Recently the Toronto police released their post-arrest videotaped interview with Alek Minassian, accused of driving a van down Yonge Street on April 23, 2018, deliberately targeting pedestrians, killing eight women and two men, and injuring 16 more.
The Toronto Star published an extensive review of the released tape, and Minassian’s case generally, in their Friday, Sept 27, 2019 edition. I’ve been reading that off and on for two months now, trying again to understand.
In my book The Shyness Guide, I go to some length to explain the value of detachment for shy people. Detachment is a useful tool, but like all tools it can have a dark side.
When asked how he felt about killing and injuring those people, Minassian responded,
“I feel like I accomplished my mission.”
That’s about as detached and as dark as you can get.
But Minassian is not your average 26 year old. He went through elementary school and high school with a diagnosis of Asperger’s (I’m unsure at what age he received it), when he suffered badly from bullying and taunting, often because of the diagnosis. In my post Autism |Toronto’s Van Rampage one year later I commented on the paradox that receiving an autism diagnosis might be more negative for you than positive.
But Minassian suggests that what upset him the most was his inability to connect with women. He considers himself a member of the growing online community of ‘incels’ – Dictionary.com:
Short for involuntarily celibacy, incel refers to an internet subculture of men who blame women for the fact that they are not having sex.
I use that definition because it is less derogatory than some others. None show any empathy for ‘incels’ at all. What is particularly missing is the recognition that these men really are unable to connect with women. The fact that they blame women for it is secondary.
It reminds me of ‘love-shyness,’ the concept proposed by psychologist Dr Brian Gilmartin in his 1987 book Shyness & Love. Gilmartin studied such men in depth and, what I found most striking, is that most of them went through life all the way to the end without significant sexual experience with women.
Gilmartin was never able to get love-shyness accepted as a diagnosis, and so as a condition qualifying for specific treatment. The mainstream psychological community saw it as simply another aspect of social anxiety,etc.
Checking on Gilmartin today, I find that he, as I expected, sees Involuntary Celibacy and Love-shyness as more or less the same thing. He has also said that he thinks most love-shy men are Asperger/autistic candidates,
He isn’t surprised at this growing problem. He rightfully takes an ‘I told you so’ approach. As long as these young men don’t receive treatment, he says, they were only going to get worse. Now we’re seeing the results.
But like so many people suffering from psychological problems, Minassian and the other incels don’t want treatment. They blame society, and more specifically they blame women. They think women are only interested in either very physical men (athletes, etc) or loud assertive, unprincipled men. Unfortunately, there is some truth to that, but it is not true of all women.
Incels have found each other online. Starting with the Reddit website, Minassian moved to a ‘subreddit’ site known as r/Forever Alone. In May 2014 when he was using it, rForever had 33,000 subscribers. Today it is said to have 117,000, but incel content has been banned.
As Reddit and other sites cracked down on violent and hateful content, the incels apparently moved to 4chan, a site that has been called “dark and weird”, to POL (Politically Incorrect), an ‘alt-right’ forum, to R9K, and to 8chan, where the more extreme 4chan users moved.
There, besides sharing their own personal experiences, they have discussed ways of counter-attacking society. Paying the rest of us back.
Obviously it’s only a few of them who have taken this to this next level, but Minassian was one of them. And he proved that guns are not required to kill or injure a lot of people.
He wasn’t the first. The alleged shooter at the El Paso Walmart posted a ‘manifesto’ on 8chan, apparently the reason that that site has been shut down.
But the internet shouldn’t be seen as encouraging antisocial behavior. There are alternatives to such sites. Anyone familiar with the internet who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or who perceives themself to be anywhere on the autistic spectrum, must be aware of Wrong Planet (www.wrongplanet.net) a site where people debate the problems of autism in a healthy way.
Started by Aspergians Alex Plank and Dan Grover in 2004, Wrong Planet has been a refuge for ‘aspies’ and a source of realistic advice ever since. It’s popular – the ‘general autism discussion’ forum alone has 1,457,420 posts as of Nov 16/2019. Whenever someone asks me for advice about autism, I always tell them to check out Wrong Planet. I know they’ll receive some real empathy there, and helpful advice.
But Minassian and others apparently choose to avoid it, or any site like it. Why? I guess there is some kind of psychological satisfaction gained in believing that your problems are not your own, but are caused by other people. Even when that is partly true (the incels didn’t ask to be bullied in school, etc), that route is always a dead end. The only thing you can realistically hope to change is yourself.
Instead they talk to one another about an incel insurrection, even a revolution, as if there was actually some possibility of them emerging on top. That is about as far from reality as you can get.
When I say detachment is useful for shy and autistic people, those who suffer from anxiety, etc, I don’t mean the kind of detachment that incels demonstrate. I mean it as a tool to be used in social settings that generate anxiety in you. You detach from your anxiety, not from the world as a whole. You can leave your anxiety behind, while retaining the ability to feel empathy, concern, and love.
But with some people detachment from other people seems to begin instinctively in childhood and becomes a permanent state. Alienated maybe by mistreatment they receive, or just the indifference of society, they grow up inside a suit of emotional armor, where they may be unable to feel anything at all for other people. I suspect that something like that happened to Alek Minassian.
But hate is not detachment. When you hate society so much that you want to kill members of it who you don’t even know, that is something else.
Violence is usually our last resort. Unless you are Genghis Khan, or Attila, leading hordes of mounted warriors sweeping everyone in their path aside, violence is never an answer. Ultimately, it didn’t even work for Hitler.
What is it about our time that is generating this new appetite for violence? Do frustrated people today feel there is no other response left to them?
Well, when real wages have been falling for a long time, when the inflation rate is calculated in a fashion designed to mask rocketing inflation in housing and rents, and when advanced education is increasingly out of reach of ordinary young people, is it any surprise that some are turning to desperate acts?
Anyway, yes, Alek Minassian talked of planning his attack, and completing his mission. Though it was a horrific mission that I think accomplished nothing, even for him, I’m just trying to call attention to the profound desperation in it. It is a symptom of something deeply wrong in society. I hope we can get beyond simply deploring his action and taking satisfaction from whatever punishment he receives following his trial.
That is coming in February, when I’m sure I will have to comment on this again.