Mainstream Culture Helps Spawn Extremists

We think of the mass shooters as fringe, but toxic attitudes that reflect their feelings aren’t hard to find in everyday media

Mainstream Culture Helps Spawn Extremists
Mourners leave a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 after a funeral for one of nine Black Americans whom a white racist gunman killed days earlier at a prayer meeting / Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Last month, America was rocked by two terrorist atrocities (and many more disparate mass shootings), separated by thousands of miles and ideology. In the first, a white supremacist killed Black shoppers in a supermarket, while in the second, a Latino teenager killed children and teachers in an elementary school. They both happened the week that the U.K. was remembering the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil, the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017 by an Islamist suicide attacker. Three different mass killings, three different ideologies, three separate demographics of victims. But there are threads of hatred that unite them all.

Spending time on far-right forums, as I have done extensively as part of my research at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, shows how routine misogyny is, from detailed theories to throwaway remarks. And it’s not just extremist sites. In fact, the reason the Cambridge group began collecting data from extremist forums is because of the misogyny the team had noticed in hackers’ forums, a subject not obviously about women. “We’d noticed that the most harmful stuff on the hacker forums was almost all motivated by misogyny rather than technical experimentation or money-making,” Ben Collier of the Cambridge lab told me. This work was grueling, and I could read for only a limited amount of time per day. But what was even more alarming than the naked misogyny was when I stopped work and read the news, seeing the exact same hatreds, dressed up in slightly more sanitized language but recognizable nonetheless.

We are used to thinking of terrorism in terms of extremism, which suggests something on the fringe — on the extremes, with the rest of us sitting in the middle somewhere. If this is the case, we can more easily dismiss as freakish outliers those terrorists who go on the rampage in schools or attack teenage girls coming out of a concert. But when we look at these disenfranchised angry young men, they have drawn legitimacy for their hatreds — most notably against two main groups, women and Jews — not only from online chatrooms but also from YouTube celebrities, mainstream authors, newspapers, news programs and politicians. Ancient dehumanizing tropes are being wheeled out in the media and social media alike, given new appearances with pseudoscientific conspiracies. If we genuinely want to address and counter violent extremism, we need to start by holding those closer to home to account.

Before going on the rampage in Uvalde, Texas, the terrorist first shot his grandmother, echoing the actions of the Sandy Hook shooter who shot his mother five times before killing 20 children and six (female) adults in an elementary school. The Manchester bomber punched a fellow female student in the head for wearing a skirt he deemed too short. Violence against women is in the backgrounds of countless terrorists of all persuasions (Joan Smith profiled 50 cases in her book, “Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists”) yet is rarely seen as a warning sign — perhaps because there is simply too much in our society for law enforcement to sift through. When is a wife-beating after the loss of a favorite sport team going to end up in a mass shooting? It’s hard to tell when the police’s phone lines are so deluged after football games.

Politicians aren’t helping. Across the world, in totalitarian states and democracies alike, they are enacting laws that ignore women’s voices and control their bodies. They use language and express views on women that go unchallenged despite the damage we know these stereotypes do in shaping social behavior, including domestic violence. At the moment, at least 56 British members of Parliament are under investigation for sexual harassment. When one female MP raised concerns about aggressive language from politicians fueling real-world violence, Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with “Humbug.” Philosopher Kate Manne has shown in great detail in her book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny,” how language from politicians and others serve to box women into spaces. Women who do not conform to what those in charge — men — believe is appropriate are punished through ridicule, dismissal and silencing. This sets the scene for certain theories to thrive in mainstream outlets — and not just in right-wing outlets. The New York Times published an opinion piece that echoed talking points of the incel movement, a subculture that attracts males who are involuntarily celibate. An outcry forced them to take it down, but the fact that a piece arguing for the provision of sex for single males got through their editorial board is hard to understand.

And there’s the problem we have: Misogyny is mainstream.

Women are at the heart of many conspiracies online, along with “feminism,” which, according to these stereotyped and hate-filled theories, has empowered women to diminish men’s rights in the world — the basis of the men’s rights activists who permeate far-right spaces. This is a zero-sum game where either men or women “win.” In their view, women (via feminism) are currently winning because shadowy forces are supporting them: Liberals, variously referred to as “libtards,” “politically correct,” “woke” and other terms, are routinely mentioned, sometimes in connection with academia or the media. But they, too, are often themselves being duped by further shadowy forces — the Jews. Antisemitism, like misogyny, is inescapable in these spaces.

