Recognizing the Language of Toxic Masculinity

It’s been a bad couple of days here in Canada, and especially for anyone with a connection to Toronto. Acts of violence such as the van attack that killed ten people and injured many more are always difficult to process. In this heavily mediated world, there is a rush to find explanations, there is often misinformation, and there is rampant speculation. As the dust is settling, it is becoming more apparent that Alek Minassian identified with what is called the “incel” (‘involuntary celibate’) movement, which is essentially a community of men who validate and amplify their resentments at the fact that women don’t want to have sex with them. There has been some discussion about a Facebook post, which was the primary indicator of Minassian’s membership in this community and the role that membership played in his violent attack, and whether it was in fact real. It is increasingly the consensus that it is, but regardless, even if it wasn’t, it’s worth talking about this particular community and its role in enabling and encouraging acts of violence, both large and small scale.

This Twitter thread by journalist Arshy Mann outlines the research that he has been doing about various types of masculine internet subcultures, including incels, which he identifies as “the most virulently misogynistic” (which…in a race that includes Men’s Rights Activists and Pick Up Artists and others, is not an easy prize to win). As that thread notes, people paying attention to these spheres have been saying for a long time that these communities are ones that we should be very concerned about. They are the petri dishes in which the violence of toxic masculinity is being mixed and allowed to grow. As (terrible) luck would have it, two of the students in my Language, Gender, & Sexuality class this semester did research projects related to this theme – this set of tumblr posts by Vega Ewanovich, directly about incel language and culture, and another essay by Dorian about 4chan more generally. I told both students their work was very relevant even before the events in Toronto took place, and I’m saddened to have been proven so right. But given the timeliness, I want to highlight some linguistic/anthropological points that are raised by these two students that we can use to better interpret this form of misogyny and violence.

