Male inadequacy and virtual mirages of aggression: Guy Gunaratne on terrorism, incels and the performance of violent masculinity


A few months ago I found myself clicking through reams of news articles on Alek Minassian. He was the man who killed ten people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto. Minassian pledged allegiance to a group calling themselves ‘incels’, a term that stands for ‘involuntarily celibate’. He had called for an ‘Incel Rebellion’ in a Facebook post in which he made reference to Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic killer who murdered six people in 2014 as an act of ‘retribution’ against women. According to an expert at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague, Minassian’s post situated the van-attack ‘as extremist and terrorist in nature.’

The incel subculture was borne out of sites like 4chan and where communities are encouraged to practice cruelty. Much of it sounds surreal. Within these forums attractive young men are referred to as ‘Chads’ and unattainable women are often called ‘Stacys’. Incels themselves self-identify as ‘beta-males’ and declare an inability to convince women to have sex with them. For men such as Minassian, however, these shrill proclamations reflect a painful truth: an apparent sexual and social entitlement that fails to live up to reality. In the words of David Futrelle, a long time blogger on the subject, what makes the incel subculture so dangerous is that ‘it takes the bitterness and sadness we sometimes feel when faced with sexual and romantic frustrations and turns this misery into a mode of being.’

The spectacle of mass violence is often reported within ideological contexts: race, religion, political allegiance. Occasionally, and most often when the assailant is a white male, violence is positioned as a consequence of mental illness. Recently I have begun to wonder to what extent we also conceal a more mundane reality when we assign ideological narratives to these men: that of cowardice or an inability to confront male inadequacy. Minassian’s male ideal was one that could only be matched by mass violence. This in itself deserves our attention.

Since most atrocities, irrespective of ideological foundation, are perpetrated by men, could we not partly attribute mass violence to gender?  If we do, we might also discover how pervasive these images of violent masculinity can be.

When we look at the face of Minassian what do we see? I can’t help but think of a series of images, faces of young men who have, over the course of the last few years, committed one atrocity after another. Blurry footage of high-schoolers stalking empty corridors carrying rifles, the haunted masks of young jihadi militants recording anti-Western pronouncements with their cell phones. I think about the proliferation of these images, the way they spread outward onto news cycles and social media streams. How must these images of male rampage feed into myths of entitlement, ready to aggravate and embolden other men into joining them? How do these images intermingle with representations of male desire and self-hatred?

John Berger once suggested that technological innovation ‘made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages. Refractions not of light but of appetite.’ I think about how these virtual mirages of male aggression first reached men like Minassian. His male ideals were hyper-masculine avatars, a refraction of masculinity that could only be seen to be complete when participating in violence. These representations within our societal mirrors are worth considering.

Pornography could be seen as one such social mirror. One in which, I’d suggest, members of incel communities would find something familiar. Rebecca Solnit notes that much of mainstream porn has more to do with what she calls “the homoerotics of masculine triumph, like a sport in which the excitement is that women are endlessly defeated”. The perversion of masculinity into a manifestation of hate is clear in the context of sexual violence. Solnit describes rape as “hate and fury taking the place of love between bodies. It’s the vision of the male body as a weapon and the female body (in heterosexual rape) as the enemy.”  

If the defeat, or, more emphatically, the punishment of women drives part of a toxic narrative which feeds into the kind of male identity with which Minassian and his incel movement align themselves, could we then assume that the performance of violent masculinity forms part of the basis for other examples of mass violence?

I think about the supposed Islamist fanaticism of the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, Omar Mateen the Florida nightclub shooter, or Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who in 2016, drove his truck into a crowd in Nice. I think about the white supremacist attacks of Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 in 2011 and Thomas Mair, who murdered female British MP Jo Cox in 2016, while shouting ‘This is for Britain.’ For the most part, violent extremists are male and socially isolated. They often adopt political grievance only shortly before planning their attacks.

Long before acting upon them, however, many have shown a history of domestic abuse and violent misogyny.

It’s easy to regard their attacks as moments of ecstatic gratification. Their bodies are weaponised and transformed, sometimes quite literally in order to carry out suicide bombings, or via extension through vehicles or firearms. Their ideal refractions are manifested in these cases, their self-images turned into illusions of power. It’s both a cry and a howl, pathetic and performative, that is then instantly validated by our own need for spectacle.

Pierre Mabille, a surrealist writer, once suggested that the construction of these distorted mirror-selves have a long history of psychological significance. As an example, he wrote about mirrors and how they were used in brothels during the Baroque period. Clients would be ushered into rooms with mirrored walls where they could act out their fantasies. Above all, Mabille suggests, was the fantasy of creating their own self-image. ‘In the spectacle which unfolds, the real personality of women matters less than the role she consents to fill. Acting or not, the client is a spectator for whom the mirror is necessary.’ For men like Minassian, Mateen or Breivik, mass murder is an exhibition, above all, satisfying a male desperation to be seen.

Guy Gunaratne lives between London, UK and Malmö, Sweden. His first novel In Our Mad and Furious City was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018 and shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize and The Gordon Burn Prize 2018. He has worked as a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering human rights stories around the world.