would guess if they want angry incels in Europe – looking at Western White men is not where the real opportunities lay. But it is a very dangerous place to put themselves……They may have lost their fat paychecks in Afghanistan, but they could lose their entire employability for ever by a wrong word, on the wrong young man, in the West.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

… whereas a wrong word, on the wrong young woman, would probably carry the death sentence ….

G A
G A
1 year ago

Normies joining the internet was the worst thing to ever happen to it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

“incel groups” seem as intrinsically self -defeating to me as “jobseeker clubs”.

Fred Hunt
Fred Hunt
1 year ago

I am surprised that the comments here are not picking apart the continent-sized reach the author is making here between an online meme account and a) colonialism (!) and b) Afghanistan.
I can at least understand the awkwardness or uncomfortableness that some people feel about other people stepping outside their ‘space’.
But I’m sorry – the connection that Harrington makes here implies that colonialism was basically about good-minded but naïve liberalism, nation-building etc, that it was some kind of misguided voyeurism? Not economic conquest and empire? Really needs to step back and think about what she is saying here. It is also really not a good look at all to compare incels with ‘natives’ – the latter were literally butchered and dominated for hundreds of years and the former often base their misogyny on a sense of entitlement and a backlash to increased voice for women. To compare the two is borderline offensive.
Colonialism also is not the same thing as Afghanistan lol but let’s not go there.
It is an incredibly confused piece. On a general level, what exactly is she suggesting is wrong with seeking to understand and have empathy for others? Using the term ‘moral adventuring’ as if she is above all these silly moral things? What does Harrington think about hatred for women, or about state tyranny in Afghanistan? All she is doing is dunking on others by using liberalism as a catch-all buzzword.
“Natives to improve”. There are plenty of people on the internet – incels, QAnon and the like – who were previous converts but now talk about the dangers of those ideologies. It is not patronising to engage with these people, which I think is the implication here. Online radicalisation is a real phenomenon which has broken through to the mainstream because of the terrible high-profile violence and many people are hearing these terms for the first time. There is going to be a process of translation. I really don’t know what the author would have us do about this.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

Somewhere between Hogwart’s, the Shire, Sherlock’s London, Lesbos, the Looking Glass, Canterbury and Camelot, they ought to find something worthy of exploitation.