Ten people in Toronto lost their lives when a man drove a rental truck down a street with the intent of hitting as many people as he could. A screenshot of his Facebook post identifying himself as an incel was verified, Redditors cringed at the quality of mainstream coverage of that community, and commentators took to their keyboards for a fresh set of hot takes.
The takes are a particularly depressing reminder that being dumb and outrageous will generate more attention than a thoughtful and honest effort to engage with any given topic. I will credit one column with bringing my attention to Amia Srinivasan’s article Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?, even if I suspect the author did not read it all the way through, but have no intention of rewarding sloppy thinking with the traffic it so obviously craves. It is sufficient to say are a lot of op-eds talking about sex robots and incels right now, and not one of them has acknowledged that this is a solution that community actually wishes for.
If we are looking for some kind of ur-take, the most likely candidate is Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias : Two Types of Envy. Why include a link just after claiming I don’t want to reward a certain type of article? Mostly because I think Hanson is actually trying to make a point about our attitudes towards income redistribution. Leveraging the Toronto tragedy is tacky, and the analogy between sex and income is unconvincing, but it seems reasonably clear it is intended to provoke deeper consideration of a fairly major policy that most of us take for granted as being good. I am warmer to Srinivasan’s article than Hanson’s since the former taught me things I didn’t know, but I recognize the latter as an effort to make its readers be reflective. Furthermore, it is one of the few articles that directly acknowledges the threat of violence that comes with the incels’ self-pity.
This omission of the violence underpinning everything written in that community is combined with the curious implication that somehow multiple commentators just happened to independently arrive at sex robots as a solution in time to discuss its relative merits. There is no way to know if any of these writers did bother to read about the community, but it difficult to tell which admission is more damning: That they have carefully sanitized the group’s conclusions for their take, or that they are covering a group responsible for multiple acts of violence without bothering to do any research. One can argue the merits of the equivalence Hanson draws between income and sex (for instance, calls for income redistribution being underpinned by threats of violence seems almost axiomatic to someone with a libertarian worldview, but this is not the only motivation for this policy), but he starts with the violence in Toronto and he specifically says the threat of such acts is the tool incels think will achieve their goals.
It is appropriate to describe what is happening in the incel community as young men being radicalized by an online extremist group and carrying out acts of violence. As such it is useful to take them at their word as to their motivations. The Oklahoma City bombing did not seem to inspire think pieces about what McVeigh got right about US foreign policy, and nobody seems to be rushing to ask if IS has any good points to make about slavery, but apparently we can’t just reduce a violent subset of the sexual have-nots to its most toxic form and instead should consider what the Toronto attack means vis-à-vis getting some. In contrast, Srinivasan identifies ways in which our sexual preferences and norms lead to unequal outcomes and the loneliness that entails, all without having to ask whether or not we’re doing enough to keep misogynists happy.
Reducing the conversation to sex robots and the need for incels to have their desires satiated presents a violent group as far more reasonable than it actually is and essentially grants all their premises all in the name of another column and some retweets. Who can seriously look at those posts and say the obvious problem is the quality and availability of masturbatory aids? As it happens, columnists only needed to read the full argument with regards to the sex bots to find a mapping from an average readership to incels. Incels hope for a future with sex bots so “a woman’s only value” falls to near zero due to the availability of alternatives. It’s repellant, it’s obviously wrong, and yet the lived experience of What It’s Like to Be a Really Beautiful Woman reveals this is apparently how beautiful women are actually treated by ‘normies’. Not only does this allow for some soul-searching on the part of men, but creates a stronger link to an incel’s beliefs on which an effort to de-extremize them can be built.
Columnists looking for a particularly sharp edge need not limit their economics study to Hanson, but could instead consider a paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah which found a decrease in sexual violence that coincided with the decriminalization of prostitution. Such a column would not need to resort to science fiction to consider the consequences of the introduction of alternatives for people unable or unwilling to find a traditional partner. This concreteness is exactly why such a column is unlikely to appear in the op-ed pages as it would require the columnist to be accountable for getting things wrong in a way that science fiction does not.
Among the details that have been glossed over in the attack, the reaction of the police officer on the scene is the most interesting. Despite the attacker’s efforts to provoke him to open fire, even asking him to “Kill me”, the officer did not fire his weapon and instead apprehended the suspect. There will be no martyrdom for the Toronto attacker and he will be confronted with the humanity of his victims and the consequences of what he has done. It’s easy to imagine writing that the attacker got what he deserved if the encounter with the officer had gone differently, and yet now I will have to confront his own humanity. This exceptional bit of police work now means that we have a better chance at gaining an insight into why and how these men are being radicalized, and replaces the nascent incel legend with court appearances and consequences.
This is what we are losing in the op-eds about sex robots: The humanity of the victims, the loneliness of the incels, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of our daily conduct and their ideology. The angry response on social media is not a demand that these columnists suspend their right to speech, but that they exercise their right to thought.