There’s a problem with the current debate—if you can call it a debate—about incels, the self-described and so-called community of involuntary celibates. This term popped in public discourse recently because a self-described incel drove a van into a crowd in Toronto recently, killing 10. He was angry that women deny sex to some men. Incels characterize sex as a right others are obligated to provide them, and congregate online.
They and their identity have bubbled up to the top of the consciousness stack because of the Internet—how it works, who it organizes, what it enables, and what ideas it does and doesn’t usher forth from its patterns of everyday life.
Common sense and reason would suggest that therefore any satisfying discussion about the incel situation in today’s American life would begin firmly from an understanding of just what life online makes thinkable, desirable, and ridiculous. But that’s not what happened.
Case in point is the arc of drama surrounding Ross Douthat’s recent column on the subject. For source material, Douthat draws on a couple different kinds of intellectual musings on the question of whether some sort of right to sex might exist and if so who should be (ahem) on the receiving end of a more just distribution of sexual activity.
“At a certain point,” he provisionally concludes, “without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”
To Douthat’s critics, the implication of this line of reasoning is that society has an obligation to recognize a sex right in men who are unable in some compelling sense to achieve sex. Because the conversation currently assumes heterosexual sex, the critics objected that no man’s putative sex right could compete with the definitive right of a woman to control her own body.
Sharp disagreement about sex and rights is only to be expected today. But although the Internet has made us prone to advancing rights claims, the reason for that intensity has much to do with the way the Internet has inlaid patterns of experience that do not give rise to notions of rights—and has laid waste to habits of life that make what would otherwise be abstract ideas of rights concrete and incarnate.
Today there is just no question but that life online works around the clock to erode the plausibility of a right to property, privacy, free speech, self-defense, and so on—much less a “fundamental” kind of right to any of these things. This brute fact isn’t here to make us feel good, but it does—or should—direct our energy in the incel “debate” toward the underlying reality of the digital age.
The reality is that getting caught up in rights language isn’t going to help us make the best sense of what’s happening here. Not because anyone’s rights should be wiped away or de-recognized, but because the core of the incel issue isn’t related to rights at all. Rather than the nature of a right to sex, what’s at stake is the nature of a duty to die.
Referring back to the fundamentals of the Internet, digital technology gives historic numbers of relatively unsuccessful men the opportunity for warlike activity of unprecedented regularity that poses zero mortal risk and requires only the use of symbols. Those numbers are pushed even higher by the relatively very low number of men killed off in military conflict.
Many relatively unsuccessful men engaged in constant symbolic warfare online may be more prone to forms of slow-motion suicide than other men. Of course, eventually all relatively unsuccessful men die, and the ranks of their battalions might be thinned out over time.
Yet it’s impossible to ignore how the problem of surplus men, formed by a digital era where military casualties are restricted to faraway people and special forces, has spread throughout the public conflict over men, sex, rights, and bodies. We see it in the simmering desire for the baby boomers to relinquish power and croak already. We see it in the implicit conviction that unappealing yokels, bros, and white trash will just keep on harming America until they are bred out and die off.
We don’t need to subject these notions to a reductio ad Hitlerum. Generational turnover is real and natural. So is the intuitive understanding that only death can move us beyond some conflicts. There’s nothing more “natural” than meeting an “unnatural” death. When China and India willfully produce more than 70 million “surplus” males, our proper natural instinct is dismay, and we reasonably suspect—even if we don’t say it aloud—such a situation is apt to be balanced out only through many early deaths.
Unfortunately, the delusion persists that our society with its surplus of unsuccessful and unhappy men can be made peaceful and harmonious through sheer force of will. Not even Christianity at its most fortifying and forgiving could do that alone. Humble marriage or woke modesty have their power, but for struggling men, the constant in all times and places has been war—often devastating, frequently barbaric.
A society where the vast majority of men almost never march into mortal peril has huge costs virtually no one wants to tally. But we keep racking them up. We rightly prize peace, but we are unprepared to face its full consequences in an age transformed by technology. In our anxiety over the redistribution of sex, we are blinding ourselves to the deeper difficulty of a society where the distribution of death is imbalanced away from the men who have borne its brunt since the beginning of civilization.
Men start wars for dark but inexpugnable reasons. Today’s incels may seem a long way off from tomorrow’s warlords. But in a world upended by unhinged technological change, the distance between them may be closer than most of us dare to imagine.