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<Content warning: discussions of various -isms, e.g. racism.>
In trying to figure out what I want to write about, I can’t avoid some self-reflection. But I must admit it’s not necessarily the most deep kind. Instead, I’ve fallen into thinking about what I am from an -ist perspective. This proved to be a dead end, as one of the common threads of my life is going out of my way to avoid joining things. Saying I’m an iconoclast or a gadfly is perhaps putting too positive a spin on it; I’m mostly just unwilling to take on the past sins that any large group seems to have.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t come close, though. And my hope is that by talking about my own thought processes over the years, I can create a little understanding for how someone ends up being an incel, a white supremacist, or whatever.
To be clear, I was never any of those things. So this isn’t a confession of past wrongdoing so much as a “here’s how I came close” story.
When you’re part of the dominant culture in an area, it’s hard to feel like that culture is actually part of your identity. Even now, I don’t get any real sense of identity from my race, native language, or any other part of my cultural background. I never had any neat traditions growing up that set me apart. To some this may sound really nice, and I understand why that would be so. But it also meant that I had a real struggle defining myself; to a large extent it’s only through dividing ourselves off from everyone around us that we learn to have a “self” at all.
I did buy into some things I shouldn’t have, such as the Lost Cause myth regarding the U.S. Civil War, for example, in an attempt to have some kind of identity beyond being an unremarkable kid in the suburbs. I was smart enough to be bored in school, but didn’t have the self-discipline to really excel. In short, I never found a way to stand out from the crowd, to feel like I was unique in some way. It’s still something I struggle with, even if I’m no longer tempted by fringe social movements and misreading history.
Meanwhile, I had a too-clear sense of what I wanted my life to look like. Of course things never work out the way we hope, even if they can still be good. But I didn’t understand this, so spent most of my adolescence being unhappy that my specific fantasies never came true. This is how I almost became a “nice guy,” an almost-incel who somehow feels entitled to better treatment from the world, especially women.
Really, it comes down to this: I do what my society has taught me to be correct, so why am I so miserable? It’s a form of breaking free from a more childlike view of morality, and as with all such things, it’s hugely uncomfortable. As kids we’re taught to behave ourselves, to do well in school, to be nice to others, all of that. But it’s presented in a very transactional way, something only added to by capitalism (which makes everything a transaction in some way or another). There’s a carrot and a stick attached; too few of us are taught to be decent regardless of the outcome. We expect to be happy if we do the right thing, even if that includes something as simple as paying attention in school.
This breaks down when the expected reward isn’t forthcoming. So I can remember being angry — I rarely misbehaved, I did at least the basics in school, I tried not to be a jerk to those around me, so why wasn’t I happy? It never occurred to me to question my goals or what I wanted from life (particularly the over-specificity I mentioned previously) or whether I had some kind of chemical imbalance in my brain. It never occurred to me to take stock of my life and evaluate it fairly. Plus, I wasn’t popular with the opposite sex (as far as I knew) and had no clue why.
I remain thankful that either of these issues only got but so far. Because the truth is, I was lucky. I could easily have been any one of those things I listed just now, or anything else equally heinous. I can see where if my friends circle had been even a little different, or if I had gotten a little push in some other way, I very easily could’ve ended up someplace evil.
My hope, then, is that we learn to see people like incels, other forms of misogynists, racial supremacists, arch-conservative Christians, militant atheists, or whomever else with some degree of sympathy.
I don’t mean we shouldn’t protect ourselves where needed, but if we want to fix a problem, it’s important to understand it first. People don’t become that way in a vacuum, and it’s usually more subtle than just “I’m a racist because my parents were racist.” After all, plenty of people with racist parents don’t turn out that way. I think a lot of this involves taking people as individuals rather than labels, which is difficult (and certainly doesn’t contribute to clickbait pieces that let us feel better about ourselves). We have to unravel things, to make space for someone to retrace their steps to undo where they ended up.
As miserable as that sounds, the alternatives are far worse, and we’re living them right now.
I'm glad you're with us now, friend, and you avoided becoming any of those things. I totally agree with everything you've said. Nothing is in a vacuum, and nobody becomes an incel or white supremacist "just because." There are material conditions in this late-capitalist hellscape that compel people to do so. All that is holy has been profaned, all that is solid has been melted into air, "there is no society," and we're just left as naked individuals without any guiding meta-narratives or sense of community outside of things that are useful to the replication and expansion of capital. (Almost) everybody can be reached, and I think you do that by improving their lives without regard for their beliefs. Debate never seems to work. What does work is empathy and giving back autonomy and power over their lives, making them better in the process. Lots of work to do!
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