  • First, the label. “Incel” is a term that was actually coined by a queer woman from Toronto in the ancient days of the internet (aka the mid 1990s). She had frustration and pain in her life about her loneliness, and she created a label in order to allow for the creation of a community of support around that. This is a powerful act – naming something can solidify a conglomerate of vague emotions, experiences, and practices into a comfortingly comprehensible thing. In ling anth terms we talk about this as ‘entextualization’, and it has a lot of power to enshrine and attach meanings to texts. This power is unclear though, as the story of this particular term shows – texts escape into the wild and it isn’t predictable how they will be picked up, used, and transformed by different speakers. The literal meaning of a term like “incel” can be either productively transformative (getting support and creating a network of understanding folks) or violently toxic (justifying and blaming others for one’s personal circumstances). Nothing in the language allows us to see how this will happen until it happens, but a detailed examination of the transformation of a term like this and its movement across contexts can tell us a lot about that particular brand of misogyny that is premised on male entitlement to women’s bodies.
  • The context in which this labeled identity develops is a meaningful one, and Dorian examined the broader world of 4chan based on the thematic idea of “no girls on the internet”. I found his framing to be fascinating because it allowed them to trace how contemporary examples of extreme toxicity (manifested in Minassian) are rooted in patterns that seem much more innocuous, like default masculinity. Basically, “no girls on the internet” refers to older text-based play where, because some users would create fake female identities in order to receive apparently “preferential treatment”, anyone identifying as a woman is probably lying (Ed: woooow layers to that concept, but I’ll let it go). Dorian offered an improved phrasing to say that, since there obviously are girls (or you know, women) on the internet, it’s actually more like everyone is “Assigned Male at Login”. 4chan, which does not require profiles, creates a heightened anonymity context, which further amplifies the dynamic of default masculinity. As we discussed in our class, “male only” spaces are often licensed as ones in which specific forms of masculinity are reinforced and transmitted linguistically (think “locker room talk”). 4chan becomes dominated by those users who not only see it as default/solely masculine, but also work to actively enact it as such, demanding that anyone who identifies as a woman “prove it” by posting a picture of her breasts. Anything this person says is to be responded to only in this manner – “Tits or GTFO” – until they either comply or leave. The process here is significant – there is a presumption of the default male online, which leads to the establishment of male-only online spaces, enacted in part through the routine sexual harassment of anyone who claims to be a woman, which then tap into common narratives of masculinity (including elements of sexual and social dominance, hostility to anything feminine, and lack of empathy/compassion), which are then used to situate and transform experiences of sexual/romantic rejection.
  • Vega’s post about the role of jargon in incel communities is a particularly useful one. Here, they discuss how we can see fractal recursivity at work in the classification of a fundamental divide between members of this community and outsiders (“normies”); this means that one category of experience (sexual rejection) is not only encoded as one part of a binary (rather than any kind of spectrum), it is also mapped on to binary distinctions in other aspects of character and life, so anything “normie” must be fundamentally wrong/incompatible with being “incel”. They further illustrate the role of authentication and the use of specific terms that work within this community of practice to socialize members into the expected attitudes, behaviours, and belief structures, specifically regarding hatred toward women and expectations about the possibility of love/relationships.
  • Dorian also spends some time discussing the implications of trans and non-binary gender identities in the 4chan environment, and it’s worth noting that all of this vile misogyny is premised on very strict adherence to the notion of binary, biologically stable sex and gender, as well as an apparently objective ‘attractiveness hierarchy’ of male and female traits. Dorian illustrates how the systematic denial and mockery of trans and nonbinary gender identities within these contexts is central to how “incels” and other 4chan users situate their experiences of gender and sexuality – non-binary identities destabilize their claims about “biological” foundations for sexual needs, as well as about the justifiability of violence, specifically against women who are failing to meet those needs.
  • The creation of the symbolic “God” of the incel movement in the person of a man who committed what was, until the last few days, the most obvious example of incel public violence is also significant. One point that I made in my comments to Vega about their work is that there is a tendency in the post to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and ‘the internet’, and I would push back against this, because the internet is a way in which real humans engage with other real humans using tools that shape the materiality of that interaction, but that don’t detach them from ‘reality’. And this is important. What we have here is a group of people who call themselves a movement. This means they aren’t forming a community to support each other, but rather to change the world. In these spaces, they socialize each other into how to behave, and they collectively construct their vision of an ideal world and ideal humans (men) within it. The creation of a hero is a powerful symbol to a movement, since of course it works to provide the exemplar of what community members should strive to be. Their hero – their unapologetically labeled ‘God’, chew on that – is someone who went on a public rampage and murdered people because of his anger at his “involuntary celibacy”. In this world, creating more of these instances is not just an unfortunate potential consequence, it’s the goal.

The online conversation over the last few days about this event has not been pretty. This is a compilation of some of the types of responses that are being posted as a result of news reports about Minassian’s apparent motivation for his rampage:

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There is another project entirely involved in examining the ways in which a killer like this is construed as the victim deserving of sympathy, and how suggested solutions to the problem include “government provided sexual relief”, as though it’s a welfare service. On Twitter, I noted, in light of not only this event but any number of others, that toxic masculinity is the biggest threat to public safety in North America (I’ll concede the possibility of hyperbole and would be willing to entertain a few other contenders for the “biggest” label, but it’s easily in the top 3). Responses from people I’ve never talked to before included both mockery and questioning of my mental health and the claim that in fact, “intersectional feminism” was the biggest threat because of the degree of “cultural damage” that it does. This idea is also reflected above – “a guy can’t win”, this is the “male version” of #MeToo.

We desperately need to talk about toxic masculinity, and I think examining the linguistic and social practices of so-called incels and other “manosphere” webspaces are vital aspects of this conversation. We also need to consider the ways in which non-group members take stances and position themselves in relation to these stories – who is construed as the victim, what solutions are advocated, whose voices are amplified and given authority in relation to these questions. I love that anthropology classes are giving my students some of the tools they need to think through these issues, but I hate that they are so tragically relevant.

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One thought on “Recognizing the Language of Toxic Masculinity

  1. Pingback: Language links 4/30 | Everyday linguistic anthropology

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