These attitudes are often framed in old anthropological theories, developed in the service of the empire, long since discredited. Theories such as the “ladder of civilization,” with “whites” occupying the top place, were given a pseudoscientific appearance by drawing on evolutionary arguments, leading to such notorious “experiments” as measuring skulls to “prove” racial differences. These are considered nonsense by any academic, but they stubbornly endure online, used to diminish and dehumanize any minority seen as nonwhite (“white” itself being a meaningless category, seen most clearly in the way it has changed over the years). The over-representation of Black people in U.S. prisons, for example, is explained by biology and genes, rather than social history and realities of oppression and discrimination. In this framework, white supremacy is a given, and so increasing representation of nonwhites doesn’t just create fear of being replaced (seen in the Great Replacement Theory), but also anger at the perceived injustice — whites, in such theories, should have the top spot, and science says so. Fear plus anger is a potent mix, seen so tragically in events such as the recent mass shooting in Buffalo or the 2015 shooting at a predominantly African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The tropes used to dehumanize women, Jews, people of color and other minorities are ancient: Rats, pigs, devils and mobs all serve to further dehumanize feared and hated groups of people, using them as scapegoats to explain anything they see as wrong in the world from COVID-19 to their lack of a girlfriend. This scapegoating is also ancient: Jews were widely blamed for the bubonic plague that swept Eurasia and North Africa in the 14th century, resulting in real-world attacks so severe that philosopher David Livingstone Smith has called the period the “first holocaust.” Dehumanization of women as biological machines is seen across the world of hate, whether white supremacist, incel or Islamist, along with the dehumanization of Jews as puppet masters of the world, working against all non-Jews by controlling the global banking and media systems, which is to say, controlling power and social narratives.

These antisemitic conspiracies are linked to misogynistic ones, via the belief that Jews are championing women’s causes as part of their nefarious plot to undermine civilization. Racist theories are also linked to misogyny, via old tropes of Black men as a menace to “our” women and more recent theories of “degenerate” Black culture being made “cool” by the “woke,” thus tempting white women into relationships (women, of course, not having the sense to see the trap they’re falling into).

But once again, you don’t need to dig out extremist online discussion boards to find such toxic attitudes. Former President Donald Trump is reported to have said: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” His attitudes toward Jews may have empowered the Charlottesville protesters who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in 2017. And this isn’t just in right-wing politics. In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn, who would go on to become leader of the Labour Party, liked a picture on Facebook that showed bankers running the world — and they had the noses and the hats that instantly peg them as Jews. He claimed not to realize the implications, but that this can happen is already shocking.

These casual prejudices and hatreds must be fed to end up in such horrific violence, and for many, the fuel is found online. Perusing a variety of these discussion boards shows how normalized these conspiracies are among the communities who produce so many of the worst shootings. No one in these chatrooms produces proof that the “global elites” are controlling the world’s economies or that “cultural Marxists” are in control of universities, producing a “woke” narrative that the “politically correct” don’t challenge: They are simply stated and accepted as facts. And there is no doubt they lead to violence: “They’re commiting genocide to my people. … I just want to kill Jews,” the Pittsburgh shooter told the police; 29 of the 180 pages in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto contained references to Jews.

Attitudes toward Israel, however, do vary: Although Israelis are, by virtue of being Jews, part of this global controlling network, Israel as an ethno-nationalist state is greatly admired by white supremacists. The 1970s novel “The Turner Diaries” charts a race war leading to such an outcome, a book the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was obsessed with, and which Amazon pulled after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, along with its decision to stop hosting social media platform Parler (already known for its extremist content, it was used to coordinate and plan the attack).

Perhaps surprisingly, white supremacy is not universal over the extremist forums we tend to label “far right,” because this disparate group includes the so-called manosphere. This in itself is an extremely heterogeneous grouping of male online communities, marked by a hostility to women, though most have the simultaneous aim of finding sex with said women, whether in a partnership or casual encounters. The incels are perhaps the most (in)famous of these groups, thanks to several attacks with multiple fatalities, including the Isla Vista, California, shootings in 2014, the Toronto van assault in 2018 and the Plymouth, England, shootings of 2021, resulting in increased media attention to their ideology of alpha males and superficial women who have eyes only for these men named “Chads.” According to the ideology, men not gifted with looks don’t get sex. But there are many other subcultures in the manosphere.

Pick Up Artists (known as PUAs) are devoted to developing tricks to bypass this superficiality of women. With origins in the men’s self-help movement of the 1970s, members explicitly draw on those texts giving dating advice, as well as new ones written by Master Pick Up Artists (MPUAs). But there has been a dangerous shift since the self-help origins of the movement, and that’s the addition of pseudoscientific theories to support their views on women. Academics such as psychologist Jordan Peterson, who is widely discussed across the manosphere, give credence to this veneer of scientific validation, a move already seen with early anthropology in terms of race.

