Clip: 10 innocent bystanders killed 15 others injured. The murder weapon? A rental van. We now know that police have been questioning the driver behind the wheel of this white van, who basically mowed people down for as long as a mile. This is North of Toronto. This is right around 1:30. Injuries range from critical to severe, to non life threatening. This has impacted not only those families, but an entire community and an entire city.
Jordan: It’s been more than two years now since Canada had its first deadly encounter with the incel ideology. We didn’t know it in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but first, through a post left on social media and later through transcripts of the alleged killers interviews with police, it became clear that this was another one. There had been fatal incel attacks before this. And in the two years, since there have been many more. Including another one in Toronto that resulted in a terrorism charge. There are a lot of things that society is still learning about the involuntary celibate movement, but the terrorism charge that I mentioned indicates that at least we’re recognizing that there is a movement, that there is an ideology here, that these are not just a handful of random attacks. So, where does the ideology come from? How do lonely young men start out looking for company and commiseration and end up radicalized into a hateful misogynist movement? Where are the cracks that they are slipping through? And how can we– and by we, I mean all of us, from parents to the education system, to police and now to intelligence agencies– do a better job of confronting the growing danger before it gets even more deadly than it already is. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The big story. Katherine Laidlaw is a feature writer and essayist based in Toronto. Hey Katherine.
Jordan: Can you start maybe by just telling me the first time you remember hearing the term incel?
Katherine: Sure. Yeah. So I think it was, along with a lot of the other people was right after the van attack in Toronto. That would have been a couple of years ago now this past April. And I remember getting text messages from friends who lived in other parts of the country asking if I was okay and being confused and sort of turning on the news and following in as close to real time as possible, what was happening. Like a lot of people I think, in the city and across the country. And I think the first time I ever saw the word was in the Facebook posts that began to circulate after the attacker was identified. I don’t spend very much time on, on Reddit or 4Chan, and so I hadn’t heard the term before. But I started following it a little bit after that, just because it was a little bit like a veil being lifted, which I guess is what discovering any kind of subculture feels like. But once I sort of started researching the nuances of that subculture, I just had more and more questions.
Jordan: When we first started learning about it and it became, I hate to use the word popularized, but became a mainstream term after the attack, what were the initial impressions of, either that subculture or just like what the term meant?
Katherine: Initially, there was a sense, at least from the public perception, that this was sort of a very fringe group of a few angry men. And then too, I think the term was generally understood to me in what broadly it does mean, which is involuntarily celibate, which means you’d like to be having sex and you aren’t, and not for lack of trying. And the origins of the term actually came from a much more, sort of compassionate place than it has come to mean now. It was initially coined by a woman who was actually a student at Carlton University in the early two thousands, because she was struggling to make connections with people and wanted to create a place online where people who are also struggling to make those connections could talk about why that was. And the term has sort of been co-opted since then to represent something much more sinister. But I think the public’s understanding of what it meant was accurate. I just don’t think the breadth was accurate, and I don’t think that people necessarily understood the gravity or the reach at that time. Like, I remember a lot of people, including sort of pundits, like members of the media sort of brushing it off as a lone wolf incident, even though there had been a couple of other high profile killings that had been connected to this ideology before that.
Jordan: And what have we come to learn about the incel subculture since then? And I guess, about the Toronto attacker as well?
