A number of deadly attacks have brought extremist parts of misogynist men’s rights movements into the spotlight. In order to counteract the radicalization of members, we should draw on research on alternative narratives that has been conducted in relation to other extremist groups. Rather than just confronting the ideology of the manosphere alternative narratives offer vulnerable men and boys a different understanding of emotions and grievances.
In April 2018 Alek Minassian sped a van through Toronto, Canada, killing ten and injuring sixteen others. Minassian belonged to an online community called ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), comprised of men who blame women for their inability to gain sexual relationships. Incels speak disparagingly of ‘Chads’ and ‘Stacys’, nicknames used for sexually active men and women. Prior to the attack, Minassian wrote a Facebook post stating “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!”
The Toronto attack highlighted growing extremism related to the manosphere, a growing collection of blogs and online forums closely associated with the men’s rights movements. While men’s rights have a historical basis in feminism, groups have increasingly become anti-feminist, adopting misogynistic and violent language. This has resulted in several online misogynistic harassment campaigns, alongside a growing number of attacks like that committed by Minassian.
How do we counteract such a trend?
There are several areas where policymakers can and should intervene, but in this post, I will focus on how we talk with individuals who connect to the movement. There is one burgeoning area of research that provides some potential avenues for investigation in this arena – alternative narratives.
Current literature on preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) focuses predominantly on counter-narratives, which are defined as intentional or direct efforts to ‘discredit, deconstruct and demystify violent extremist narratives through ideology, fact, logic or humour’. However, the effectiveness of counter-narratives is increasingly being questioned. In his book Healing from Hate, Michael Kimmel found that groups successful in getting individuals out of violent extremist organisations often did not focus on ideology, as countering ideas resulted in arguments that often entrenched an individual’s views. Counter-narrative initiatives are also often funded and backed by the government or other institutions that are not seen as trustworthy or legitimate by target audiences.
There has therefore been a recent shift to focus on ‘alternative narratives’, which aim to reduce radicalisation by designing positive stories targeted at individuals and groups. Alternative narratives work to undercut more violent narratives by focusing on similarities and what we are for rather than against. Alternative narratives present positive stories about social values, openness and democracy, to present different pathways individuals can go down.
Addressing emotions and belonging
Research on alternative narratives currently focuses on extremist violent organisations, in particular the far-right and Islamicist groups. However, little has been done to transfer this to men’s rights or violent misogynistic groups. While many of these groups are in many ways very different to other violent extremist organisations, I believe there are things we can learn from these approaches.
First, the literature on alternative narratives suggests they can be more effective than counter-narratives as they work to address real and perceived grievances of individuals, in turn addressing the needs that lead them to violent organisations. The complaints described by men in the manosphere are based on genuine grievances about their lives. Many men, rightfully or wrongly, feel deep social alienation and a ‘stuckedness’ in their lives. This is often based in reality, even if these same men direct blame at the wrong people (i.e. feminists) for these problems. Alternative narratives are effective when they acknowledge this, at some level addressing the “kernel of truth” underpinning individual and group complaints. This means recognising that complaints are genuinely felt (even if we don’t agree with them). Alternative narratives then work to build alternative understandings of where these feelings come from, which social structures may be to blame for the problems, and the solutions available.
As part of this alternative narratives are often successful as they tap into the emotional drive behind engagement with violent extremist groups. Much of the narratives of the manosphere and men’s rights are based in emotion – whether anger, sadness, disappointment, hatred or love (to name a few). However, emotion is often not considered when it comes to men’s rights or manosphere groups. Emotions are connected strongly to individual identity and can in turn lead to like-minded people gravitating toward each other, forming an ‘integral aspect of group political solidarity’. Alternative narratives recognise the emotional pull of messaging and replicate it. This means identifying both the push and pull factors of engagement with these narratives and seeking to counteract them with different engagement.
Finally, belonging and identity are a core reason why individuals join the manosphere, which is also true of other violent extremist organisations. In his book, Kimmel found that connection to a group was a primary motivator for young men in joining far-right white supremacist groups. Alternative narratives, therefore, need to focus on identity and belonging giving men a suitable space in which they can explore their identities and voice their grievances. We want to find spaces where individuals can build deep social connections healthily and productively.
It’s about the followers, not the leaders
One thing I would suggest here is that we shouldn’t be targeting those who are deeply embedded in these movements, specifically the men who are leaders in these spaces. Research on alternative narratives has found that they are most effective when targeted at individuals who are not completely embedded in manosphere groups but may sit on the edges or be tempted by their messages. I am not suggesting we attempt to figure out how to get Milo Yiannapolous, Stefan Molyneux, or RooshV (some of the key leaders) out of these spaces. In fact, as evidence from the United States has shown, the best thing we can do with these leaders is to run strong campaigns against them such as the anti-fascist movements in the US. However, there is a big difference between the likes of Yiannapolous and a young man who feels frustrated with the world. Treating them the same will result in them being the same.
Alternative narratives, therefore, are about finding different pathways for individuals to follow. They present a replacement for manosphere or men’s rights narratives and create another space in which men can feel a sense of belonging, connection and understanding of the world. These narratives are not designed to counteract those of the manosphere, but simply to present something equally as persuasive but without misogyny and violence. This cannot be done in isolation and must also occur while targeting the root causes of individual and group alienation and frustration – particularly the destruction of social services and secure work that have occurred during the neoliberal era. Alternative narratives need to include solutions to these problems.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon Copland holds a PhD in Sociology from the Australian National University (ANU), studying online men’s rights groups and communities called ‘manosphere’. He has expertise in online misogyny, extremism, and masculinity, as well as in the far-right. He is a fellow for the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and has a Masters in Science Communication. Simon is a David Bowie and sports fanatic, and in his spare time does amateur powerlifting and volunteers for the emergency services.