Moment that mattered: Ten people are killed by an ‘incel’ in Toronto
On the morning of 23rd April a van careered into pedestrians on Yonge Street in Toronto, killing ten and injuring 16 others. The driver, 25-year-old student Alek Minassian, had posted a message on Facebook shortly before the attack claiming allegiance to the ‘Incel Rebellion’. The shadowy online community of ‘incels’, short for involuntary celibates, had once again burst violently into the headlines.
Alana, a 45-year-old Canadian woman who prefers her surname not to be published, first heard about the attack when the subway train she was on in downtown Toronto ground to a halt, but the motives behind the murders did not emerge until later. “I was at home reading a news article a day or two after the attack when it came out that the accused murderer Minassian was claiming a connection to the incel forums,” she says. “At first I was upset and angry. I also felt kind of guilty. I thought, ‘Oh my God is this my fault?’”
In 1997 Alana set up a website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, coining a term in the process. She describes herself as a “late bloomer” romantically, and aimed to create a support forum for people with dating difficulties. “I wanted to reach out to people who also felt that stigma of being inexperienced into their twenties or later,” she says. “I wanted to reach out to other people who struggled with dating because they’re gay or they have some exceptional thing that makes them a bit of a rare bird.”
After a few years Alana passed the site onto somebody she didn’t know personally and gave it little more thought. Then in May 2014, when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people in California, she heard the term ‘incel’ in the news and discovered that her forum for involuntary celibates had been hijacked. In the hours before he shot himself, Rodger had posted a video to YouTube to say that his intense hatred of women and his anger and frustration over his virginity led him to the killing spree. He was lauded as a martyr by a group of violently misogynistic men. When Minassian posted to Facebook minutes before the attack, he wrote: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
“These murders were so extreme that most people on the incel forums realised they’ve got to get out of there”
Alana was horrified to learn about the movement that had emerged from her site. “The original purpose was [a forum for] people who wanted to get a date. It seemed like a simple thing,” she says. “And then it gradually became guys who wanted to get a girl, then it became more male-dominated and straight-dominated.” Before long, the concept of involuntary celibacy had evolved into a new and sinister form. On the forum Alana used to run and elsewhere on the internet, men began advocating violence against women and sexually active males. They developed their own elaborate vernacular, including ‘Chads’ (attractive men) and ‘Stacys’ (attractive women), and ‘involuntary celibacy’ was abbreviated to ‘incel’.
“Incel is a very simple-to-type, easy-to-pronounce word,” says Alana. “But it’s esoteric enough that it gives you an in-group feeling. You feel like you belong to something special if you know what it means.”
In the aftermath of the attack in her hometown in April, Alana attempted to reclaim the original intentions of her site. “I wanted to get a positive message out, a message of hope that just because you’re a late bloomer it doesn’t mean you’ll never get a date,” she says. “But that positive message wasn’t getting through. Everyone was focusing on the murders, on this weird vocabulary and this little community of angry people.”
So Alana set up a new website called Love Not Anger. The project aims to bring together research from academics, journalists and mental health professionals to help support people with dating difficulties and to draw them away from the violent rhetoric of online incel forums.
“I think one of the big gaps is that, especially at high-school level, people are not learning the social skills that they need to make good friendships and to have healthy relationships,” Alana explains. “People struggle at that age and all sorts of awkward things happen in people’s lives. The majority of us eventually figure it out, but for some people it’s harder and it takes longer. Dating is hard and I think we need better support in this world to make it a little easier for young people to get started.”
One of the major areas of focus for the project is people with autism. “Some – but not all – people who have dating difficulties have autism symptoms as well,” says Alana. “What I’d like to see in the project is a nuanced understanding of the many different reasons why people have dating difficulties.”
With the van attack fresh in the memories of Torontonians, the possibility of further incel-related violence preys on Alana’s mind. When two people were killed in a mass shooting in the city in July, she immediately feared it was associated with inceldom, though it turned out to be unrelated. “It is just going to be an ongoing concern every time there’s a mass shooting or some other violent incident,” she says.
In spite of this, Alana is hopeful that the van attack has hindered, not helped, the incel movement. “These murders were so extreme I think that most people, decent-thinking folks, who were on the incel forums, maybe they’ve realised this violence is not good and they’ve got to get out of there,” she says. Reddit, which had hosted a forum for incels, has banned the topic on its site, removing it from mainstream internet discussion.
On 24th April Minassian was charged with ten counts of first-degree murder, to which 16 additional charges of attempted murder were later added. Four of the ten people killed in the attack were aged over 80.
For Alana, the priority is to tackle the issues of loneliness and isolation in young men to ensure they do not develop into feelings of hate. “All you can really do is work on a long-term basis to make sure that everyone in society has support,” she says. “Someone to listen to what’s going on in their life so that they don’t end up lashing out in anger like this.”
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