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No, Liz Bruenig, incels aren’t incels because of “a lack of opportunities for heroism”

Captain Hero from Comedy Central’s Drawn Together

By David Futrelle

Yesterday, Washington Post writer and putative progressive Liz Bruenig tweeted out a few thoughts about the Joker movie and “the lonely, disaffected” men and boys who identify the most with the movie’s antihero.

And she offered these sad men — that is, incels and others of their ilk — far more sympathy than they deserve. While critics (of the film and of incels) “assume he issue is aggrieved fury resulting from frustrated entitlement — e.g., “tfw no gf,” no automatic status or power,” she argues instead that these boys and men suffer instead from a society that thwarts their desire to be heroes.

but i tend to think the issue is actually a lack of opportunities for heroism. i think all people naturally want to be heroic; they do this in all kinds of ways, making personal sacrifices for others, maintaining difficult moral regimens, joining social/political movements.
for the lonely, isolated, downwardly-mobile male, the sense is that all the usual opportunities for heroism (supporting a family, achieving things for one's community, fighting in a meaningful conflict, etc) have been foreclosed by various material/cultural shifts

I responded to Bruenig on Twitter, but in retrospect I was too kind to an argument that is both fanciful and pernicious. To begin with the simplest and most obvious flaw in her argument: the notion that there are no opportunities for heroism in the world today is absurd. In this highly fraught moment in history — with the US and other democracies at risk of sliding headlong into outright fascism — there are more opportunities for heroism than there are people.

Consider those who risk their own lives taking on fascists in person or online; think of those who confront the horrors of ICE and the plague of police violence; remember those women who’ve stood up to report their assaults at the hands of powerful men. I could go on, and on, and on. Even those who lack the ability or the courage to put their bodies or their lives on the line to fight the backlash can offer support to those who do; that in itself is a small act of heroism.

The reason incels and so many other “lonely, isolated, downwardly-mobile male[s]” don’t become heroes isn’t because they lack opportunities; it’s because they don’t want to be heroes, except on their own twisted terms, taking “revenge” on the so-called normies they believe oppress them — if not through mass shootings than in acts of everyday terrorism.

Incels idolize misogynistic mass murderers Elliot Rodger and Marc Lepine; they also cheer on more modest terrorizers of women like this man:

I wrote about this remarkable Incels.is post when it first appeared; it’s been making the rounds on Twitter over the past few days. When I went back to check on the original thread, it had been deleted, but commenters on the site remember it (and its author) well, with one recent commenter declaring Classic_Jarvis a “low inhib” — that is, low-inhibition — “God.”

To any of those seduced by Bruenig’s argument: how many times do incels have to show you what they are before you believe them? Sites like Incels.co — and the recently banned Braincels subreddit — are as hateful and vicious as The Daily Stormer forums. In many ways they’re worse, at least in their open glorification of violence.

I understand that, in the abstract, it’s hard not to feel a little natural sympathy for the “lonely [and] disaffected” of whatever gender. But incels and others with similarly hateful ideologies have disqualified themselves from this sort of blanket sympathy with their hatred of women and “normies” in general, just as neo-Nazis have with their hatred of Jews and indeed most of humanity. Hate groups are hate groups.

Bruenig does acknowledge, in a later tweet, that “all kinds of horrible things arise from frustrated attempts at heroism” — which is putting it mildly — but then she goes on to say this is “a problem for society to solve, not the individual. i.e., the answer isn’t ‘get over it, loser’.”

And how exactly would society “solve” the problem of incels other than making mental health available to all who need it without cost? The path of actual heroism is as open to incels as it is to the rest of us; the incels have refused it. In her tweets, Bruenig offers no solutions herself, only a few vague (and not exactly inspiring) hints. Should we drive women from the workforce so that men can feel the heroism of “supporting a family?” Should we enter into some new war so that young men can fight in a “meaningful conflict?” Somehow I doubt that even Bruenig thinks either of these things would be a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the solutions that incels themselves demand for their supposed problems range from “enforced monogamy” and government-supplied girlfriends to the literal destruction of the entire human race, or at least the “normie” portion of it.

“Get over it” — we can drop the “loser” part — is in fact the only viable solution to the problems of the incels. They need to reject an ideology that destroys their own self-esteem even as it increases their hatred of others and encourages suspicion of mental health professionals who could offer them the only help that might make a difference.

Only those incels who’ve reached a place where they want to be helped can be helped. Committing to real self-transformation is difficult; rejecting the ideology of a community you’ve been a part of, and the community itself, can be wrenching. But it is also — dare I say it — an act of heroism.

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Alan Robertshaw
Alan Robertshaw
11 months ago

@ allandrel

You might want to ask your (ex) therapist if they’re familiar with the work of Karl Popper; and if not, suggest they get so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance

doombird
doombird
11 months ago

There’s a line between heroism and domination. What they have expressed that they want is domination: looking like the hero only to yourself, for your own gratification, at a cost to others.

As many have pointed out here, actually being a hero in a situation requires self-sacrifice and even self-subjugation, often without reward. It also requires a person to be what the situation most desperately needs. That requires things like discretion, adaptation, reading the room.

What they have expressed that they want is for the world to change to allow them to be the only answer to an engineered situation designed for them, with no self-examination or growth required, and that’s despicable.

As many have pointed out here, there are so, so many opportunities for people to step up. There are precious few opportunities for someone to step up and be guaranteed adulation or status, and I’m just as at a loss as to what those might be as the average incel.

Donna G.
Donna G.
11 months ago

@ Alan Robertshaw

And the Just World Fallacy.

