PERSPECTIVE: What Incels Can Tell Us About Isolation, Resentment, and Terror Designations

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Incels, a portmanteau of “involuntary celibates,” are primarily men who consider themselves unable to attract a romantic or sexual partner despite their desire for one. In recent years, several high-profile acts of violence linked to the incel community have been the subject of much media coverage and public speculation. Recent research has analyzed incels’ online postings and commentary, but there remains a glaring dearth of primary data collected from direct questioning of incel community members.

Most incels feel condemned to a life of isolation, loneliness and humiliation. Therefore, self-identifying as an incel revolves around a deficit: the lack of a sexual or romantic relationship, which is often experienced as an immense source of personal frustration and shame. Incels do not want to be incels but identify as such because they perceive that modern society is established hierarchically, in a manner that favors appearance, social status and physical attractiveness and casts out its “low-tier” members. These negative perceptions fuel resentment that, by extension, undergirds a grievance-based worldview centered around a perceived moral wrongdoing inflicted upon them by unfortunate genetics, particular life circumstances and/or an unjust society which empowers some while marginalizing others.

The incel worldview is typified by hostility toward women and, at times, sexually active men. Incels are also often considered part of “the manosphere,” a conglomeration of online spaces (forums, blogs, magazines) related to masculinity and men’s issues, which has been referred to as “the most extreme corner of the misogynistic spectrum.” Other men’s groups that form part of the manosphere include MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), MRA (Men’s Rights Activists), and PUAs (Pick-up Artists).

According to the current literature, over the past five years in North America, there have been nine attacks, claiming over 50 lives, attributed to perpetrators purportedly motivated by the incel ideology. In examining such crimes and their antecedents, scholars of extremism have compared incel ideology, social mobilization, and online activity to the “tools that have propelled the Islamic State and violent far-right extremists to increasing prominence and attention.” This perception of incels is not limited to the academic sphere. In 2019, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) classified inceldom as a type of Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism. Moreover, in January of 2020, the State of Texas Department of Public Safety generated a report which listed incels as an emerging domestic terrorism threat, “as current adherents demonstrated marked acts or threats of violence in furtherance of their social grievance”; the report included incel-related violence as an example of “single issue domestic terrorism.” These designations include new legislation, policy, and surveillance recommendations.

Since these reports were issued, three additional attacks have been attributed to incels. The third attack, a stabbing on Feb. 24, 2020, led to an unprecedented legal decision by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police to charge the 17-year-old perpetrator with terrorism offenses, a charge that had hitherto only been applied to members of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

The Canadian terrorism designation prompted even more criticism of incels, both in the media and among terrorism researchers, thus making incels the focus of even more scrutiny. For example, a widely shared op-ed published a day after the terrorism designation by a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst titled Incel-related Violence is Terrorism – and the World Should Start Treating it that Way posited that “successfully prosecuting incel violence as terrorism – and it remains to be seen how this particular case will play out – will send an important signal to the broader incel community and set an important precedent internationally.” A wave of similar articles followed, yet the fact remains that a very low base rate of those deeply embedded in the incel community has radicalized to violence (if any at all), and there remains no clear evidence of either a coherent ideology or organized support among incels for such violence, as is typically the case in terrorist groups or violent extremist movements.

While interest in the “incelosphere” has intensified over the past few years, rigorous research has not sought to grapple with the antecedent conditions of this self-described life situation or with potential long-term consequences of living with this identification, whether as a result of the social alienation experienced by many incels, or of extended immersion in the contemporary incel subculture, which exists almost entirely online. Instead, existing research is primarily concerned with the relationship between inceldom and violence without careful examination of the underlying issues and perceived grievances that help solidify the community.

As people around the world have endured the COVID-19 pandemic, many have questioned what impact quarantine will have on extremist movements, with worry that frustration and social alienation would create conditions wherein more youth in particular respond to online extremist recruitment. As one terrorism researcher put it, “the first six months of 2020 will be a ‘watershed’ moment for these movements of angry young men as they are spending more time online amid lockdowns.” As a group sharing a common anti-feminist grievance and often referenced as an extremist outlet, many have posited that incels might be particularly affected by quarantine, that their existing psychological symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, may become exacerbated, that increased time online might enhance group polarization and resentment and thereby lead to a greater willingness to endorse violence. A counter hypothesis is that incels are already used to social isolation, that no change would be expected, and that incels might see quarantine as creating a more “level playing field,” causing the rest of the world to experience the limited day-to-day social interactions incels experience regularly.

To explore these questions, members of www.incels.co, the largest online forum for incels, were sent a survey by the forum’s administrator, starting on Aug. 1 and ending on Aug. 8, 2020. Included in the survey were questions about whether the COVID-19 quarantine made them “more” or “less” isolated or “no difference,” and whether the COVID-19 quarantine made them “more” or “less” resentful or “no difference.” The survey also inquired about incels’ isolation and resentment as a result of the Canadian government’s designation of incel-related crimes as terrorism. For each question, participants were also asked “why and how so.” The study offers some of the first primary data collected from direct surveying of incels.

