Incel anger stems from social isolation

More sex won’t solve the problem.

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White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

A second mass murder by an incel—an involuntary celibate—has many of us wondering what the hell is going on. Not being able to get laid can be stressful. But to the point of mass murder?

We don’t know who incels are. Plenty of low income men and unattractive men have sex, so there’s got to be more to it. I’d venture these men lack social and emotional skills, resulting in social isolation.

Of course, only the smallest fraction of incels commit violence. Still, I question the assumption that these guys wouldn’t be violent if only they could get laid. Plenty of sexually active men are violent—even murderously so.

But we continue to debate the question of how to help these guys get laid. Opining for the New York Times, Ross Douthat acknowledges that a return to traditional values is unlikely. Like it or not, he thinks society instead will legalize prostitution and sexbots.

Douthat references George Mason University economist Robin Hanson’s “provocation: If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?”

The problem, of course, is obvious. Redistributing people isn’t the same as redistributing money.

Besides, lack of sex isn’t limited to heterosexual cisgender men. YouTuber Riley J. Dennis claims it’s discriminatory not to date transgender individuals. But would Dennis take incels’ claims of discrimination seriously?

The problem is the same: refusing to date someone isn’t discrimination in the same way that refusing someone a seat at a lunch counter is. Human beings are not public accommodations.

The primary issue—regardless of identity group—is that the rights of the individual are the foundation of universal human rights. Other people’s most intimate choices belong to no one except that individual. Every individual has right to say no—which can come in the form of not asking someone out, declining when asked out, or breaking up with someone. No amount of personal distress diminishes the responsibility to respect the rights of others, and to deal with rejection in a healthy way.

For a more rational perspective, Douthat quotes Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who asks, “Does Anyone Have the Right To Sex?” Srinivasan agrees that there’s no entitlement to sex, though she does think sexual desirability “is a political question.”

The feminist slogan that “the personal is political” is simplistic, however. Some things are just personal. If you want to have sex with someone you can’t sue them in court if they say no, nor will you be able to pass a non-discrimination dating law.

But this misses the point that unlike incels, transgender individuals are not out there committing mass murder. And as Molly Roberts at the Washington Post points out, “Treating incels in the same way as disabled people, transgender people and other marginalized demographics…is dangerous.” Incels, Roberts says, “are furious that the country has started to recognize women don’t owe sex to anyone who wants it.”

More than lack of sex, the incel problem in my view is social isolation. And men seem more vulnerable to social isolation than women do (though transgender individuals are more vulnerable still). Legalizing  prostitution—which should first and foremost focus on the rights and interests of sex workers—won’t decrease social isolation. And neither will sex robots.

At the same time, scolding men for “toxic masculinity” or “fragile masculinity” is backfiring. This doesn’t mean that a sense of entitlement isn’t a problem, but it’s not being approached in an emotionally intelligent way.

Instead we should be asking how we can best support men and boys. But feminism is of limited help men because framing men’s issues in terms of how women will benefit is problematic similar to the way it’s problematic to care about anyone because it may be beneficial to someone else.

Case in point: many more people die from suicide than from mass murder. And male suicides outnumber female suicides three to one. Yet, there’s little awareness of this problem. Would that be the case if the gender roles were reversed? This lack of concern is a deeper societal issue that’s related to the social isolation of men who crack.

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Is there a link between teen suicide, school shootings, & social media?

Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.

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© Dave DuBay

I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.

In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.

But what if there’s a link between boys who are at risk for suicide and boys who are more likely to commit a mass shooting? Dr. Kelly Posner of Columbia University’s suicide prevention program claims that over 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and almost a third say suicide is a motive for committing a mass shooting.

Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.

Still, almost two-thirds of teens who commit suicide come from fatherless homes. And Farrell and Gray state the perpetrator grew up without a father or with little father involvement in 26 of 27 American mass shooting where at least 8 people died. Some dispute this figure, however, citing difficulties with identifying and measuring father involvement.

What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.

And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:

Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.

The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.

The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.

Mass Shootings Are a Gender Issue: But What’s the Right Response?

It seems like mass shootings are becoming more common. I’ve written before about mass shooters being almost all male (though the claim that mass shooters are disproportionately white is false). Today I want to ask if the intersection of American culture and masculinity plays a role. After all, mass shooters are almost all male in other countries too, but most other countries (including Canada) don’t have the frequency of mass shootings that we find in the United States.

American culture has always been militaristic. The original colonists warred with America’s first nations over land, which culminated in the Wild West’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans. And The Atlantic notes that controlling slaves played a huge historical role in the development of America’s gun culture. Further, while opposed by most of the world, Americans over a decade ago were largely supportive of the offensive (“preemptive self-defense”) war in Iraq.

The predictable response to the most recent mass shooting in Oregon by conservatives is a call for more people to arm themselves. America’s honor culture, which accepts violent vigilante justice and distrusts the government to properly administer justice, is alive and well. It’s a common motif in Hollywood films.

Honor culture is particularly about masculinity. Writing for Patheos.com, Fred Clark notes the theory that when a person’s identity is questioned, that person is “likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.”

Toxic masculinity is a hot topic, but it lacks counterbalance due to the failure to also discuss positive masculinity. That’s why I wrote for insideMAN that masculinity has never been monolithic. Supportive and nonviolent forms of masculinity have always been with us.

