Sympathy for the ‘Incel’

A young man like Jack Peterson, a self-described ‘incel,’ seems not so much a product of toxic masculinity as a failure of masculinity itself.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

If you want to know why young men are broken, ask them.

There is a cultural crisis emboldening the misogyny and violence of the little-known “incel” movement (an abbreviation for the self-professed “involuntary celibate” community of men) and which has now been tied to three mass murders: Elliot Rodger, Chris Harper-Mercer and, this week, the alleged Toronto killer Alek Minassian, who is accused of killing 10 and injuring 15 people in one of the most horrific acts of mass violence in Canada in years.

One after another, media outlets are seeking to understand how this could happen while raising the question of how we got here. “The Internet is enabling a community of men who want to kill women,” read the headline in The Verge. Can the radicalization of incels be stopped?” asked the Globe and Mail. But one headline stood out, from The National Post: “What should we do about the ‘incels’? Maybe help them. Shouting about what horrible women-hating losers they are (which they may be) is not going to prevent one of them from murdering again.”

This, in particular, is the question I’m concerned with, and why I am attempting to find whatever empathy or compassion might be possible for the disconnected young men flocking to the movement and who might be at a crossroads. One young man stood out in the countless hours I spent listening to podcasts, videos and chat room conversations within the incel community which I have been following for months now: 19-year-old Jack Peterson, a socially awkward Chicagoan who after hours of interviews agreed to reveal his real identity for the first time to The Daily Beast.

To be clear, Peterson initially did not want to do any media regarding the group, particularly a profile on what the makings of an incel look like, but after considering my appeal that perhaps others might want to reach out if they could have a better understanding, he agreed.

Born “Kalerthon Demetro” in the suburbs of Chicago, Peterson (his mother’s last name) is a high-school dropout who lives with his single mother and whose father left when he was two years old. Peripherally involved in the online incel community for years, Peterson’s first reaction to the Toronto horror was to record a podcast specifically condemning violence and misogyny and underscoring that for the majority of participants, this is not their reality. For him and many like him, he says, the incel community is a means of supporting one another in a world when it sometimes feels like there is no one else.

To listen to the teenager speak, he does not seem psychopathic. He does not seem like he endorses psychopathy. On the contrary, he seems shy and awkward and lonely and angry. He laughs when other incels make dark jokes about killers, but he does not make them himself. He gets it. They are blowing off steam.

“Being an incel is not about violence or misogyny,” repeats Peterson, who is the only incel who has been on television doing interviews in recent days since the alleged Toronto killer pointed a finger at the incel movement in a cryptic post on Facebook confirmed earlier this week. “Yes, for some guys it is, but not for me. Not for many of us.”

The challenge in covering the incel movement is that in many cases the cherry-picked and sensationalist coverage reinforces these men’s persecution complexes and drives them further into a pit of rage-fueled nihilism. Attempting to find any kind of compassion is in no way to excuse or normalize the deranged among them. On the other hand, it is to see what options we have left in reaching them at all.

In the groundbreaking book Change or Die, author Alan Deutschman writes, “The sense of self is threatened by any major change in the deep-rooted patterns of how we think, feel, and act, even a tremendously positive change such as leaving behind a life of crime and addiction. A change in progress demands new explanations for a past that’s now cast in a darker light.”

Essentially, reaching someone entrenched within a near-fanatical belief system is often impossible because the ego will put up a fight to the death in order to not deal with the psychic pain of feeling that everything that has been done up until this point has been done wrong. But it is possible.

In Deutschman’s book, spanning extensive research on changing past negative behavior to future positive actions, one case study of a parole officer illuminates how he found the most success in reaching the seemingly unreachable. By realizing that the “real reason why people don’t change is demoralization—the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and power” he applied the theory that the most he could do “is to inspire a new sense of hope and power.” Indeed, this officer invited 14 of the most argumentative ex-convicts and spent 90-minute sessions “listening to them rather than telling them what to do.” The response was extraordinary. The parole officer recounted: “In one and a half hours they calmed down. They said, ‘These guys aren’t against us.’ Now they come back every week and say, ‘At least I’m being listened to.’ In the last year the difference has been huge. They want to make a change.”

