Montreal, Canada –Canada’s largest city was left reeling last week after the driver of a rental van jumped the curb on a busy street and purposely mowed down pedestrians.
The attack on Yonge Street in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood on April 23 left 10 people dead and 16 others wounded.
The accused driver, Alek Minassian, was arrested the same day after unsuccessfully trying to goad a Toronto police officer into shooting him dead. He has since been charged with 10 counts of murder.
While police say it’s still too early to say what exactly motivated Minassian’s alleged actions, the 25-year-old appeared to outline his reasoning in a Facebook post published moments before the attack.
In the post, which Facebook has since confirmed is real, he mentioned “incels”, or involuntary celibates, a term used to describe men who espouse a deep hatred of women, whom they believe have unfairly rejected them.
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The attack and its alleged incel connection have prompted a discussion in Canadian media and on social media networks about the link between misogyny and acts of violence – and how ignoring the former can have deadly consequences.
“Canada is dominated by headlines right now questioning, well, is it misogyny? Are these incel groups on the internet a threat to women’s safety? Should we take them seriously?” said Julie Lalonde, a Canadian feminist activist, writer and educator.
Some Canadian columnists have pointed to other reasons that could explain the Toronto attack, from the suspect’s alleged mental health issues, to “antisocial personality disorder ” or it being the actions of ” just a sad loser“.
However, to ignore the misogyny behind the act of violence – as well as longstanding calls from women in Canada to take misogyny and online threats from men more seriously – is “a form of collective gas-lighting”, Lalonde told Al Jazeera.
“To have that be dismissed [as being] losers on the internet who are never going to do anything, you’re exaggerating, you’re being dramatic… It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m equal parts devastated and exhausted,” she said.
Who are incels?
Operating largely online and under a cloak of anonymity, incels espouse virulent hatred of women, whom they accuse of shunning them and denying them the sexual gratification and romantic relationships they believe they are intrinsically owed.
On websites and message boards, members of the group use a specific lexicon to condemn the women who have rejected them (“Stacys”), and the attractive men who date and have sex with women (“Chads”).
“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” Minassian’s Facebook post read.
“We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentlemen Elliot Rodger!”
Rodger, 22, went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, killing six people and injuring more than a dozen others before eventually killing himself.
In a written manifesto that came out after his attack, Rodger described moments of blind rage against the women who “despise and loathe” him and whose rejection caused him to remain a virgin.
“All those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy … I will kill them all and make them suffer, just as they have made me suffer. It is only fair,” he wrote.
Rodger is hailed as a hero by many in the incel movement.
Following the attack in Toronto, some anonymous users of an online forum for members of the group also praised Minassian for following in Rodger’s footsteps.
“This is the greatest thing to happen to Incels since ER [Elliot Rodger],” read one post on the website, Incel.me. “All hail St Alek the C—T-CRUSHER!!!!”
“I blame society for treating low status men like garbage. There will always be more rampages because of the way society treats us,” said another post by someone with the username “lonelyistheworld”.
“The blood is on the hands of feminists and ‘women’ who created this culture,” read another post.
Aaron Sankin, a reporter at Reveal and co-author of the Hate Report, a newsletter on hate-based violence and threats, said some members of the group have tried to disassociate themselves from the Toronto attack.
“In a lot of ways, these communities have circled the wagon against all this public attention linking them with this act of violence,” he told Al Jazeera. “But at the end of the day, you have the evidence that there was someone who did commit this and he explicitly called out this ideology.”
Promoting their specific ideology is one of the group’s central goals, he added.
“There is like ‘red-pill’ terminology, saying ‘Hey, here’s this thing and we’re going to try to make you understand and convert you to this worldview,'” Sankin said.
Ties to far-right
Incels fall within the wider men’s rights movement, sometimes also referred to online as the Manosphere. This ranges from trolling prominent feminists on social media, to advocating for rape or other forms of violence on online message boards.
So-called pick-up artists – who teach men ways to coerce women into having sex with them – also figure within this wider group, explained Ryan Lenz, a spokesman and senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Roosh V, a prominent leader of this sub-group, tweeted that Minassian would not have attacked people in Toronto “if the media had not inoculated him and other lonely men” against “teachers” like himself.
“Sleeping with only two or three Toronto Tinder sluts would have been enough to stop his urge to kill,” he wrote.
Earlier this year, the SPLC added male supremacist groups to its list of hate groups after judging they had risen to a “level of danger and concern”, Lenz said.
“To dismiss this violence [in Toronto] as basically just the act of some delusional individual is I think to undercut just how problematic and dangerous the rise of this incel movement has become.”
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Lenz told Al Jazeera male supremacist groups are also “operating in tangent”, or at least informing other hate groups, especially those on the far-right.
A Voice For Men, a website founded by Paul Elam that says it works to “reject the unhealthy demands of gynocentrism”, and Return of Kings, a self-described “blog for heterosexual, masculine men”, are on the SPLC list of male supremacist hate groups.
On its website, Return of Kings says it “aims to usher the return of the masculine man” in a society that “allows women to assert superiority and control over men”.
A hate group is defined as any organisation that vilifies an entire group of people based on something they can’t change, Lenz explained, “so by all measures, the men’s rights groups fit that mould”.
Specifically, incels blame all of womanhood for their inability to have relationships with women, he said.
“It’s no longer a matter of John upset with Jane because Jane won’t give him a date. It’s John upset with every woman in the world because Jane won’t give him a date.”
Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and an expert on hate crimes and far-right movements in Canada, said male supremacists must be viewed as part of an increasingly emboldened right-wing movement.
“Right-wing extremism has always embedded not just racism and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but a strong thread of misogyny and anti-feminist sentiment in particular,” Perry told Al Jazeera.
“Gender has always been a very important part of the movement.”
She said just as the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque last year pushed people to look into Islamophobic rhetoric in far-right movements, the Toronto attack could do the same for their misogynistic views.
“Perhaps this will serve the same notice … and reinforce the broader questions about the extensiveness and intensiveness of harassment and violence against women,” Perry said.
‘So clear-cut, so obvious’
For her part, Lalonde told Al Jazeera the discussions after the Toronto attack are reminiscent of what happened after a deadly shooting at an engineering school in Montreal in 1989.
The Polytechnique Massacre, as the event has become known, was carried out by a man who blamed women and feminism for his problems. He specifically targeted female students and shot and killed 14 young women.
While it’s now accepted that the shooter was motivated by a hatred of women, that wasn’t immediately the case, Lalone explained, and “it took years for people to accept that it was not just some lone loser, lone wolf, kind of situation”.
Having the same conversations almost 30 years later in the aftermath of the Toronto attack is exhausting, she said.
“You have an example [in Toronto] that’s so clear-cut, so obvious, and we’re still not accepting the truth in this case. I just feels like,” Lalonde said, her voice trailing off.
“It’s crazy making.”