Unlike honor culture, a culture of dignity doesn’t blame others for personal failings or take offense at small slights, but it does respect other people’s rights and boundaries while assertively and nonviolently defending one’s own rights and boundaries.

And dignity isn’t just a human trait. In my post about the myth of the lone wolf/alpha male, I noted that zoologists have found that “within the pack he [the male wolf] is most often cooperative.” Nor are wolf packs as male dominated as popular culture believes.

I concluded that the masculine qualities pop culture promotes should be more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk. Like it or not, pop culture defines our attitudes to a huge extent. I think the stories we tell ourselves need to reflect the distinction between honor culture and dignity culture, and counterbalance the destructiveness of honor culture with the positivity of dignity culture, and the implications for both on masculinity.

But there’s something else that stands out. On the CBS Evening News (15:57) on October 2, Dr. Kelly Posner (who founded Columbia University’s suicide prevention program) claimed that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. I haven’t fact checked that statistic, but it’s consistent with the fact that almost four out of five suicides are male.

The claim that the male suicide rate is far higher because men use more fatal methods (such as firearms) avoids the issue. It’s like saying men get more speeding tickets because they drive faster. Why do men drive faster? Why do men use more lethal suicide methods? If masculinity is why, then what is it about masculinity?

Though women attempt suicide more, this cry for help shows they want help rather than death. But men are much less likely to believe they’ll get help or even be listened to. (Men are listened to when talking about impersonal things like sports, but often not with personal and emotional issues.)

Expecting men to be more empathetic toward others is only half the equation. Society must also be more empathetic toward men. Yet, a casual glance at Internet comment sections shows that even women who support egalitarian gender roles are sometimes dismissive of men who express personal concerns, frequently referring to men as babies or suggesting (with zero sum reasoning) that women’s issues are more important so men shouldn’t talk about men’s issues.

But as one woman noted on a Facebook discussion board for the masculinity documentary The Mask You Live In,

I strongly believe society has told men what they expect in the form of “girl power”. In my opinion, and I have a son and a daughter who are tweens, the expression “girl power” has become all encompassing. Instead of teaching both genders of children they BOTH have “power” inside them we exclude young boys and relegate them to sports only as ways for them to express themselves. Take a look at most rural or suburban schools, they have programs after school for girls only that teach them about peer pressure, body confidence, etc beginning at a young age! Such programs do not exist for young boys. I have heard of such programs for young boys in urban schools however, they are not a national program like “Girls on the Run”…My son is almost 12, he has asked me “do I have power?” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, until he explained the signs at school for girl only events…Boys need nurturing too, it’s ok as a nation to emotionally nurture boys outside the home.

The enormous male/female suicide gap first appears in adolescence and widens as boys progress to manhood. If it’s true that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, then imagine the effect that programs for boys could have in reducing these tragic events.

Why Are Mass Shooters Almost Always Men?

We are struggling with the senselessness of yet another mass shooting. The shooter at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church identified race as his motivation. We find ourselves asking again why it’s always a white man doing the killing.

Yet, there’s no evidence that race is a factor in most shootings. Based on data Mother Jones compiled, whites are slightly over-represented among mass shooters, as are Asian-Americans and Native Americans. Latinos are notably under-represented among mass shooters, and African-Americans are proportionally represented.  (The data are at the end of this post.)

Mental illness is frequently blamed, and indeed almost 85% of shooters had possible mental illness or behavioral issues. However, this figure could be lower because not all cases are clear. Further, it’s notable that depression plays almost as large a role as psychosis. Workplace problems (and related financial stress); and relationship problems, typically rejection, also seem to be common themes.

What is clear is that the shooter is almost always a man.

Why is a big question. There are more knowledgeable people than myself who have written about the issue. I will note, however, that male depression is often overlooked. It’s a central factor in men being 79% of completed suicides, and it seems to be a factor in mass shootings as well.

I also wonder why Latinos are under-represented among mass shooters. Is there something different about Latino culture? For example, shooters often seem socially isolated. Do Latino men have stronger social ties, and if so, does this give a struggling Latino man a healthier outlet for his stress?

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The Data

Mother Jones published information about mass shootings in the United States from 1982 to 2012, and in June 2015 they updated their database, adding eight shootings that happened from 2013 to mid-2015. Oddly, Mother Jones missed a ninth shooting – Elliot Rodger.

Their initial report found that 44 out of 62 gunmen were white men. Only one shooter was a woman, and she was white too. Of the nine mass shootings since 2012, three of the gunmen were white only, and one (Rodger) was multi-racial (white and Asian).

This means that 48 out of 71 shooters, or 67.6%, were white only, non-Hispanic, as are 62.6% of all Americans according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Asians were 8.5% of the shooters and 5.3% of the general population, while Native Americans were 4.2% of shooters and 1.2% of the general population. African-Americans are 13% to 14% in both cases. But Latinos, who are 17.1% of Americans in general, were only 5.6% of mass shooters.

Of the 71 shooters 68, or 95.8%, were men.

Mother Jones did not say whether anyone was mentally ill or not, and instead noted how others described the person, and whether the person was known to have been under psychiatric care. Including Elliot Rodger, 46 out of 71 (64.8%) mass shooters might have had mental health issues. Eight were described as depressed (11.3% of all shooters, and 17.4% of those with possible mental health issues). Nine were described as schizophrenic or paranoid (12.7% of all shooters, and 19.6% of those with possible mental health issues). Another 13 shooters (18.3%) may have had previous behavioral issues.