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In speaking to Peterson on the phone, while a journalist is about as a far away from a parole officer as you can get, it’s amazing the difference that occurs when I listen to what he has to say about the reality of incel culture versus how he sees the media portraying its members.

In his view, as despicable and morally unfathomable as the psychopathic fringe is, the reality of the wider membership estimated in the tens of thousands of active members is far more complex.

The way Peterson tells it—and as is supported by his digital footprint of videos, podcasts and comments—for him and many others, to be an incel is to seek the camaraderie of a group of male peers who provide an outlet where, for once, they can honestly talk about the increasing fragmentation, disconnection, alienation and ostracization they feel in an always-online world in which, as far as they can see, they are not welcome or wanted.

Peterson compared the mischaracterization of incels to the xenophobic broad brush that takes a minority of radicalized Islamic suicide-bombers and uses it to condemn the vast majority of Muslims. Instead, he said, there is an acceptance that there is a vile minority who distorts the vision of the community—but that it is not his vision for the group.

Like many in the incel community, Peterson essentially grew up without a strong father figure.

His mother kicked his father out because, in Peterson’s words, “he used to beat the shit out of my mother and she got a restraining order.” His father was the same age that he is now when he got his 39-year-old mother pregnant, and he’s never met him, but they have spoken on the phone a few times.

“I don’t really have any feelings about him,” Peterson says. “He just kind of is.”

From an early age, Peterson felt a level of social anxiety that was bearable but distinct. His kindergarten teacher asked him why he did not play with the others. He said, “I don’t know how.”

Things started to change around the third or fourth grade. It was the first time the girls started making fun of him, he says, saying he was creepy and gross and weird.

“I didn’t understand it,” he says. “I was told either to ‘act like a man’ or that girls could do no wrong. And yet I was constantly told that men were the cruel, bad ones. None of it made any sense to me. I was just extremely shy. I didn’t talk to them, but the teasing was relentless and made me want to kill myself.”

In the seventh grade, Peterson transferred to three different middle schools all in one year as the bullying followed him everywhere. By the time he reached high school, he says, one young woman started taking photos of him and sharing them with other girls who openly laughed in his face about how ugly he was and why they did not want him near them. He did not finish his freshman year at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, but dropped out after the first semester. His mother never knew the extent of the bullying he experienced.

“I was just ashamed,” he says. “How do you talk about that?”

The profoundly formative pain of youthful bullying has been around forever. When a classmate taunts you and proclaims your worthlessness to all your peers, if you are a kid, the humiliation of such an experience doesn’t feel like it’s happening in a classroom—it can feel like a worldwide-televised death sentence.

Very few kids on the receiving end of the cruelty know how to deal with it—because of a lack of life experience that is just as undeveloped as their pubescent brains.

But for a kid growing up today, the tool of the Internet levels the game. No longer do you wonder, “Will anyone ever love me?” Now you can Google it, and find secret places and communities and bodies of knowledge that your parents don’t even know exist. This can be exciting, emboldening, a total game-changer.

“I remember the first time I found a site that even mentioned the word ‘incel,’ I was like, ‘Woah, these guys are outcasts, too,’” he says. “I kind of felt like, maybe I’m not alone.”

At the age of 11, Peterson visited 4chan for the first time, and he saw his rage and loneliness expressed as well as the impotence of such advice as “just get over it.” He didn’t know how to. He didn’t have anyone to ask. He just didn’t want any more ridicule.

“It was kind of crazy to see and read a lot of the stuff I did,” Peterson says. “But it was also the only place where other guys talked about some of the things I was experiencing. Feeling so alone and rejected by the people around you. I was extremely shy then, and still kind of am, but it makes you feel really fucked up to be told you’re a creepy loser by a pretty popular girl when you’re just sitting there, saying nothing, doing nothing, wishing you were invisible but instead being the quiet freak with the cystic acne all over his face.”

He also received an indoctrination into the culture of these young men who accepted him and what they found acceptable—and what he would need to as well if he were to finally fit in somewhere.

To understand the increasingly irony-rich language of the users, it’s essential to read Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies, which exquisitely captures the critical shift in online perspective and the “death of what remained of a mass culture sensibility” that happened at exactly the same time Peterson began actively engaging with it.

