Two hands holding up a red and a blue bill. Other than the pills, the image is in black and white.

Inside the warped world of incel extremists

In trying to understand what prompted a man in Plymouth, England to commit the worst mass shooting in the UK for over a decade, attention has turned to his apparent links with the incel community – an online subculture of people who describe themselves as “involuntary celibates”.

Jake Davison allegedly shot his mother before a shooting spree which ended when he turned the gun on himself. His youngest victim was three years old. In the lead-up to the attacks, he compared himself to incels in YouTube videos and contributed to their forums.

He uploaded videos in which he fixated on his virginity and, in a direct reference to incel ideology, Davison’s described himself as “blackpilled”. This means that he believed himself too old, at 22, to find love.

What is an incel?

Incels refuse to accept responsibility for their circumstances, instead believing their inability to attract women makes them victims of oppression. Like all groups under the umbrella of online misogyny known as the “manosphere”, they subscribe to the “red pill” conspiracy theory. They believe men are the true victims of gendered oppression, that male power has been usurped, and that feminism is a front to disguise men’s subjugation.

Incels essentialise this conspiracy in the idea of the “black pill”. To swallow the black pill is to accept that this oppression is insurmountable. It invokes a certain hopelessness. Incels believe there is nothing they can ever do to improve their lives.

Incels believe in a genetically essentialist social hierarchy. At the apex are “chads” – hyper-athletic attractive males who women desire instinctively. Beneath them are descending classes of “betas”. At the lowermost point are incels, whose innate characteristics make them unable to attract women. Height-cels say they are too short; skull and frame-cels blame their skeletal structure; wrist-cels believe their wrists are too thin; and there are many more delineations. Incels cannot accept responsibility for their lot in life, instead spinning themselves as victims of their own biology and societal oppression.

Targeting women

Incels blame women for this hierarchy and their low place within it. The culture portrays women as irrational and emotional creatures who are blindly pursuing the biological imperatives to seek sexual satisfaction and material security through marriage.

Incels believe women select different men for these functions, marrying an inferior “beta” for financial gain whilst cheating with “chads” for sexual gratification. To incels, women pursue their interests sociopathically and will not hesitate to harm men. A society dominated by women does the same and incels see their oppression as a natural consequence of women’s malicious and inhuman nature.

Nowhere is this expressed more bizarrely than the widely held incel belief in the “dogpill”. This is the view that women’s drive for sexual satisfaction is such that they will routinely have sex with large dogs. Absurdity is the point here. Women are portrayed as so depraved that they are undeserving of rights and bodily autonomy.

Incels call for women to be stripped of their rights and be forced to serve as state-mandated girlfriends or held in concentration camps. Incels see themselves as the sexless victims of women’s nature, and call for them to be contained or controlled accordingly.

Incels subscribe to the ‘red pill’ conspiracy theory, believing men are the true victims of gendered oppression.
Smile Shot/Shutterstock

The “black pill” refers to the oppression of incels at the hands of biologically malevolent women. In various online cultures, to take the black pill is to give up hope. And in incel culture specifically, it is to give up hope of ever having sex or a genuine romantic connection. Because they believe attractiveness is genetically determined, there is no hope for incels to rise in the hierarchy. They will be forever denied sex and happiness, and are doomed to be women’s victims. Nihilistic despair and dogmatic hopelessness permeates incel communities and it is from this that violence flows.

Death and violence

Given that the alternative is to languish in unceasing oppression, incel ideology legitimises violence against practically any target. Incel forums simultaneously glorify suicide whilst justifying extreme violence against women as a noble reaction to female domination. Violence is an ideological response; a means to punish women for their perceived crimes and reclaim what has been usurped. Incel ideology is necessarily violent because there is no hope, only revenge.

For some time, the wider world has instinctively dismissed what is, admittedly, a childish ideology based on crude stereotypes and nonsensical concepts. Sadly this is no longer an option. Plymouth is not the first shooting linked to incels. Californian Elliot Rodger, a self-described “kissless virgin,” killed six in 2014 as “revenge” against those who denied him sex. Incel communities venerate Rodger as a saint to this day.

In Toronto, Canada, Alek Minassian was convicted of murdering ten people with a van in 2018. He hailed Rodger online minutes prior to the attack. Recent attacks in Canada, Arizona and Germany have also been linked to incels, while a planned attack in Ohio was discovered only days before Plymouth. There are many more examples, and some are calling for the Plymouth shooting to be classified as an act of terror.

Although not obviously political, incel ideology revolves around imagined subjugation, and violence is intended to have a far-reaching social impact. Rodger hoped to “deliver a devastating blow” that would shake women to “the core of their wicked hearts”. Minassian fantasised of an “incel rebellion” that would overthrow the corrupt social order and return women to their proper place.

Few incels believe this is actually feasible, but allegiance to the principle motivates violence intended to strike at the social order and harm women as a distinct class. This is why the extreme violence of the incel community should be considered terrorism.

Incel terrorism has spiked over the last decade and there is every indication this community is growing. If this most recent attack was motivated by incel ideology, it was neither the first nor likely to be the last. For all their warped concepts and ideological incoherence, incels are becoming a threat we must take seriously.

The Conversation

Charlie Tye receives funding from the Morrell Centre for Legal and Political Philosophy.