Last week’s shooting in Plymouth heralded a moment of national horror. The worst mass shooting since 2010, Jake Davison’s murder of five others and ultimate suicide rocked the UK, a country where we rarely have to deal with the spectre of mass gun crime.
Issues surrounding Davison’s gun licence now abound, and it is very important that we discuss these and question what failings allowed a gun to be restored to someone who had recently undergone an anger management course. But getting too caught up in the unusual nature of this crime leaves us at risk of forgetting to properly hone in on the motivation behind it.
Indeed, mainstream commentary on the killing has shied away from honest conversation. The MP for Plymouth Moor View was quick to describe the incident as ‘serious and tragic’, implying both its scale and horror but also suggesting that the incident was a sort of one-off disaster – not predictable or preventable in the least. He clarified this viewpoint when he then went on to insist that the incident was not ‘terror related’.
But there was a disconnect between Mercer’s words and the reality of the situation, one that many commentators subsequently picked up on.
Davison had been influenced by hardline incel ideology. Incel thought holds that women are inferior beings to men who use sex as a means to extort favours and advantages from men around the world. Incels (a concatenation of the term ‘involuntary celibate’) usually express frustration at their lack of success with women, and blame that on the fickle and superficial nature of women themselves.
In short, incel ideology is defined by the hatred of women. Davison had clearly aligned himself (and his depressive thoughts) with that ideology – and it seems almost certain that that was the motivation behind his attack.
Failing to see such an attack as terrorism has many wider implications. Incel ideology, like other ideologies that breed terrorist activity, is characterised by a rigid, hardline worldview and the fanaticism of its devotees. When someone professing incel leanings carries out a violent, public attack, it is undoubtedly an expression of that ideology – and thus a form of terrorism.
It can easily be argued that the Plymouth attack has not been characterised as terrorism because people are reluctant to take rampant misogyny seriously. This could very well be the case. We know how femicides – such as that of Sarah Everard – are often characterised misleadingly in media reporting. People dismiss such crimes as ‘one-offs’, failing to see the link between endemic discrimination against women in a society and its ultimate manifestation in fatal violence. Victims like Sarah Everard are described as ‘innocent’ by those shaking their heads in disbelief, implying that most women who fall victim to such crimes somehow ‘deserve’ their fate – and thus by extension most other ‘innocent’ young women need have no fear.
But while it is certainly true that rampant misogyny is rarely recognised for what it is, it is also true that the sheer prevalence of misogyny desensitises us both to its presence and to its implications.
We might not make a link between a lonely and depressed young man who wishes he could have a girlfriend and a raging mass murderer, but the link is certainly there and we have seen it play out before our eyes time and again, in incel attacks around the world. The incel worldview turns women into objects to be possessed. When they escape possession, they mount a challenge to their assigned status as object – and that challenge must be quashed.
We might not make a link between casual, if crude, jokes about women and their place in society (or in the home) and extreme violence, but the link is once again there. Because as soon as women defy their ascribed gender roles they slip outside of men’s control – and that’s when the violence begins.
Incel thought may revolve around women and what men think they ought to be and do, but it is not all that different from other forms of hardline ideology.
Recent days have seen the toppling of the Afghan government by the Taliban, a movement led by hardline religious scholars who seek to impose strict Islamic rule on Afghanistan.
A central part of the Taliban’s ideology – and one of the ways the group asserts itself most forcefully – is its attitude towards women.
Already, reports from Afghanistan suggest that the Taliban are imposing harsh strictures on Afghan women’s lives, violating their human rights and particularly targeting women who gained prominence and relative power under the previous government.
By using the control and repression of women as a display of dominance and as a means of showboating their hardline credentials, the Taliban’s strategy indicates one key thing about misogyny: it is a political tool which underlies and often drives forward all other hardline thought.
One could argue that the Taliban’s misogyny is part of their ideology, rather than its driving factor, but it is what their present campaign has led with, and one of the key drivers of several other terrorist movements.
Indeed, many ideologies that may not be connected to misogyny on the surface betray a deep-seated hatred of women at their core – from the Proud Boys to Al Qaeda, misogyny is part and parcel of the fabric of these movements. Even if we look at established political systems, those rulers who tend towards despotism also seem to weaponise misogyny. From the decriminalisation of domestic violence in Russia to invocations to rape women and girls as part of furthering religious conflict from BJP politicians in India.
Incel ideology is not just another form of terrorism – it is the very essence of terrorism – an impulse driven by and wrapped around the hatred of women in its entirety. It is misogyny that has been warped and twisted into a worldview. And misogyny itself is often an indistinguishable part of terrorism – just look at known terrorists and their histories of violence against women.
So in order to tackle worldwide dogma, hatred and violence, we must start by tackling violence against women and the misogyny that underlies it. We cannot let this be a link that we miss.