In her brilliant book documenting the culture wars of the extreme left and the extreme right in recent years, focusing on subcultures including 4chan and incels, Nagle describes the attitude rebellion on the site against the “sentimentality and absurd priorities of Western liberal performative politics and the online mass hysteria that often characterized it.”

Peterson is one of the best representations of exactly how these culture wars are shaping our young men’s identities.

When everything is ironic, nothing is. So they mock it. All of it.

“There’s this big hypocrisy in the fact that so many people who say they are all about human rights and empowerment think it’s actually funny when boys get mocked,” he says. “I never said a single misogynistic thing growing up. And I was punished. Just because I was weird. I couldn’t help it. I honestly wanted to die.”

On the contrary, the incel communities he found online seemed different.

“When I dropped out of high school, the one place I felt okay about stuff for a little while was when I was online,” Peterson tells me. “By the time I discovered the incel culture on Reddit, it felt like, ‘Okay, I’m not insane.’ I was reading all these other guys’ stories about how girls told them they were repulsive. I never identified with the misogyny, but I did identify with the rage at the hypocrisy of just how untouchable women were in society. No matter what, no matter what awful thing a woman did, it was always supposed to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s female empowerment.’ But when you have no friends and are getting bullied and humiliated by women constantly and are told to both ‘man up’ and renounce your masculinity… it’s like the one bright light you see is this community.”

By the time he was 16, Peterson finally met in person a young woman—four years older than him—with whom he had been chatting online since he was 12 years old. She did not know what he looked like for some time, and when he finally shared his picture, she told him that she didn’t find him attractive. He lost his virginity to her, after which he says she ridiculed his penis size and laughed at him. Later, she sent him copies of messages that she had sent on to other men she was cheating on him with where she explicitly described the sex acts she wanted done to her. (I’ve seen corroborating evidence of all of this.)

“I was literally cucked,” Peterson says. “That word doesn’t have any meaning anymore, but that’s what I was. I still wanted to see her though. She was the only girl who had ever expressed interest in me, even though she tore me down and told me how ugly I was. It was still better than nothing.”

According to Peterson, the relationship finally disintegrated when she began choking him and tried to go after him in her car. He ran to a nearby store to get help, and has the actual footage of the security cam showing him flailing against the glass window. The police came, and to cover for the girl, he said that he was suicidal. He spent three days in a mental institution because of it.

This was a turning point for Peterson.

He finally aligned himself fully as an incel. He was, in the words of Internet argot, “black-pilled.”

Anyone who has dabbled in understanding Internet lingo is likely familiar with the term “red-pilled” (inspired by the film The Matrix, where Neo is offered a “blue pill” where everything stays status quo or a “red pill” where the ugly truth is supposedly “exposed”). Adopted by men’s rights activists around 2004, to “get red-pilled” is to subscribe to the particular ideology that feminism is a cancer and men are the real victims. But what does it mean to get “black-pilled,” as many refer to this community’s belief system? It sounds as bleak as it is.

Essentially, the philosophy is that everything is broken and the answer lies in refusing to engage in a meaningful or constructive way with society. (The phrase “black pill” first appeared in 2012 on a blog called Omega Virgin Revolt.) A critical part of being black-pilled is recognizing, with zero sentimentality or euphemism or explaining away, that women do not like genetically inferior men. They now have infinite options in the form of men who are higher status (be it, economic, physical, or intellectual) because of the breakdown in societal monogamy and now high-status men can game apps and use hypergamy (or dating up) to their advantage. (Meaning, a less attractive woman will nowadays reject a less attractive male if she is suddenly able to have meaningless sex with a high status man, who can juggle multiple women. This leaves men who are not as good-looking in the dust.)

Incels theorize that once you are black-pilled, you are finally given the gift of brutally honest Darwinian truth that, essentially, the game is rigged, so why bother? With such entrenchment in the truth of the doctrine comes freedom. No longer do you have to run around in circles. You can accept the world for what it is and settle back into your status on the lower rungs.

If you are red-pilled, you might take this theory of female behavior to use it in manipulative pick-up strategies to try to game women into thinking you are higher status or to find the weakest prey.

