Why did Alek Minassian allegedly climb into a van on Monday and kill ten people in Toronto? It goes without saying that each and every crime like this is determined by a number of factors. The one silver lining in all this is that since the alleged killer was arrested, we may have an opportunity to understand what led to Monday’s horrific events.
In the interim, all we have so far is reports that it appears Minassian is a high-functioning autistic man who made a Facebook post in the minutes before the killing invoking misogynist murderer Elliot Rodger and announcing the inauguration of the “incel rebellion.”
For those uninitiated into the heart of darkness called Extremely Online, incels or “involuntary celibates” are a group of sad men so upset at their lack of sexual activity that they fantasize about raping, murdering, and otherwise brutalizing all women as a kind of guerilla anti-feminist warfare. They first came to media prominence in 2014 after Rodger killed six people in California and issuing a 100+ page “manifesto” where he crudely turned his personal history of social and sexual frustration into a political crusade against all sex-havers.
(For anyone looking to get a taste of this particular rabbit hole, journalist Arshy Mann has compiled an excellent primer on Twitter.)
Every explosion of masculine violence is a different symptom of the same underlying social disease. It has very deep roots, especially in this country—the Montreal Massacre, where 14 women were murdered, happened long before Marc Lepine could post anywhere on the “manosphere.” But now death cults fitting every type of broken manchild flourish on the internet like weeds in the wake of a wildfire, or the slimy tendrils of some ancient underground fungus creeping up to consume the dead and dying.
Misogyny seems to be the fontspring closest to the poison well this violence draws on. But all these toxic streams—white nationalism, fundamentalist religion, gun fetishism, whatever—do the same work: they link masculinity and power with anger and violence in a way that promises an illusion of mastery and control to men who feel they have none.
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There are some illuminating comparisons you can make with the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec City mosque shooter. His crime too was overdetermined—court documents describe a young man losing himself to alcoholism who initially considered shooting up a mall—but nonetheless a clear expression of the conspiratorial Islamophobia Bissonnette was quaffing from far-right Twitter.
I am not here to make the case that there is a new crisis in masculinity, or that we need to take special focus on redeeming our Millennial “lost boys”—the losers of a changing social hierarchy who posted once on 4chan as teenagers and turned into neo-Nazis as adults. It is more worthwhile to think about this as a problem of nihilism. The incel case is a good example.
The committed incel is one who believes that the sexual (and thus social) world is determined by rigid genetic and biological hierarchies. The common understanding is that incel anger grows out of their perception that they do not receive the sexual gratification they are entitled to by virtue of their place on the social pyramid, largely because feminism and the sexual revolution and multiculturalism and cultural Marxism and blah blah have encouraged women and minorities to usurp the natural order of things. (Elliot Rodger’s manifesto is primarily misogynist but it also shows a preoccupation with the impropriety of race-mixing, something which aggrieved the mixed-race shooter to no end.)
This social corruption must be resisted and overturned (e.g. Men’s Rights Activists, other garden-variety sexists, etc.) or its gynocratic social-sexual system otherwise completely abandoned by self-actualized hermits (e.g. Men Going Their Own Way). It goes without saying that this fixation on disruptive feminine Chaos and the restoration of manly Order is also the root of why so many sad men get aggressively into ur-stepdad Jordan Peterson.
But there are others who recognize that this social-sexual hierarchy is determining and immutable, and they recognize themselves on its lower tiers because of some perceived psychological or physical defect. This is the really terrifying nihilistic turn: to find yourself in a violent and cruel fantasyworld that casts you as the rightful subhuman, to see the full terrible truth of the universe laid out before you that tells you you’re born only to lose. Nothing matters except sex and love and you will never have it. The world is too corrupt. This becomes a true contempt not only for all women but also all the men who sleep with them—the Chads and Staceys from the popular table in high school you could never sit at, now transformed into metaphysical social units that walk the streets and mock you with their very existence. You can see how this would be the last stop before the end of a very dark road, especially if healthy emotional expression is constrained by other underlying psychological issues and/or the gendered psychic prison you have constructed for yourself.
Nihilism is contagious in the 21st century. We live under the shadow of ecological doom and the violent shuddering of an openly larcenous economy. Trust in traditional political and social institutions have been corroded by nearly 20 years of imperial overextension in increasingly meaningless and interminable wars both real and discursive. Hundreds of millions of post-literate citizens are drowning in the ubiquitous uncritical flood of information called the internet. If you’re so predisposed, it is very easy to convince yourself that everything is falling the fuck apart and that nothing matters, and an increasing number of failsons in the developed world respond to these stressors by coupling their suicidal ideation to an explosion of mass violence.
Anti-feminist killers like Rodgers or Minassian or Lepine would style themselves as guerrilla counterrevolutionaries in the sexual revolution that has been ongoing and periodically intensifying for more than the last half century. It is worth noting that the two biggest massacres in the last 40 years of Canadian history have been explicitly misogynist attacks.
Toxic masculinity is a security issue. Not only in the event of misogynist terrorism, but nearly all idiosyncratic outbursts of violence. “Deradicalization” efforts need to see the root beneath each individual subcultural bush. The teenagers who flew to Syria to found a Caliphate of murder and sexual slavery, the boys who stormed Columbine Highschool, the man who slammed his car into protestors at Charlottesville, the hundreds of other men who are convinced the only way they’ll ever feel justified and alive is to break the lives of others—these bitter fruits all grow from the same seed.
Some men are raised to be as hard and rigid as the phalluses they dubiously worship. When confronted by the inevitable emotional challenges entailed by living in the world with others, they can only break, not bend.
Alek Minassian’s alleged murders were overdetermined. What is at the heart of his particular brokenness? Maybe he will tell us; maybe the keys to that puzzle are buried somewhere in the ruins of his unconscious. Maybe it really simply is that a man struggling with his mental health fell down a bad internet rabbit hole one day and it completely warped his brain. More likely there is no single, straightforward answer to explain the processes that caused someone to hate women and himself so much that he turned to mass murder.
We may or may not crack Minassian’s code. But here’s the thing. For every grand spectacle of violent death, there are many more men - sexually frustrated, emotionally stunted, bitter, brooding, isolated, invisible - who carry around an inexpressible anger in their hearts, unknown to all except their own dark digital cabal.
Unless we start taking toxic masculinity seriously as a social policy problem, things will get worse before they get better.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.