Then there is “lookism,” discussion boards mostly dedicated to tedious explanations of gym routines, diets and forms of plastic surgery. These communities, too, have “science” at their core, making arguments about what is most attractive to women based on evolution, which verge into racist theories familiar from the eugenics movement. Some men have given up on the pursuit of sex altogether, forming a movement called Men Going Their Own Way, or MGTOW. All are interrelated to some extent, seen in the pseudoscientific theories that permeate all the sites, with evolution used to justify their attitudes to women. Even with the PUAs, which started as simple dating and lifestyle advice, there has been a shift toward the incel space: You can occasionally find a man with respectful attitudes to women, wanting to succeed in finding a partner without coercion or any other form of disrespect, but when you read down the thread there is always a descent into a misogyny, some form of “they don’t know what they want,” used to justify anything from lies to violence.

One of the linking extremist ideologies across the manosphere is the Red Pill theory, a reference to the film “The Matrix,” where the hero chooses the red pill, which wakes him up to reality, over the blue pill, which would keep him living in happy ignorance. Red-pillers believe they’re “awake” to the real truth about their lives: a conspiracy where the world has been constructed for the benefit of women, disenfranchising men, socially, economically and sexually. There is a liberal — often Jewish — plot to disguise this “truth,” but with the red pill, you can see through this narrative and understand that men are the real victims in our world.

This ideology was born on Reddit but has spread across the manosphere — and beyond. The Arabic Red Pill movement is growing, with twitter handles counting hundreds of thousands of followers. The narratives are similar, with the added angle of a Western, neocolonial element of the plot to destroy the Arab or Muslim world — through feminism, destroying the traditional culture where men thrived. Men’s sense of victimhood has recently been vindicated by the verdict in the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which resonated across the Arab world. As my colleague Rasha Al Aqeedi wrote, “In my lifetime, I have never seen Arab men this united in spirit with one man since Gamal Abdel Nasser.”

There are rays of hope when navigating this morass of hatred. Research shows that the vast majority of those who join these communities leave after a single post, possibly put off by the ideology. The minority who stay are those who already have the conspiratorial explanations or who quickly become convinced by them, but even with this small fraction, there is minimal discussion of violence to achieve their aims; there’s even an argument to be made that some of these communities may act as a brake on violence by providing frustrated young men the support network they are lacking offline. Although the step from ideology to violence is still poorly understood, there is no doubt that the numbers of atrocities committed in the name of conspiracies blaming Jews and/or women are on the rise.

Could this be linked to increasing legitimation of views, rather than time spent online? Trump, as Yale academic Jason Stanley and others have shown, followed the fascism playbook in whipping up crowds and creating a following. It’s textbook Hitler, explained Livingstone Smith. “First you elicit depression and guilt, until it’s an orgy of self-pity, but then you change track: It’s not you, it’s communists, the Jews, the international bankers — they’re the enemy.” That is, there’s a move from depression and resentment to paranoia. For Trump, this varied: China is exploiting America; there are Mexican rapists and drug dealers on the border. Then: “There’s the magical solution, your salvation: join the Nazi party, or vote for Trump and Make America Great Again.”

We saw the success of this approach in the crowds and in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but power wasn’t the only outcome of his speeches. Trump gave permission to express a variety of racist opinions, attitudes that were present in society but — until then — socially unacceptable to voice. The feeling of voicelessness can drive people onto the street (seen in the Arab Spring) and to search online spaces where they can express themselves. Being given this space in public — that is, to be given permission to be authentic to your views — is a powerful drug. Further, media organizations and personalities chasing audience attention closely monitored the effects of Trump’s speeches; their undoubted popularity caused a shift in the Overton window of what was acceptable — even rewarding — to say in public.

And so we have Tucker Carlson repeating QAnon talking points; politicians dismissing violence against women and amplifying antisemitic tropes; groups taking to the streets to protest against the Black Lives Matter movement, confident in expressing their racism; and people picking up guns to shoot Black shoppers in a supermarket or worshipers in a church, Muslims in a mosque or women on the street.

These are not isolated examples but expressions of an ecosystem of hate that goes from the top to the bottom of society, in many countries across the world. Legitimizing hate has consequences that many seek to deny, knowing that expressing such attitudes results in votes and viewers alike. We have no hope of tackling terrorism without dealing with the mainstream, but they, contrary to the conspiracies of QAnon and far-right chatrooms, are not shadowy figures operating in a parallel structure of power. They are in plain sight, and much more dangerous for it.

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