If you are an incel and have never had a single successful romantic attempt or only disastrous ones, this type of theorizing provides that wonderful feeling of certainty that comes with confirmation bias and the emancipation from regret of knowing that nothing could have been done anyway. Which is why many incels describe being black-pilled as an “awakening” from humiliation. Like finally realizing that you have been the subject of a joke that everyone else has been in on the whole time.

For a young man like Peterson, spouting such beliefs, he seems not so much a product of toxic masculinity as a failure of masculinity itself.

No one is teaching these men how to be men. This doesn’t mean “men” in the sense of men’s rights activists, but a healthy, balanced (not extremist) definition which includes someone who treats women well but also treats himself well by not being afraid to think for himself with opinions that deviate from the loudest, most hateful elements in the community.

But isn’t the worst parts of the incel community hate speech? And shouldn’t such hate speech be eradicated?

In Nadine Strossen’s timely new book Hate, she makes the case for countering bad speech with more speech, and illustrates how in countries where hate speech speech laws have been enacted, support for racist and xenophobic politicians has risen. In Europe, hate speech laws have in fact been used as a means of stifling dissent amongst the disenfranchised.

“Equal justice for all depends on full freedom of speech for all,” she writes.

Not only that, but as Keith Whittington argues in his new book Speak Freely, offensive speech is crucial to safeguard “because of its utility in generating, testing, and communicating ideas.”

One of the most brilliant defenses of the subject is Jonathan Rauch’s 2013 essay, “The Case for Hate Speech” in The Atlantic, where he thanks the loudest and most noxious voices he faced along the way in his fight for gay marriage. “[W]e won in the realm of ideas,” he writes. “And our antagonists--people who spouted speech we believed was deeply offensive, from Anita Bryant to Jerry Falwell to, yes, Orson Scott Card--helped us win.”

For the incel community, of course, many of the ideas espoused are in defense of their identity as the losers of society, which frees them of the need to take personal responsibility.

“I think that’s a valid criticism,” Peterson says. “I get sick of the guys who seem like they just want to keep others down no matter what. It’s almost like you are scorned when you experience a little bit of success.”

The podcast Peterson recorded after the Toronto attack represents the incel community as not seeming as extreme as a cursory visit to the incel-tracking site We Hunted the Mammoth or the incel-mocking community Incel Tears might lead you to believe. On these sites, in the community’s most chilling screengrabs, posts include suggestions that in order to truly terrorize the women who have rejected incels over the years, perhaps mass acid attacks and rapes could be coordinated in order to inflict the same damage upon women that these young men feel has happened to them.

In contrast, Peterson’s podcast discussion contains an unusual degree of literacy about sociological phenomena, including the Japanese trend of hikikomori, or isolationism and utter retreat occurring with young men, which many incels predict will spread around the world in due time.

But at its core, it is still a conversation littered with misogyny and resentment.

At one point, someone says that women use men like “emotional tampons.” Another brings up the possibility of mandated girlfriends (or state-sanctioned rape, as shown on the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale). A joke is made that the “best-case scenario” is when incels “go ER” (or Elliot Rodger). There is discussion about the “evolutionary benefits” of sexual violence, which harkens Rodger’s infamously deranged advocacy of a program where men could kill all women because if women were able to choose their own mates, their inferior brains would “devolve humanity completely.” Someone laughs about the idea of blackmailing women into having sex with them by threatening to post nude photos online. Peterson himself brings up the idea of access to assisted suicide for incels to prevent future attacks, and he suggests that talking to those who wonder about incel culture might help with “improving our image, especially if you attach a face to the incel phenomenon, I think that that makes it more sympathetic.”

Peterson clarifies to me: He was not suggesting it be him.

“I meant someone else, but then it turned out, I guess I was the only person dumb enough to show my face in videos I made online,” he says. “So here we are.”

When I ask him about the references in the podcast to Rodger, he responds, “That guy was fucking nuts. I don’t really joke about ‘going ER,’ but I don’t tell the guys who make those jokes not to do it because I know they’re being sarcastic. All this shocking stuff is often just the guys trolling. I would argue that I don’t think anybody is going to be stupid enough to believe that sanctioned rape is being talked about as an actual suggestion. Sometimes the most ridiculous shit makes me laugh, even though I don’t condone it. So if I do laugh at some of this stuff it’s probably me laughing at something because it’s fucking stupid.”