In response to the first question about whether the COVID-19 quarantine made them feel more or less isolated, the majority (61.2%) of the 422 survey respondents said that they felt no change in their isolation as a result of the COVID-19 quarantine supporting the counter hypothesis. Most of the remaining respondents (34.6%) said that the quarantine made them feel more isolated, while only 4.2% said they felt less isolated. These answers are unsurprising, given that although most people would likely feel more isolated by the quarantine, incels define themselves in part in relation to their feelings of isolation.

When asked whether the COVID-19 quarantine increased their feelings of resentment, a slightly smaller majority than the previous question (54.1%) said they experienced no change in their feelings of resentment as a result of quarantine. Beyond that, 30.2% said they felt more resentful, but a meaningful 15.7% of the 422 survey respondents reported feeling less resentful, with many reporting a decrease because others were experiencing their normal life circumstance. Therefore, quarantine does not seem to have altered sentiments of isolation or resentment much.

Respondents’ qualitative responses to the first question shed additional light on the matter. One participant wrote, “I had no social life anyway, so nothing really changed.” Another explained, “I was already isolated before quarantine.” There was more variation in their feelings of resentment, however, with many reporting being resentful of those complaining about forced isolation: “Seeing normies [non-incels] complain about being inside temporarily when I’ve been forced into seclusion my whole life makes me angry. They can’t social distance for a few months, yet I’ve been forced to do so all my teenage years?” Another wrote that he was made resentful in “seeing people go through what I went through (for 6 years and counting) for 3 months and complain.” One participant, who said he became less isolated because of his increased online interactions and whose use of the term “neurotypical” suggests that he may experience some features of autism, wrote, “I chose ‘more resentful’ for the second due to nerotypical [sic] types constantly complaining about the ‘lack of socialization’ because of the quarantine. For them it’s just a transitional thing and when this all mellows out they’ll go back to socializing and experiencing intimacy while I continue to rot. I’ve got a whole life of quarantine awaiting me and for the average nerotypical [sic] this is just a minor inconvenience if that makes any sense [sic].”

Others became more resentful not through their perceptions of others’ reactions to isolation, but through their own increased isolation. Wrote one survey respondent, “There is no change in isolation. I’m more resentful because I had more time to think about my shitty life.” Another wrote that his increased isolation contributed to his increased resentment, “because my life routine has been fucked up I couldn’t even go to gym for 4 months my goals are fucked up and I feel like I’m not doing anything to improve my life [sic].” Still, some of those respondents who reported that they became less resentful as a result of the quarantine also referenced feeling some sense of comfort in seeing others experience the same isolation they had been experiencing for years. Wrote one, “Some people kind of started to understand my lifestyle, which is always nice to see.” Another respondent wrote, “Isolated because of lockdown; less resentful because everyone else is just as physically isolated.” Still another, in contrast, referenced his continued isolation as a source of personal growth, leading to decreased resentment: “Quarantine has gave me time to reflect on my life. I’ve never had this much free time in my adult life, and I’m glad I spend even a little bit of it changing in a positive way [sic].”

Given the findings of question one, it is interesting to examine how isolation and resentment changed with regard to the Canadian terrorism designation, subsequent media coverage and public scrutiny. Results for the second question suggest that the terrorism designation had a similar impact on incels’ isolation as quarantine, with 63.1% reporting no change in their feelings of isolation, 33.9% reporting feeling more isolated, and 2.3% reporting feeling less isolated. In contrast, incels’ resentment was far more impacted by the terrorism designation. While 47.5% said that their resentment did not change, 50.8% said their resentment increased and only 1.7% said they became less resentful. The increased resentment for over half of respondents to the question of the terrorism designation is substantially higher than the other three variables (which average 30%).

While it might seem unsurprising that individuals would be resentful of being labeled terrorists, it is important to highlight that the general concern among journalists, academics and intelligence agencies for incel radicalization under conditions of quarantine has not been matched by a similar concern for the potential adverse consequences associated with labeling incels as a terrorist community absent empirical evidence. In fact, only three incel-affiliated perpetrators have been designated as primarily driven by their inceldom, a reality that has not gone unnoticed by the incel community. The concern is that enhanced resentment as a result of the terrorism designation may actually inadvertently propel incel radicalization.

This is evident in the qualitative responses. Some survey respondents explained that the lack of change in their resentment was due to prior feelings of exclusion from society, saying, “Everyone already thinks we are scum. The designation changes little.” Still, others simply explained that they “don’t care what normies [non-incels] think,” or that they felt the designation would not impact them directly: “I don’t exactly have ‘incel’ written over my face, so people didn’t start treating me any worse. And until I actually start having problems from incels being labeled as terrorists, it’s unlikely that I would care much about it.”

