Taking the red pill, for both the manosphere and the alt-right, is the beginning of a process of radicalization in which an individual becomes enculturated in an extreme, reactionary worldview.
Alek Minassian’s vehicular attack in Toronto in April has brought the term “incel” into the public spotlight. “Incel” signifies an “involuntary celibate” — a male oppressed by the injustice of women who refuse to have sex with him. The term came into prominence in the corners of the “manosphere,” a loose coalition of men’s rights activists, bloggers, participants in pick-up artist forums in addition to audiences across social media platforms, primarily Reddit and 4chan.
The incel identity is violently misogynistic. Writing in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino argues that sex is “defined to them as dominion over female bodies.” What is interesting about this claim to women’s bodies is that it is articulated through a sense of victimhood: It is not, apparently, the incel’s fault that he is unable to find sexual partner. Rather, it is a form of oppression perpetrated upon him by women who ignore him or reject his advances. Incel engenders a hateful identity toward women premised on male fragility.
The twisting of a dominating impulse into a cry for redressing injustice also echoes across the alt-right. Its white supremacist vision stresses the erasure of European culture by elites and immigrants. Its rallying cry is to defend Western civilization from “white genocide,” a code used to masquerade the vision of cultural purity in the costume of collective victimhood. This similar mindset between the identity of the incels and the worldview of the alt-right helps us to better understand how these two movements have converged and diverged in recent years.
Down the Rabbit Hole
The story of this convergence begins with the idea of the red pill. Any fan of The Matrix already knows the outline: Neo, the film’s protagonist, is presented with the choice to take a red or blue pill. Taking the red pill would begin his journey to the truth and see “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” On the other hand, the blue pill would allow Neo to walk away and continue his life of ignorance. Neo is told the Matrix is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Debbie Ging, in her lucid explanation of the culture of the digital “manosphere,” writes that the red pill is a philosophy that “purports to awaken men to feminism’s misandry and brainwashing” that has elevated women to the position of dominance over men. The red pill has an anti-feminist political philosophy built in that rejects the equality of women and the post-1960s politics of women’s empowerment.
The red-pill philosophy is also central to the alt-right. Richard Spencer has videos on the topic, as do most other online personalities associated with the alt-right. However, the red pill means something different in the context of the alt-right. It is not only feminism that those who take the red pill are awakened to. On the alt-right, being “red-pilled” refers to an awareness in which the entire spectrum of feminists, Marxists, socialists and liberals have conspired to destroy Western civilization and culture. Like in the manosphere, for the alt-right being red-pilled is to be awakened to the reality of “white genocide” and the ongoing “race war.”
Taking the red pill, for both the manosphere and the alt-right, is the beginning of a process of radicalization in which an individual becomes enculturated in an extreme, reactionary worldview. Members of both groups find joy and community in an alternative education (as Olivier Jutel writes about American populists) and the frequent criticism that such movements get — especially when their subreddits or Twitter accounts get shut down — is used as evidence of how “brainwashed” mainstream society is.
Gender, of course, plays an important role in both groups. They both objectify women, but do so in very different ways. On the alt-right, European women are seen as victims of migrant — particularly Muslim — rapists. They roll out white victims of sexual violence at every possible convenience in order to demonstrate the “truth” that all Muslims are sexual predators. By focusing on victims of rape, for which all right-minded observers would be outraged, the alt-right packages its extremism for mainstream consumption.
Masking their extremism through the objectification of white women as targets of migrant violence, women are portrayed as being in need of protection from the multiculturalist elites who have opened the door to so-called “Islamic rape gangs.” This mentality has indeed led to violence: Darren Osborne’s vehicular attack on Finsbury Park Mosque was executed after he had become indignant after watching a BBC broadcast on child sexual exploitation and turned to social media to make sense of it. He found a narrative from British counter-jihad groups closely aligned with the alt-right, such as Britain First and the founder of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson.
While in the manosphere women are seen as objects of sexual competition and for the alt-right are represented more through the lens as victims of (primarily Muslim) migrants, the harmony between the two groups is that they present a maligned, but evident truth: that the “mainstream” is brainwashed by liberal elites, feminists and socialists who seek to oppress and victimize men (in the case of the manosphere) and white people (in the case of the alt-right). This homology between the two worldviews plays out in particularly interesting events.
The case of James Damore, the Google employee who penned a memo describing how men are inherently more capable in computer science than women (among many other sexist claims) quickly became an alt-right hero after he was fired from the company. Damore was promptly invited to Stefan Molyneux’s YouTube channel for an interview, and his story quickly became one echoed across the alt-right scene. Damore himself did not seem to be active in the manosphere or the alt-right, but these communities venerated him as a “martyr” (in Owen Jones’s words for The Guardian) as evidence of the victimization and discrimination that men face at the hands of feminists and liberals. It was not Damore who mattered, but rather that his story reinforces the “truths” assumed by these red-pilled social networks.
Minassian’s and Osborne’s attacks are two reminders of how these “alternative educations” that take place online are a pathway for the radicalization of men, or white identity, into militancy in a perceived cultural war on feminists, migrants, liberals and the left. It also demonstrates that the proliferation of hateful cultures online can have violent outcomes. Most importantly, it shows that the toxicity of tropes such as the red pill that are easily available via digital communications technology are a core part of the discriminatory and prejudiced worldviews that the radical right seeks to exploit in its cultural politics and contestation of elections.
The sense of victimization — of incels unable to find sexual partners, white women as objects of rape, or the discriminatory tendencies against male voices — that is at the center of being red-pilled masks the extremism that lurks behind its coded discourse and popular-cultural styles.
Dr. Bharath Ganesh is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute working on the Data Science in Local Government and VOX-Pol projects
© Dr. Bharath Ganesh. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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