The psychopaths are the problem, not the incels, he says.

“If someone is going to carry out an attack like this they’re gonna have to be severely mentally ill to be capable of that,” he says. “Making jokes or being active in the incel community doesn’t cause it. Being mentally ill does.”

But what about when jokes aren’t just jokes?

I mention how last year when the Nazi website The Daily Stormer’s guidebook was leaked online, it contained the message: “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.” So what about when such humor is actually a means of subversive propaganda?

“I can see that,” Peterson acknowledges. “I mean, I’ve had guys tell me some really fucked-up shit, and I’ve told them, you know, get some help because I don’t want you to hurt anyone. But I do think that making dark jokes for people who aren’t mentally ill helps keep a lot of us from going crazy.”

And how exactly does he feel about the disparagement of women in saying that they use men as “emotional tampons”? “Men do the same fucking thing,” Peterson says. “That’s not a one-sided thing. Men can use women emotionally, too.”

And what of the suicide idea?

“What it really comes down to is that I’d rather these mass shooters and attackers just kill themselves than kill 10 or more innocent people. So maybe if it was easier to commit suicide we’d see less of these attacks. I’m not condoning suicide but I prefer that to innocent people dying.”

On the incels.me forum, a stated list of rules for participation include guidelines that are stricter than most elite private clubs in America.

No women allowed. No exception.

Yes, this means that a forum dedicated to decrying success with women has as one of its primary rules a focus on enforced isolation. Other rules also brutally shut out any chance to provide advice or mentorship to other young men.

A few months ago, when Peterson was using the forum, he suddenly found that he was banned from having certain privileges in the chatrooms. Even the incels, it seemed, were rejecting him.

In response, he filmed and put on his YouTube one of the most astonishing, hyper-granular deconstructions of modern Internet life I’ve ever seen.

It is bizarro land for anyone not deep in the world of Internet language.

To create the video, he spent three days nonstop (two days spent up for 24 hours straight in between passing out) to create a meticulous 30-minute PowerPoint video that he filmed objecting to the ban and making his case that he in fact was a genuine incel using a barrage of evidence and minutiae and dictionary definitions and failures of logic to try to break down the bullying he felt he experienced on the forum.

And, if you want to get brutal about the absurdity of the exercise (and the insanity such subcultures can create amongst its members), to prove exactly why he was just as reprehensible to society as the rest of the incels.

“It was pretty ridiculous,” he says in retrospect. It’s like American Vandal, Netflix’s mockumentary on super-deep-dive crime docs, except with the heartbreaking element of seeing how brainwashed a young man is into trying to obtain peer approval.

At one point in the video, he even includes a diagnosis that he is “paranoid schizophrenic” as evidence that he ought to qualify as an incel because of this mental illness. The reality is that after he was given that diagnosis, another psychologist said he was not. Instead, the doctor told him (and is evidenced in the video), he was making himself sick with his own thoughts.

All of this humiliation is laid out for his fellow community of incels to see—and all of it to get back into good standing in the incel community. That’s how bad isolated young men want status and the reassurance of having a community to call their own. Even when the group identity is in how perversely low and entrenched their status really is.

Is it any wonder that these boys need a father figure?

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson (no relation to Jack) has been known to be moved to tears in interviews when discussing the crisis of alienation he sees amongst young men today and the need to provide them with tools that will reach them.

As he told Tim Lott of The Spectator late last year about his 90 percent male audience, “I’m telling them something they desperately need to hear—that there are important things that need to be fixed up. I’m saying, ‘You guys really need to get your act together and you need to bear some responsibility and grow the hell up.’ The lack of an identifiable and compelling path forward and the denialism these kids are being fed on a daily basis is undoubtedly destroying them and that is especially true of the young men.”

Lott then observes the author of The 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos displaying a level of vulnerability on the subject that is striking.

“At this point, to my astonishment, Peterson begins to weep. He talks through his tears for the next several minutes. ‘Every time I talk about this, it breaks me up,’ he says. ‘The message I’ve been delivering is, ‘Find the heaviest weight you can and pick it up. And that will make you strong. You’re not who you could be. And who you could be is worthwhile.’”

