In the aftermath of 22-year-old Davison killing five people in the British port city of Plymouth in August, the U.K. government unveiled a new curriculum to empower teachers to talk to students about the subculture of incels and the harms it presents.
As part of the standardized “Relationships, Sex and Health Education” (RSHE) curriculum, educators now have increased flexibility to talk about issues around consent, coercive control and misogyny, as well as the online activity that spreads misinformation and hatred of women. In addition, the initiative pushes more resources for young men who are disaffected or show signs of being drawn into incel terrorism, including receiving one-on-one time with older students as a form of counseling.
The timing of the reveal was apt — and urgency is necessary, at least if the experts who track incel subcultures are to be believed. Laura Bates, British author and activist behind the Everyday Sexism Project, recently warned that boys as young as 11 are “very deliberately groomed and targeted by these groups” on social media platforms, according to her research. “They were parroting verbatim the same myths and misconceptions in schools across the country,” Bates told Reuters.
The U.K. anti-extremism advocacy group Hope Not Hate found in its 2020 survey that 50 percent of young men believe that feminism has “gone too far.” That’s exactly the kind of attitude that can pull an impressionable teen into the pipeline of incel in-jokes and red-pill culture. You can see the trailing effects in the manifestos and online activity of multiple incel killers, who reference memes like “supreme gentleman” and the supposed “80/20 rule” of female attraction.
These ideas, presented by anons on forums full of men who perpetuate inceldom as an essential truth, become easy to consume and digest by young minds looking for explanations for how the world works. That’s a big reason why Manjit Sareen is taking steps to talk to her young boys, just nine and 11 years old, about harmful online rhetoric around masculinity and girls.
Sareen is the co-founder and CEO of Natterhub, an educational social media platform intended as a teaching tool for children. She’s been critical about the fact that the British RSHE curriculum doesn’t require teachers to talk about the harms of incel beliefs at school. And merely presenting the problems isn’t good enough; rather, driving conversations among students may be key, Sareen suggests. “Conversations in the classroom are a great way to see perspective. Class members will have a far-reaching spectrum of opinions, and hearing responses from a teacher and peer group is an impactful way to dilute extreme views, or at least question them,” she tells me.
Licensed therapist Andrew Smiler, author and expert on masculinity, is more measured on how an “incel curriculum” might be able to reach troubled young men, noting that identifying as an incel is ultimately a belief system. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to stop someone from adopting a belief system,” he says.
Part of the problem is that inceldom is a symptom of a male crisis rooted in broader societal pressures, and much of it comes down to how young men perceive the standards around masculine achievement, Smiler continues. “Being a man” is no longer about getting married at 20 and finding a long-term career; meanwhile, economic stagnation and shifts in dating have obscured the figurative goalposts even further.
“It’s about the male role, and we have to acknowledge there are real shortcomings to that societal role. We teach boys to make money and be successful with women, and not just any women, but the hottest one,” Smiler says. “If that’s what you believe is your birthright, but you don’t have the skills, no surprise that you’re pissed at the world for getting in the way of a dream.”
This mentality can become ingrained over years of consuming toxic rhetoric and misinformation, and that’s especially troubling during the formative years of 13 to 18. We already know the D.A.R.E. model of using the classroom to lecture negatively about something doesn’t work with teens, Smiler says. And Sareen notes that there needs to be consistent focus and resources provided in order to make a real long-term change. “This is a good step in the right direction but the frequency and time that schools need to spend to ensure that these soft skills are effectively taught doesn’t reflect with the prevalence of our tech use outside of schools,” she says.
Perhaps, then, the best thing to come out of an “incel curriculum” could be one-on-one counseling for young men who are struggling and have expressed problematic ideas to friends and peers. The U.K. model suggests using older students to mentor younger ones, which could help nurture a more personalized, affecting dialogue around the stresses that justify an incel worldview on life.
“This is really about emotion and experience. Several of the guys that I’ve worked with have ended up reading incel stuff and the red-pill stuff online. It really comes from this place of having been rejected, being hurt,” Smiler says. “And we do a very bad job, as a society, of teaching boys how to deal with those hurt feelings. We tend to blow them off: ‘There’s plenty of girls out there.’ We don’t do a good job of acknowledging the emotions.”
Ultimately, the onus will fall on individual schools, administrators and teachers to push the pedal on educating students about incel culture without it backfiring through exposure. The key is to realize the issue isn’t merely countering the memes and websites that spread incel ideas, Smiler says. It’s also a matter of asking boys what kind of men they want to be.