Katherine: Yeah, so I guess two fold. One, I think that the Toronto attacker’s connections to the community have been more firmly established even in the sort of years following the attack. I think once the interview that he did with police immediately after the attack was released, that really solidified how connected he was. He talks about participating in the forums actively, different members he’d had communication with, what his sort of ideological views were, where they were born out of. That really sort of, I think, intensified those connections in a way that were more tenuous before. And then I think what we’ve come to understand about the movement more broadly since then, is that it is in fact a movement, number one. Two, that it is not as fringe as people would hope that it is. And three, that like any movement, there are sort of fissures throughout that separate different ideologies, focuses, motivations. Like, it’s not a homogenous group as most movements aren’t. And so you would have incels who, like the term’s origin, are desperately lonely people, truly seeking companionship and really struggling against that. You have the incels who are more aesthetically focused and, like, the looks max community in the incel movement is focused on bettering one’s appearance by any means necessary to attract a mate. And then you have the aggressive, violent faction that really encourages fantasizing about how you are going to maim or harm the people in the world who seem to be leading more active sex lives than you and don’t seem to struggle in the same ways that you do. And so I think that there’s just been a lot more in depth analysis of the different lines of thinking within the groups. There are full indexes online that sort of break down what some of the different language terms, lingo, I guess, that’s used by the communities are. There’s sort of like entire wikis devoted to analyzing these philosophies. You could go down many rabbit holes. But those resources either didn’t exist before the term hit the mainstream, or they did, but you wouldn’t have known to look for them.
Jordan: Did you go looking for them? Did you go down those rabbit holes?
Katherine: Oh, sure. Yeah. For months. Yeah.
Jordan: What was that like?
Katherine: Yeah, it was– at first felt far enough away that it felt a little bit like reading about a video game that you’re not playing. Once you spend a considerable amount of time reading those forums and trying to understand the ideologies and sort of working through the logical lines in your head, I found that it started to affect how I felt about the world, to be honest. I felt it changed my relationships with my male friends a little bit. I felt that I was becoming a little more closed off, a little more suspicious. It was dark. I started having bad dreams, you know, it was the– I think I was most taken aback by how vitriolic some of the conversations were. Like really, the undercurrents of hate that run through these forums is astounding. Like, that people can be that angry at a particular group of people. And I mean, of course, like, I know these things in abstract. I know that misogyny is real. I know that racism exists. You know, you can understand that hate is out there. I think it’s a bit different when– it’s a little like reading extremely vitriolic comment sections day after day after day, but all of the comments are directed at a group that you’re a part of.
Jordan: And we got here from initially considering the term to sort of apply to, as you mentioned, lone wolves. And, you know, clearly, as you make the point in your piece, that’s not the case. We covered this topic a few months back when the first terror charge was late against an incel. And you wrote a lot about how this is similar to a terrorist ideology. Can you explain that a little bit? Like what’s the difference between a terrorist ideology and the kind of, you know, mass killer that we usually think of when we say lone wolf?
Katherine: Yeah. That’s a great question. And an important distinction, I think. So there was a great article in the Atlantic that delved into this difference a little bit too. So I’m going to quote from that right now. This writer says, “For most who deal with the issue day in and day out, terrorism is public violence to advance a political social or religious cause or ideology.” And it’s really interesting, this writer makes the point that if you subbed in, for example, ISIS to the Facebook post that the van attacker wrote, we’d be having a really different conversation about what the security risks were and who was really in danger here. And I think that speaks to how society explains away certain types of violence willingly and not so willingly in others. Like I think so often those lines are drawn racially and we see so much more often white male violence being explained away by mental illness or neuro atypicality in some way. And we don’t do that when it comes to often Black perpetrators or perpetrators who are driven by, I mean like Muslim ideology has dominated the news, I would say, since September 11th in that regard. But the difference would be, is this person driven by a particular formulated ideology against a set of politics, a social subset, or a religion? Or is this violence for the sake of violence?
Jordan: If there is a terrorist ideology behind this what’s that ideology’s end goal? You know, as hateful as they are, you know, when you talk about ISIS or other groups, you know at least what they want to accomplish. And I don’t feel like I have that when we talk about incels.
Katherine: Yeah. I think that’s a good question. And I think that’s part– that question has been partly why we’ve been hesitant to label these types of crimes as terrorism in the past. So I would say from my research, what I can tell, and again, bearing in mind that this movement isn’t homogenous, what many of these people purport to want is power. Power over women. And a lot of them, by any means necessary.
Jordan: It’s that simple?