As psychologist William Pollack articulates in the documentary The Mask You Live In about the “boy code” that warps masculinity from an early age: “The way that boys are brought up makes them hide all of their natural, vulnerable, empathic feelings behind a mask of masculinity… When they’re most in pain, they can’t reach out and ask for help because they’re not allowed to or they won’t be a real boy.”

In fact, boys express depression in a completely opposite way than girls. They act out. “But most people see it as a conduct disorder or just a bad kid.”

After the Parkland high school shooting in March, one of the foremost activists in trying to address the crisis of reaching out to troubled young men before they become killers met with President Donald Trump to say his piece. “Every single one of these school shootings has been from young men who are disconnected,” said Darrell Scott, the father of the first student murdered at Columbine High School almost 20 years ago. In response, he founded Rachel’s Challenge to intervene with action rather than yet another toothless spectacle of condemnation of the empirically condemnable violence itself.

In a tweet rant posted during this same time by Martin Daubney, the editor of the English lad magazine Loaded, he articulated a similarly jarring portrait of collective angst from young men who feel callously tossed aside and branded as innately wrong, which only serves to compound the sense of victimization even further.

“I’m mindful of a seminal TEDTalk by Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis,” Daubney wrote. “He looks at school shootings, and says: ‘Boys who hurt, hurt us’...They say today’s boys feel part of some grand problem. You could frame it as #ToxicMasculinity: the notion that all males are to blame for the actions of a minority of damaged individuals. This is identity politics at its most destructive. Because we live in a world where every male indiscretion is used to attack all males. I’m saying this: many boys are switching off. We’re losing them.”

How does an incel feel about all of this concern—extended within the realm of ideas and intellectualism?

It’d be nice, Jack Peterson says, if he just had someone else to talk to about it.

“I like Jordan Peterson a lot,” he admits in a tone that sounds more upbeat than the rest of our conversation. “I was going to go see him with another incel but that guy ended up not being able to go. But I bought a VIP ticket so I get to meet him next week.”

In the wake of the Toronto attack, Peterson is unique in that unlike many in the incel community who have scrubbed their social or taken down their Wordpress blogs that chronicled their life, he decided to see what happened when he went on TV to talk about his life in this widely reviled community now most associated with mass murder.

The decision to do so was gutsy. Especially considering the against-the-agenda talking points he is now presenting in condemning misogyny and violence.

The reaction he has received from other incels has been negative. And the public certainly doesn’t like anyone who might be an incel.

It’s an unwinnable place to be for someone who might still have a chance of climbing out of the twisted, self-fulfilling prophecy gutter that such dangerous places can become for young men who don’t think they have anywhere else to go.

But Peterson doesn’t regret doing the media and putting his face out there.

Instead, he speaks with an inverse of the perverted sadism of the Toronto attacker. It is a nihilism of potential that is in stark contrast to the nihilism of murderous revenge.

As he describes the decision, you can almost hear an epiphany clicking: When you don’t care… when you have nothing else to lose, it can be used for good or evil.

“I don’t know why I said yes to identifying myself as an incel,” he says, mulling it over. “I just felt like, you know… What do I have to lose?

Of course, within the incel community itself, the answer is clear.

He could very well lose his status as an incel.

They called him all the predictable names. He was a cuck. He was a status-seeker. He was an opportunist. He was a number of slurs that are not fit to print. But for an incel, the worst insult he received of all was that he was a fake.

And, this being incel-world, the name he was called was targeted and precise.

You see, for incels, each man within the community self-identifies with how they qualify for their incel status. For instance, “mentalcels” achieve their status as a result of mental illness. A “braincel” is that way because of intelligence. A “truecel” has never had sex, a relationship, any kind of success at all.

Thus Peterson was called a “fakecel.” No, Peterson says, that’s wrong. He definitely still is an incel. He is a part of the group. Where then does he now belong?

Peterson is quiet as he considers the answer.

“I think something where… I can help people,” he says. “I like talking about the positive stuff more, even if it’s frowned upon.”

He considers a while longer.

“I don’t know,” he considers, “maybe I’m a hopecel.”