On Tuesday, a man ploughed a van through a group of pedestrians, killing 10 and wounding 13 others. The revelation that Alek Minassian, the accused, was a member of the incel community has sent journalists scrabbling to find out what an incel is.
The basics are simple: “incel” stands for “involuntary celibate”, a man who cannot have sex with anyone, because nobody will have sex with him. But beyond that, there’s little understanding of who these men are or what they believe. The result is quite a lot of articles that don’t attempt to make any distinction between incels and any of the other men’s rights activist (MRA) groups that populate the dark recesses of the internet.
This is a mistake, and it might be a dangerous one to make. As a researcher studying social interaction in online communities, incels have been on my radar for a while. Misogyny is easy to find on the internet, and there’s no shortage of men willing to tell women that they have it worse. But while misogyny is inherently violent, the ideology incels subscribe to is almost unique in the way it makes violence seem like the only solution.
MRAs have long used the phrase “redpill” to describe the process of getting to their way of viewing the world. Derived from the famous scene in The Matrix where Neo has a choice between two pills – a blue one which will allow him to go back to his normal life, and a red one which will show him the world as it really is – it’s become ubiquitous. The idea is that feminism is a lie, women are really on top, the pay gap is a myth and men are being taken for a ride by women who drain their bank accounts and are only attracted to jerks.
Their response to this “realisation” is usually to hit the gym, get jacked, take up the paleo diet, become a “pick-up artist”, and take advantage of women as much as possible. For some – the “Men Going Their Own Way” – the solution is to simply disengage from women entirely (though for a community which claims to want to be left alone, they do talk about how much they hate women quite a lot). Many of them eventually grow out of it.
But for incels, the red pill doesn’t go far enough.
Instead, they say they’re taking the “black pill”. The first reference to the term comes from 2012 on a blog originally called Omega Virgin Revolt, but it only came into popular parlance in 2017 as the incel community on Reddit gained some mainstream attention after one of their number posted on a legal advice community attempting to find out how he could get away with raping someone.
The black pill is the red pill’s nihilistic cousin. Rather than seeing their perception shift as an opportunity for personal growth, they say that there are no personal solutions to the systemic problem of female dominance. Instead they succumb to self-loathing and a violent hatred of women.
Women, they say, are hard-wired to seek out men who happen to be genetically blessed – the “Chads” – and they will never consider men who do not conform to societal standards of masculinity. One of the most popular posts on the now-banned r/Incels was a side-by-side comparison of a Chad and an Incel which stated that the difference was “literally a few millimetres of bone”.
Because they believe this will never change – that the birth lottery has condemned them to never be loved – many of them are extremely depressed and resigned to a life of solitude and self-loathing. Posts which show the happy lives of people who have healthy relationships are often tagged “sui fuel” to indicate their potential to turn an incel suicidal.
A post on a popular incel forum in the aftermath of the Toronto incident states that: “For every person who died at the hands of Alek Minassian/ER, there are 1,000 incels who have killed themselves alone”. Those who were murdered actually had it easy because “the normies that died had a swift instant death, the incels that kill themselves live a life of suffering and are just forgotten”.
They are also obsessed with the idea that women should have sex with them – that they’re entitled to it. One incel community member today posted, “By having sex with the guy you could’ve saved 10 lives.” They place the blame on to women for their misery, and in doing so provide the motivation and justification for acts of extreme violence like Minassian’s.
Blackpill ideology leaves no room for hope or change. Instead, they either have to live out their lives in misery, or take action and attempt to tear down the whole system. In their more explicit posts, some incels dream of enslaving women and forcing them to have sex with them, and murdering the Chads who have been on top for far too long. It’s unsurprising that another of their number has committed mass murder before attempting to make the police shoot him. With an ideology that sees violent ends as the only alternative to lifelong torment, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.
For some incels, Alek Minassian will be remembered as a force for evil: in bringing attention to their community, his actions will only serve to bully more incels into depression and suicide. For others, he will likely attain the same status as “Saint Elliot”, the name they use for Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people and then himself in 2014 after publishing a manifesto expressing his deep frustration at still being a virgin at the age of 22. They hope that the people coming to their sites will learn about their culture and leave with a newfound understanding of the way the world is. They hope they’ll be blackpilled.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD researcher into online communities at the University of Edinburgh