Naglfar
Naglfar
11 months ago

@Allandrel
I’m so sorry about your therapist. Too often people try to equate opposing sides, either in political discourse or in situations like your therapist, and that’s really dangerous. This is how we get to people thinking that somehow antifa is as bad as white supremacist mass shooters, and it’s the kind of BS Republicans are using to justify their shit. You see it among all kinds of awful people sympathizers when they say things like “both sides suck” or “but the other side is just as bad.” Rarely is this true, and it’s not true now. Liberals are not trying to kill children in camps, or giving guns to Nazis, or destroying the planet. There is simply no equivalence.

Good luck in your search for a new therapist. Sorry this happened to you.

GrammarCommie
GrammarCommie
11 months ago

Ok, I’m just going to say it in the bluntest manner possible. Incels are mad because they can’t have sex slaves. That’s all there is to it.

Allandrel
Allandrel
11 months ago

Thanks to all for your words. I don’t know when I’ll have to spoons to go through the process of finding a new therapist – I’ve got a whole situation where following my state’s directives is resulting in them cutting the Medicaid that I need for dialysis, i.e. to Not Die, and that’s taking up all of my energy.

@GrammarCommie

I think the biggest proof of that is that incels do not regard engaging sex workers as “counting,” and those that do still consider themselves incels (or “escortcels”).

Why would that be? After all, they’re having sex, and presumably with women that they consider high enough on the “scale.”

Looking at the rest of what they write, the answer seems pretty clear: It “doesn’t count” because it is a trade negotiated with another person, who gets what she wants – and that means that the incel is not getting what he wants. Which their writing make clear is domination, not sex. Sex is just how they prove their domination.

So1
So1
11 months ago

Everyone talking about domination hit the nail on the head. It’s like Marcus Aurelius said. “Of each thing, ask: what is it in and of itself, what is its nature?”

It has nothing to do with society’s problems and everything to do with their instincts. Ignore the noises that come out of their mouths and watch for what impulses they’re driven by and what appetites they’re satisfying.

Similarly, I doubt it’s about any kind of sympathy on Bruenig’s end. She’s simply acting on the assumption that violent males are better at securing resources and trying to cozy up to them because she’s part of a culture that disincentivizes critical thinking and is thus blindly following prehistoric instincts as her brain’s speech centers tack on post-hoc justifications.

What people like us need to internalize is that the right are literally animals. They’re creatures following very simple and direct impulses to secure resources and harm potential competitors and other obstacles toward those resources. Speech is not a means of expression for them but a form of camouflage or distraction.

Think of it like a chameleon. A chameleon’s body serves only to hide its tongue until it can lash out at its prey. In the rightist the reverse is true.

Allandrel
Allandrel
11 months ago

It has nothing to do with society’s problems and everything to do with their instincts. Ignore the noises that come out of their mouths and watch for what impulses they’re driven by and what appetites they’re satisfying.

This is something I have trouble getting people to do with a lot of things. There’s this weird insistence on taking awful people on their word about why they are doing terrible things, regardless of inconsistencies, rather than looking at the consistencies in what they are doing and determining their real motives from that.

If someone keeps saying “I’m doing X to help people,” and X does not help people… look at what X actually does. That’s why they’re doing it.

An Impish Pepper
An Impish Pepper
11 months ago

There’s something I kind of agree with on that, but also I’m not a fan of the dehumanization of the other side going on. We’re all animals driven by instinct, not just conservatives. This isn’t meant in a “both sides are bad” kind of way, but dehumanization is a tried and true tactic for authoritarian justifications for gratuitously violent rhetoric and action. It’s the classic argument of “they’re savages and we’re civilized, so it is our right, no, our duty, to subjugate them.” I mean we’re talking about a “progressive” writer here, and leftists with similar regressive views have been featured on this blog before.

coke one
coke one
11 months ago

taking out two tweets from a whole (deleted) thread is pretty low. probably because it was a much more nuanced discussion in context, and you’re brain poisoned from Twitter into hating that goody two shoes catholic cool girl Liz Bruenig and don’t realize how goofy this looks to people outside your group chats. but then you’ve been “fighting” the alt right as they grow more and more powerful, so i guess looking goofy is just your thing.

Lukehi
Lukehi
11 months ago

Man this post really bummed me out.

I remember reading this blog just a couple years ago and having fun with it and thinking this was the “smart” side. This post just showed me how much of a dork I was and you are being, You really going to do a whole post over someone thinking out loud “hey I think x unexplained phenomenon in current society is because of y” and go all “the first *flaw* in her *argument* is _____”.

Like when did we become the dorks? Have we always been the dorks and I’m just opening my eyes now? Why are being little nasty dorks about such a dumb thing, “I don’t agree that’s the problem” okay cool awesome wrap it up we’re done.’

Man again such an utter bummer…

Krasnaya Koshka
Krasnaya Koshka
11 months ago

I’m always many days late. I have lag in my country that I can’t help.

@Kat, ambassador of the feminist government in exile

I could go down the rabbit hole of feeling very, very sorry for them. But I have to look after myself instead. It’s them or me. I choose me.

Exactly. I felt sorry for too many years. I chose me.

@Victorious Parasol

Giving sympathy is like being a lifeguard. In the lifeguard training I had years ago, the first rule hammered into our heads was “Don’t go out unless you’re sure YOU can come back.” One funeral is bad enough; don’t make it two.

I had the same hammered into my head when I was a lifeguard.

@Alan Robertshaw

Re: BoJo’s dad. I have the same thing in my family in a much smaller scale. My mom (who raised all of us) is and has always been a liberal Democrat (U.S.) and her son, my brother, is a Right Winger. He is the only white son in our extended family so that makes sense?

Dennis Prescott
Dennis Prescott
11 months ago

Must be exhausting to create such an elaborate straw man.