Yet, those whose resentment did increase felt that they were being demonized based on the actions of very few, or that those who made the designation did not make the effort to become informed about the community as a whole. Wrote one respondent, “It made me feel more resentful because people refuse to try understanding our group and instead focus on cherrypicking the hyper-aggressive mad ones and obvious trolls. Biases create resentment, making an attempt at understanding should be the key.” Another agreed, “Because some idiots went on a killing spree everyone thinks all of us are rampaging idiots.” Still another articulated, “I feel as if the people that assume all incels are ‘terrorists and literally advocate for the genocide of women’ have completely no idea what it’s like to have feelings of inadequacy, feeling like you still haven’t emotionally matured because you’ve missed out on an important aspect of life, becoming isolated beyond the 10th degree for a majority of your life, and feeling like you’re at the absolute bottom of society. I have the right to be upset and angry, and I have the right to vent my frustration on the internet freely and anonymously, and I should have that right without being labeled as a terrorist.”

Other survey respondents who felt more resentful were similar to those whose resentment did not change, in that they felt that their status as incel was hidden. However, these men felt that instead of not being directly impacted by the designation, their ability to be open about their feelings was damaged. Wrote one respondent, “It makes me afraid to be honest about my inceldom and feelings to people so there are less people I can feel truly connected with.” Another explained: “I remain inconspicuous of my status as an incel, so no one knows that side of me. Although it makes me resentful, because as media demonizes incels further and further, normies will start to treat us even worse. Not only that, but I can see all kinds of bad consequences happening to someone who has been outed as an incel in the future.”

The results of these survey questions are revealing. First, whereas some terrorist and violent extremist ideologies and organizations have flourished due to increased isolation, preexisting isolation and high levels of online activity prior to the COVID-19 quarantine amongst incels likely did not impact them to the same extent. It is important to note that some respondents even said that they found themselves having more time to reflect during quarantine, and that they felt others may now have a better understanding of inceldom after having experienced isolation themselves.

Second, it is clear that the terrorism designation and subsequently enhanced public scrutiny had a much higher impact on incel resentment over the recent period than did quarantine and isolation. It must be stressed that radicalization into violence remains a low base rate phenomenon – a product of there being very few actual terrorists relative to the number of those radicalized. Nevertheless, there has been a tendency to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the violent-extremist few, rather than to investigate how or why the vast majority of similar others did not become (violent) extremists. Low base rate bias may exaggerate assessments of the likelihood of extremists engaging in violent terrorist activity, which can produce counter-effective consequences including in assessing risk amongst intelligence professionals, or in countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives, which have been criticized in the past for stigmatizing and securitizing relations with entire communities (e.g. Muslims), for example by restricting nonviolent alternative spaces to air grievances and thus inducing lone actors to believe they have no recourse other than violence. Such circumstances can unintentionally facilitate greater rates of radicalization and violent extremism, cement a victim mentality that enhances in-group/out-group bias, which can lead to a reciprocal dehumanization of out-group members from amongst collectives that feel stigmatized, or that may be used to justify the turn to violence for potential extremist actors. Ergo, second-order consequences of labeling a diverse and largely nonviolent group as “terrorist” premised only upon a cognitive or rhetorical affinity may backfire.

Third, the sheer number of incels who responded to the survey suggests a vast willingness to engage with researchers (and perhaps the general public) to enhance the world’s understanding of incels and inceldom. Thus, additional primary research should seek to grasp the unique conditions of inceldom before investigating how an extremely fringe subset of incels allegedly engaged with the community and/or ideology turns to violence. It might be that engagement with incel fora online serves as a support group of sorts that reduces the likelihood lonely, frustrated young men engage in violence. Understanding why the vast majority do not engage in violence may provide insight crucial to reducing the number of incels considered at-risk and therefore worthy of law enforcement monitoring. Additionally, such efforts may inform evidence-based CVE-interventions that can reduce some of the risk factors associated with incel radicalization.

On the aggregate, incels seek understanding; they are willing to engage and interact with nonjudgmental researchers, they are willing to convey their grievances to broader society and most importantly they feel the threat of terrorist violence coming from their community is exaggerated. This is a far cry from the stance of well-established violent extremist collectives. We should recognize that, while a threat from the community seems to exist, we must refrain from labeling incels as terrorists in general absent sufficient evidence. In conclusion, in the service of security as well as the mental and emotional wellbeing of thousands of self-identifying incels, it is imperative to try to understand these individuals and to do what is possible to help them improve their lives as a means of reducing the risks of incel harm to self or others.

Read a full report on this survey here.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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