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A memorial for the victims of the Toronto van attack (Image via Wikipedia)

Involuntary celibacy has been recently used as an excuse for homicides, but freedom of online speech is more to blame, writes Nini Bien.

CELIBACY HAS BEEN in the news in the last fortnight, due to the attack in Toronto by a young man apparently blaming his murderous rampage on his single status. His self-identification as an “incel”, or “involuntary celibate”, has once again shone a light into another dark corner of the internet, where paranoid and aggressive ideas have been allowed to flourish.

When tech companies first started, there were many conventions around what could and could not be published. These conventions, many of which had evolved during the development of Western civilisation, protected public discourse from the darker sides of human nature. However, the founders of these companies knew better, and tore up the rules about what could and what could not be said on their new web platforms. Our societies are paying the price for their arrogance.

What are incels?

“Incel” is the shortening of the term “involuntary celibate”, a term invented by a lonely young woman in the early 1990s who created an online support site for people who could not attract a mate.

While her intention was to create a safe space to share stories and seek a sympathetic ear, it has metastasised over the following two decades into something far less benign. Instead of support, members of incel forums now revel in a paranoid mindset that celebrates self-pity and demonises the outside world. There is a mythology, complete with a unique language that summarises it. Other humans are portrayed as being separate from incels, who are somehow so cursed the outside world could not possibly comprehend their suffering. Furthermore, the fact that incels have been denied the chance at sex and romance, while everyone else is obviously having such a wonderful time of it, justifies all sorts of violent “revenge” fantasies, as well as idealising suicide.

The emotional tone is of that stage in mid-adolescence where, trapped between the passivity of childhood and the dawning awareness of the grim realities of adulthood, the teenager slumps into a feeling of victimisation and being misunderstood. However, another year or two and teenagers move on, caught up in challenge of shaping their own lives. Reading the posts, it’s hard not to imagine these online posters are complaining about the world from the comfort of their rooms, while their mothers work downstairs to sort their freshly washed socks or cook a tray of their favourite chicken nuggets.

However, this short stage of emotional immaturity is no laughing matter, with 16 innocent people killed by two young men (including the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings in California) who explicitly identified with this community. At 22 and 25, both men should have been long past adolescent misery, but instead they used it to justify homicide.

A brief history of celibacy

Although it may be hard to believe for anyone under 40, celibacy is not a new situation. In fact, in Western civilisation, celibacy unit your mid-twenties was the norm. Until the invention of the Pill, the start of a person’s sexual life also meant the start of their reproductive life and so societies minimised the chances of unwanted children by suppressing sexual contact between people who were not in a permanent, committed relationship.

Because marriage was going to bring babies alongside the sex, preparing for marriage was about more than just slipping on a nice cambric shirt and silk cravat – or whatever fashion young women were swooning over at the time – and taking yourself off to the nearest Bachelor and Spinster Ball. Marriage was considered a serious, lifetime undertaking and the young couple were expected to have the resources to care for the family they were about to create. This meant that males were expected to be established in their occupation and have some sort of property or savings, no matter how small.

So, not only did men have to find a woman who wanted to marry them, they also had to prove they were mature and settled enough to raise a family. That meant marriage and sex could not start until a man was well into his twenties. That’s a lot of horny young men with no chance of relief for years to come. And yet, historical newspapers did not contain stories of these men ploughing into crowds with their wagons, or going on stabbing sprees. From this, we can conclude that celibacy itself is not enough to drive young men to kill.

Social Transformation

A century ago, young men probably felt grateful to have a wife and thus the opportunity for sex. The invention of reliable contraception (and effective treatment for STDs) has meant that humans are free to have sex for pleasure, without life-changing consequences.

Now, people expect sex as a right. Expectations around females are probably also higher, as instead of seeing only the young women they grew up with, young males can now compare real girls to the of images of cosmetically, surgically, photographically and digitally altered females on the internet. Many celebrities are no longer naturally beautiful women — they’re unnaturally beautiful.

We also know that people are spending less time with the real, lumpy, bumpy allsorts collection of humans in their local community, and more time with the fantasy creations on screen and online. Socially clumsy kids are not getting the opportunities to develop their people skills and loneliness is surprisingly high in young people. But loneliness is not dangerous on its own.

The internet of all things

Many of the internet pioneers were American, and had that infatuation with the concepts of “freedom” and “free speech” that go beyond what is tolerated in other Western countries.

It was another frontier, to be opened up with the minimum of government and regulatory interference. Some people were not happy about what was being allowed to be said and published on these new platforms, but what would the old, poor, disabled, female or darker-skinned know about abuse of the old, poor, disabled, female or darker-skinned? Instead, young men from comfy suburbs made decisions that affected the whole of society and Pandora’s box was opened. Paedophiles found each other, and started chat rooms to swap stories and tips. Sociopaths found ways of traumatising people through threatening violence and cruelty. And ordinary people found that they could abuse people they disagreed with, without the previous consequences.

The incel phenomenon could not be possible without the internet and its “you can say anything” approach. While tech companies are finally starting to try to limit the damage, a culture has been established that reaches everywhere.

Unfortunately, incel sites, featuring violent fantasies directed towards both men and women, have been flourishing for a long time. There, immature males are encouraged to remain in that state and, instead of seeking to better themselves, the culture promotes the idea that society and the people in it are to blame for their suffering. Violence is then portrayed as a “revenge” on those people, who have been dehumanised into walking caricatures.

Of course, no one ever predicted that adolescent males would wander into destructive territory if left unsupervised. And America is doing so well with its freedom to voice any opinion.

And us? We’re left to clean up the mess.

Nini Bien works with teenagers and sees the effect of social change every day. She continually ponders the effect marketing has on our culture.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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