A new UNICEF report has found New Zealand has the worst school bullying rates of any economically advanced country. With the bullied now banding together online to share their resentment, do we need to pay more attention and extend more empathy to ostracised and sexually frustrated young men, even those spouting hatred of women?

In October 2015, shortly after a mass shooting at a college in Oregon, an Otago University student on 4chan’s ‘r9k’ board threatened a gun massacre on campus. That same week, threats of bombings and other violent actions were made to Victoria University of Wellington and Massey University campuses.

The Oregon shooter left a manifesto with the lines: “Here I am, 26, with no friends, no job, no girlfriend, a virgin. I long ago realized that society likes to deny people like me these things.”

Threats like this following an overseas incident are, so far, the most visible local layer of the online radicalisation of young men who are coming together online to share their resentment of the women who “reject” them, and of their socially and sexually successful peers.

Just 10 days ago in Florida, self-described misogynist Scott Beierle entered a yoga studio and opened fire, killing two women and injuring several others.

Although older, at 40, than most of those in the “incel” (involuntarily celibate) community, Beierle had complained online of the “burden of virginity” for adolescent males, railed against the “treachery and lying” of women and compared himself to Elliot Rodger.

Rodger, who killed six people in a shooting and stabbing attack in California in 2014 after posting his own manifesto about his intense frustration over remaining a virgin, has become a hero to the online ‘incel’ movement.

Three tiers of radical anti-feminism

The incels are one of three tiers of online anti-feminism. The tiers are differentiated by the kind of practical action they prescribe in response to their shared criticisms of “Western” women.

” … attempts at self-improvement, and sometimes even relationships with women are examples of what they call ‘cope’, a mildly pejorative noun referring to alternatives to ‘rope’ or ‘going ER’ – respectively, suicide and mass murder.”

There are the ‘men going their own way’, who tend to be older and divorced, and prescribe voluntary separatism.

The younger ‘redpills’ seek to find and disseminate means of psychological manipulation.

The ‘incel’ movement, however, openly claims the body counts of mass murderers Alek Minassian and Rodger, and offers few solutions: for ‘truecels’, both organised political action, attempts at self-improvement, and sometimes even relationships with women (commonly assumed to be faithless gold-diggers) are examples of what they call ‘cope’, a mildly pejorative noun referring to alternatives to ‘rope’ or ‘going ER’ – respectively, suicide and mass murder.

On the incel web, members post selfies for commenters to assign a ‘looks market value’ out of 10 based on an exacting catalogue of appearance flaws: using medical terms such as negative canthal tilt, recessed maxilla, short philtrum, asymmetry. Members typically suggest specific cosmetic surgeries.

Most members are ‘experts’ on the psychology of physical attractiveness and mate selection: discussing research on male height as a predictor of political success and income or the ‘halo effect’ (where good looking men are subconsciously assumed to be more able and virtuous). Although, the kind of male models they hold up as ‘chads’ and ‘slayers’ seem to resemble Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

In its body dysmorphic aspects, the ‘incels’ resemble the pro-anorexia (‘pro-ana’) community. However, any ‘femoids’ (women and therefore seen as less than human) who try to participate will be harassed and verbally threatened.

The bullied banding together

As well as being haters, many of the anti-feminists active in these online communities have been victims of bullying and hatred themselves.

On the incels.is message boards, members share narratives of being “driven into inceldom” by bullying or physical or sexual abuse on the basis of their appearance, ability, mental health problems or being on the autistic spectrum.

One claimed to have “gotten my head smashed into a bus window by groups of girls, leaving scarring on my forehead”.

Several members described being called ugly “too many times to count”, one recalled being “included in an online poll that questioned the ugliest guy in the class”, and another “had my pic feature in an Orkut page .. calling me ugly, thousands of people”.

Some members recounted experiences of being bullied by schoolteachers or while schoolteachers looked on, and others described racist abuse.

This is relevant in New Zealand: in April 2017, a PISA study found 26.1 percent of students surveyed reported being subjected to bullying at least once a month, compared to an OECD average of 8.9 percent.

The stigma of seeking help

To young men who’ve been bullied or abused, the mainstream prescription is: swallow your pride, take your pills, listen to your counsellor, and she’ll be right.

… the stigma surrounding victimisation and mental health is stronger for men, further reducing their incentive to seek help.

But access to this kind of support – as well as the possibility of validation and sympathy – comes with a stick: the pressure to accept and internalise an identity as objectively disordered.

And this means acknowledging and accepting a loss of social status.

The problem for young men is the stigma surrounding victimisation and mental health is stronger for men, further reducing their incentive to seek help.

Campaigns to reduce the stigma around mental health have had mixed success and, arguably, unintended negative outcomes.

Young men are also well aware that emotional stability, perceived intelligence and prestige are critical components of male attractiveness to women.

Specifically acknowledging this dilemma in New Zealand health promotion materials might improve young men’s trust in the system.

At the same time, there are many false assumptions held by many young men that need to be punctured. One key tenet of the online “manosphere” is the doctrine that women have much greater power to choose than men: that females have an ‘advantage in the sexual marketplace’.

John Birger’s 2015 book Date-onomics demonstrates the opposite: men in the US currently have more romantic opportunities than women, with three university-educated males for every four females. In New Zealand there are 91 men for every 100 women aged 25 to 49. And a significant gender gap in tertiary education further limits the opportunities for university-educated women to find a similarly educated partner. For the past decade, nearly two-thirds of those graduating with bachelor’s degrees each year have been women, with a similar disparity in post-graduate qualifications.

Moreover, Bobby Duffy in The Perils of Perception (Atlantic Books, 2018) reports that a sample of 1000 US men on average overrated by 15 the number of sexual partners US women have in their lifetimes. This average “is largely due to a small number of US men who think that US women have an incredible number of partners”, Duffy wrote. On average, he found, men in the US and Britain “think women are having an incredible amount of sex … the equivalent of sex every weekday, plus twice on one day a month”.

More attention needs to be paid to these false assumptions by young men, as well as to the potential outcomes of bullying of our schoolboys. And it needs to be recognised that, as a source of propaganda tailor-made for the rationalisation of violence and discrimination against women, the proliferation of online antifeminist propaganda since roughly 2009 further endangers women.

Why call empathetic attention to the victimisation that proponents of violence against women have experienced?

Empathy breeds empathy, and one major factor in global interpersonal violence is insufficient “intergroup empathy”. Unless you’re a particularly fatalistic misanthrope, you have an ethical reason to try to extend your empathy towards people you’re inclined to regard as enemies.

Eilish Grieveson is a writer from Wellington.

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