What Do Incels and Suicides Have In Common?

by Sherry F. Colb

The New York Times recently featured a very disturbing story. Some people have been operating a web site that encouraged suicidal visitors to the site to kill themselves, including giving them instructions about how to do it. A bereaved mother spoke about losing her teenage son to suicide and learning later that he had been one of the many people to visit the website in question. As her son died, other online visitors encouraged him to continue what he was doing if he wanted to be a successful rather than an attempted suicide. His audience had also suggested the method that he used, and it was common enough to be known by its initials (identified in the podcast accompanying the written story but which I choose not to repeat here).

The Times reporters, Megan Twohey and Gabriel J.X. Dance, wanted to find out who was running a site of this sort. Because of the hack of domain services company Epik, the names of the two (wait for it) males who were running the site were available, and the reporters found them. It turned out that they were also separately running a website for incels, those beloved young men who call themselves "involuntarily celibate" even though they voluntarily choose to hold out for the "hot women" who have no interest in them. Sometimes, because they believe they are entitled to have sex with women who do not return their feelings, incels commit acts of violence as "retribution." Alek Minassian allegedly murdered ten in Toronto, declaring "All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger," referring to another incel who killed six in a stabbing and shooting spree, stating earlier that he had aimed to kill "the kind of girls I've always desired but was never able to have."

If incels practiced what they preached, they would make themselves sexually available to less "hot" women finding the incels attractive. Because they are misogynists, however, they consider themselves "entitled" to women to whom they are attracted and do not shy away from rank hypocrisy. When one of my kids was a toddler, she used to object to not getting what she wanted by saying "that's not fair." We would explain why it was actually fair, and she would then shake her head and explain, "It's not fair TO ME." What is cute at age three is not as cute at age 25.

The first question that occurred to me when I learned about the two males running the websites was what these two kinds of websites might have in common (besides the fact that they are both reprehensible). As I thought about it, I realized that what unites the two types of websites has less to do with the people visiting the sites and more to do with the two males that ran them. In other words, incels are not similar to people contemplating suicide. People (and let's face it, males) who run websites telling men they are entitled to "hot women" who feel no attraction to the men share something in common with people who run websites telling visitors that they should kill themselves and giving them step-by-step instructions to reduce what we might call "barriers to entry" in the self-killing market.

Imagine that you are a male who enjoys manipulating people and pressuring them to do what you want them to do. You may not be especially interested in angry men having a tough time on the dating scene and identifying as incels or in people feeling suicidally depressed. But such people are often confused, upset, and unsure about what to do next. A manipulative narcissist (and what other kind is there?) sees an opportunity. What if I gathered together the people experiencing these aversive emotions and created the conditions favorable to acts of violence? People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a condition about which I have been avidly reading lately, love drama, and nothing is more dramatic than violence.

If you are unfortunate enough to have an NPD in your life, you know that NPDs like to say that they hate drama. And yet, if you examine your life before, during, and after the NPD's presence, you'll notice that drama follows him around. Inviting enraged and entitled men to one site and depressed and suffering people to another is likely to keep things dramatic for the NPD in perpetuity. The Times reporters suggest that the suicide site was responsible for many suicides, some of them by minors. And who knows what damage the incels have inflicted on the people in their lives? Their explosions of rage on the site might have been enough to satisfy the two males running it, but one might doubt that site visitors left the scene feeling relaxed and at peace with their lot. Getting together large numbers of males who (inaccurately) refer to themselves as involuntary celibates in search of "hot girls" seems like a recipe for entitlement and toxic drama.

Both websites are reprehensible but for very different reasons. The one that draws suicidal people is like the Crisis Pregnancy Centers that pretend they offer abortion services in order to divert women from actual clinics. Both settings reach out to people who need something very specific and then offer them something different that masquerades as the solution to their problems. Both, at best, waste a person's time when that person could have been pursuing assistance that would actually have addressed their crisis. And both typically lie to their visitors--by telling women that they have plenty of time to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy and by presenting suicide as the only way to make the excruciating suffering come to an end. And because the visitors are in crisis and are therefore suggestible, both suicide sites and crisis pregnancy centers unforgivably manipulate a person's trust. Incidentally, both institutions have no compunctions about using their techniques on minors.

An incels website is different. It reaches out to males who already have a rather skewed understanding of "fairness" and justice. They perhaps grew up hearing from their parents that they were the very greatest gift to humankind. Perhaps their parents showed up at school to complain about poor grades that the young prince certainly did not deserve. Many environmental factors contribute to the blossoming of an NPD, and the United States appears to have cultivated more than its share of this particular plant ("we're #1!"). The consensus, moreover, seems to be that NPDs very rarely stop being NPDs. What can happen, however, is that an NPD notices that other people are turned off by his selfishness, cruelty, and buffoonish belief that he is much smarter and more talented than he truly is. His ego is fragile, but that is partly because it is the mark of the NPD to need other people to affirm his distorted perception of himself as very special, perhaps"a stable genius." Because he so loves others' adoration, the refusal of people around him to fuel his narcissism can, at least, modify his behavior to make it a bit less toxic.

The two males running the two types of websites, of course, do the opposite of aversive conditioning for the NPD when they gather together many men just like him. Now instead of feeling--accurately--like he is pathological and must modify his conduct if he is to avoid being an outcast, he instead has a band of brothers, all of whom take on faith that he is like them in being entitled to the many things denied him, including the women of his dreams. Gathering the Bros together is a disservice to all of the women (and men) who are decent people that have the misfortunate of intersecting at work, on the train, or otherwise with one of the Bros. To see how this process might work, imagine a pedophile website (and not one that is "virtuous" either). Suddenly, molesting children comes to seem normal and acceptable rather than pathological and shameful. Ordinarily I would not want people to feel shame. There is too much shaming--slut-shaming, fat-shaming, etc. But shaming incels for believing that they are entitled to have sex with whichever women they want, no matter how unappealing the women find them, is all for the good. The website, instead of shaming them, encourages them and normalizes their misogynistic worldview.

What united the two kinds of websites and the males that ran them was an instrumental view of others. Instead of empathizing with people who are in pain and trying to help them find a constructive way to feel better, they utilized the people to make the "leaders" feel powerful. But exercising power over vulnerable people is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of weakness--weakness of character and weakness of personality. One of the (several) positive things that came out of the Epik hack in this case is the shame and disgrace that can now rightly attach to the two males responsible for the deaths of vulnerable people and for the victims of the incels who signed off the website imagining that their grandiosity was normative.