Where tech aligns

The Incel Galaxy

Naama Kates’s podcast, Incel, says you’re wrong about the internet’s most hated subculture.

Naama Kates is an investigative journalist and the host of the podcast Incel.

Though her titular subject, incels, are often scapegoated as “male supremacists” or worse, even terrorists, the men Naama profiles do not comprise a movement. They also aren’t dangerous criminals, contra the popular narratives. The one thing they do have in common is that they’re a part of what’s known as the incelosphere: a complex ecosystem that shares no one ideology, goal, nor even a singular view of or relationship with women. Why then, nearly eight years since “incel” was introduced to the mainstream media lexicon, has our understanding of these men not caught up to reality?  

Katherine: What are incels? A movement? A sensibility? Several smaller communities?

Naama: Not a movement – a movement is a group of people bound together by a common goal. Incels don’t have a collective goal. 

There are different definitions of “incel,” different connotations. The categorical definition is simply someone that is involuntarily celibate, but when people talk about incels they’re generally referring to someone who identifies that way, someone who has some familiarity with the language, the theory of mind.

But I’ve had plenty of incels on my show that identify as incels despite not participating in the online fora or subscribing to many aspects of the mentality. It is several communities, but I don’t think it’s necessary to make that distinction. It’s one galaxy, anyway. 

Katherine: Why make a show about incels? 

Naama: Naturally, I get asked this all the time. I mean, it’s a good question. Because I don’t even really know the answer to it yet, at least not in any neatly presentable way. I think they’re fascinating; they represent a convergence of factors that are intriguing, important, and taboo – sex, isolation, boredom, terrorism, radicalization, the internet. In 2018, people were talking about them; no one was talking to them. (And that’s still largely the case.) 

Katherine: It’s been argued that the incelosphere is a reaction to the pickup artists of the early and mid-2000s. Does that theory hold any water? 

Naama: According to incels’ own folklore, it was a reaction to PUA, and I’ve described it that way. 

The first “proto” incel site was called PUAhate.com. That’s where Elliot Rodger hung out for a bit. But of course, that’s extremely reductive. I think 4chan, Reddit, social media, and web 2.0, in general, contributed to the incelosphere. It’s a phenomenon of the internet first and foremost. Identity politics and all that helped galvanize them. 

Katherine: Talk of incels always seems to beget talk of internet radicalization, especially in the media. What is your view on radicalization?  

Naama: Most commentators in the mainstream have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to radicalization – none. 

Yes: people radicalize, and certain people are prone to full immersion in their online life. Some people are more comfortable engaging with text than IRL. Some people have fragile senses of self. 

There is a pathway to radicalization that we can identify fairly well. But what are we talking about when we say “radicalization”? No one can really define the word in concrete terms, so, do we mean radicalization to violent extremism? To a particular political ideology that maybe you don’t like? Is a Trump supporter a radical? What about someone who supports Antifa? BLM? What about someone who’s willing to torch abortion clinics? That’s a pretty radical action. What about someone who’s willing to protest in front of a judge’s house? Also radical. That gets kind of murky. 

The only radicalization I’m willing to speak on is radicalization to violent extremism, which is a very complex process almost always driven by an initial search for meaning, significance, and belonging. There’s a social component. There are behavioral changes. There’s a downward spiral. 

Katherine: We’ve talked about who’s getting incels wrong, but who else is getting them right? Who else is writing on this topic whose work you’d recommend? 

Naama: Yours, dear. Mike Crumplar. James Bloodworth. From the more academic and journalistic perspective Simon Cottee, Christine Emba, William Costello. Mary Gaitskill is cooking something up, I believe. Of course, that will be brilliant. There should be more here.

Katherine: What’s been your favorite episode to record so far? 

Naama: One of my all-time favorites is “The True Believer” about Alek Minassian, who was behind the 2018 Toronto van attack. I included a lot of audio from terrible news programs, Minassian’s interrogation, and an interview with Jesse Morton. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum would be “The Chadfishing Experiment,” when I made profiles on dating apps as a low-tier woman and a normie man and compared the results.

Katherine: Given how all-encompassing the incel worldview can be, one thing I’ve wondered about is incel art. Do you think there’s any great incel art? If so, what is it? Who’s creating it? 

Naama: I’ve seen some really good art by incels but I don’t know if I’d call it “incel art,” so to speak, or if the artists would want to be called that. I’m sure there are some; I’d like to see more of it. 

Art is always something I think incels should do, to sublimate their ego into something great. Many of them, I think, don’t want to go there – emotionally, at least not yet. But one that is calling himself that is a guest I had on my show, David. He’s from New Zealand and he made this film. Look out for him!

Katherine: Do you think the incelosphere will eventually disappear? Or is it giving new shape to something that’s always existed? 

Naama: It hasn’t always existed at all. Men with this issue have never previously congregated together, or formed a club. That’s what the incelosphere actually is. Incels of course have always existed and always will. I think it will eventually go away only because, I guess, everything does, right? The Rosicrucians aren’t really a thing anymore. [laughs] But it will transmute like everything does, it already has so many times. These communities are very dynamic. Its perception by broader society will change. 

Katherine: What one thing about your work – either about the topic or the creation of the work itself – do you wish people knew?

Naama: Welp, let’s see. I started this with no background, backing, anything. I love it and it was obviously a calling. The past few years since I started have been very intense and very difficult, on a personal level too. A lot of changes. It’s just been a lot. I couldn’t have anticipated it. All this terrorism stuff? All the backlash, having people make podcasts about me calling me an alt-righter, all the vultures – you know how I feel about them. And all the amazing people too and how profoundly humbling it has been. To be in this position, where people trust me with these stories. But it’s a lot, guys. 

Katherine: Last question – when are you going to write a book? I want to read it! 

Naama: I’ve sort of started it, stopped, and started and stopped and started again. I’ve announced it many times, set out in earnest. But with a toddler and a podcast and a Patreon and another podcast and commissions and consulting, it’s really hard to find the consistency and the quiet. I also keep going back and forth about how much of my own subjectivity to include. You know? It’ll happen though.

Lots more where that came from.