Katherine: Yeah, it’s that simple. I mean, I don’t see this as– and I think if you read, sort of other more prominent thinkers about these issues, Jessica Valenti or Kate Mann, who just published a book on the sort of entitlement that drives misogyny, I think that you’ll see that a lot of these people say that what they want is sex, but what they really want is to take away a woman’s right to choose. What they really want is to have sex with the type of women they feel that they deserve for being a man in the world. And you see that in the jokes that get made on these forums about how women are too dumb to vote, or how they shouldn’t be allowed to work, or how the feminist movement is what’s driving the breakdown of society. And I think all of those things are connected. I don’t think it’s as simple as they just need to find a loving partner. I think there is a sub section of that group that really does want that. And I think the people who are vocal about harming women and in society don’t want that they want control and they want power.
Jordan: How does a young man end up as one of those of the more violent subset on these forums? Like, can you kind of describe or narrate like the process?
Katherine: I can speak about how we know it happened to the van attacker?
Katherine: From what we know, and I should preface this by saying that the allegations against him haven’t been proven in court and his trial is coming up. But from what we know, this is a man who, yes, lived with some degree of neuro atypicality. Autism, from what I understand for much of his life. He went from being fearful of women in high school, to tentatively trying to sort of navigate that world in university, being rebuffed, and encountering online, through a forum called 4chan, this subgroup of individuals who spoke to some of what he was feeling, which was alienation, you know, social disregard, struggle, insecurity about his appearance, you know, and here online was a group who felt the same ways that he did about those things. And purported to have some kind of solution to those problems and the solution was violence in his regard, in his case. In the case of someone like Elliot Rodger, who killed in California and left sort of a manifesto that has been held up by the community as kind of a guide. He’s really been sort of venerated online by this subsection. But yeah, I think if you’re a person who has for your entire life really struggled to belong and you encounter a place online where people tell you not only that it’s okay that you feel this way, but that you’ve been wronged, that you’re a victim, and that there’s a way forward if you are willing to take it, you know, that’s a very attractive proposition. I would think that’s sort of where it dovetails with terrorism ideology philosophies. And so the idea from terrorism theorists is that there are three things that are needed for building online radicalization. The first is needs, which is sort of a desire for personal significance. The second is narratives, a path forward, a story that they can pin their feelings to. And then the third is networks, a community, a place of belonging and sort of other people who validate the collective narrative. And if you have all of those three things, that makes someone much more likely to progress into violent extremism and these online forums have all of those three things in spades. So it’s not surprising to me that this is happening. And in fact, the news about the police laying the first incel terrorism charge was really heartening as a woman because it was a sign to me that this is being taken more seriously.
Jordan: Did you encounter anyone doing any work or any research into how to prevent that radicalization? Because it seems to me that once you get to the point where you’re posting about how women are not really people, you’re far too gone to bring back. So how do you prevent it?
Katherine: That’s a big question. And I think fundamentally it comes down to the fact that as a society, we still don’t fully see or accept that women are equal to men. And I mean, of course this has been a long fight. But I think if you, you know, different thinkers have proposed like, much more significant education around consent and sex ed and relationships for men starting from a very, very young age. You know, I think like closing the wage gap would have an impact. I think everything that we can do to push towards gender equality is really important in fighting this fight. But I don’t think that there is one easy answer. And in terms of sort of bringing these men, cause they are predominantly men, back from the brink as it were, I think that while it’s true that they might be, as you say, too far gone, I think we have a moral imperative to fix this problem in society. I think it really comes down to the ways that we’re taking care of each other and the ways we need to do that better. I don’t think that you can present comprehensive solutions without understanding the breadth of a problem. Looking at things like red flag laws, how those can work is really important. I think law enforcement has a role to play here. You know, you look at what happened in Nova Scotia and how preventable that tragedy was. You know, I think that different training is required. I think that we need to pay more attention to domestic incidents. You know, I just think we have to take women’s concerns seriously before they get to a stage where things like that are happening. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that regard.
Jordan: Katherine, thank you so much for taking the time to unpack this a little bit with us today.
Katherine: Thanks so much for having me
Jordan: Katherine Laidlaw, feature writer and essayist. That was The Big Story. For more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And of course you can email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also in your favourite podcast players, whether that’s Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify, you pick, you choose. Find us there. Subscribe for free. Leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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