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An Interview With Naama Kates, Who Turned Her Fascination With Incels Into A Darkly Riveting Podcast
Imagine a certain recent report on incels, but the opposite
(Premium subscribers: I updated yesterday’s piece with a lengthy new bit at the bottom. Please check out the update if you get a chance.)
I’d been meaning to interview Naama Kates forever. She’s a writer and producer who hosts Incel, a podcast I’ve been very impressed with ever since it launched.
A research paper we’ll return to shortly provides a pithy summary of her project:
Incel is a podcast created by Naama Kates for Crawlspace Media. It has been releasing weekly episodes since August 2019 that feature long-form interviews with Incels, along with experts on relevant issues such as terrorism, mental health, and feminism, and commentary on current events or media pieces related to Incels. The episodes run between 45 and 90 minutes and cover the guest’s life story, or “journey with Inceldom,” but are usually focused on a particular theme (e.g., autism, addiction, childhood abuse, racism, romantic obsession, or a specific Incel meme or belief such as hypergamy). Nearly all of the non-“expert” guests (Incels) contact the podcast themselves, offering to share their stories. Many explain that doing so is personally important, and express gratitude to the show for featuring honest, nonjudgmental conversations with people like themselves.
I realized it was time to finally get this interview done after I wrote a recent piece about incels and how they are studied by researchers and covered by the media. In it, I criticized a very shoddy report by a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate that seemed to step on every imaginable potential rake associated with research into online extremism, and I included an email from Kates expressing skepticism of the report.
Criticizing bad research is one thing — and God knows I’m a fan — but why not show people the right way to cast an interesting and informative light on a strange, unsavory group? What follows is an interview I conducted with Kates over email. If you’re new to Incel, she says the episodes she is most proud of are “Currycels, Ricecels, and Strict Asian Parents,” “The True Believer: the Case of Alek Minassian,” “ONE-ITIS”, “One Before I Rope — the TRUEcel,” and “The OnlyFans Problem.” You should also check out her work for UnHerd.
How were you first drawn to incels as a subject worth covering?
For all the times I’ve been asked this question, I still haven’t found a neat answer to it — there’s probably some kind of subconscious motivation there worth exploring at some point. [Incels] represent the convergence of all sorts of taboo and fascinating subjects — sex, violence, terrorism, hatred, cults, the internet, loneliness, desire. I got really interested in them in 2018, during the height of the culture wars — well, maybe we still haven’t seen the height of those. I was also listening to a lot of podcasts and became drawn to that as a medium for storytelling; it’s like somewhere between a book and a film, I think. You have narration — words that you can write, and people’s voices from interviews, and music, and maybe some light sound design. Those are the tools. And it requires a little more imagination from the listener, which makes it more intimate. It seemed like a perfect fit for incels, many of whom seemed to me to be very intelligent from their posts. They consider themselves prohibitively unattractive, so here’s a platform that strips away that layer, but it’s not just cruel, angry, blustery text. There’s vulnerability in a voice. You can hear all these textures, like insecurity, bitterness, youth, hurt. People can’t hide that when they talk.
Like a lot of young, online groups, they have quite the argot. What are your favorite examples of their slang?
There are loads of fucked-up ones, and I used to have a much more ready list, but I think the ones that have had the most staying power are the types of incels, often categorized by the point of deficiency:
framecels (the slight of build)
heightcels (also known as “manlets”)
mentalcels (autists, depressives, and others whose plight stems more from psyche than physiognomy, also known as “fakecels”)
volcels (voluntary celibate, see “mentalcels.” Also, when discussing a woman: “volcel if you wouldn’t”)
The various ethnicities, which are mostly references to dietary staples are good, too: currycels, mayocels, ricecels. Chad. Chadpreet (Indians). Chaddam (Arabs). These are not pejorative and certainly not slurs, despite what the great minds over at the Center for Countering Digital Hate will have you believe.
The mainstream understanding of incels is that they are exceptionally angry, disturbed young men who are very prone to violence — I mean, just look at the shit they post. Why do you disagree with this view?
Because they’re not prone to violence, not in real life, not actual physical violence, unless you consider the shit they post commensurate to an act of violence. I had a feeling that was the case when I started studying this, that these are young men who spend all this time online and are, by their own description, “high inhib,” or “highly inhibited.” They’re shy. I’ve given trainings for security firms and law enforcement about incels, and have been asked about whether certain types of crimes are connected to incels or not, and how to identify “groups of boys” who might be incels “looking for trouble” and it’s like, well, there’s your answer right there. Groups of boys? No. They don’t hang out in groups. Looking for trouble? No. If some very sick individual “self-radicalizes” online, on an incel forum (a dubious phenomenon indeed, but I’m using it for the sake of the example), then that one in ten thousand or whatever is no more representative of this population than, say, Aaron Hernandez is of professional athletes.
I don’t believe there is any evidence that nasty online posting is linked to real-world violence at all, and at least one recent peer-reviewed study of incels — I connected the researchers with their subjects — compared ideological commitment (belief in the black pill, misogyny) to support for radical actions (illegal activity or violence) and found they were barely correlated. That just tracks, to me, based on the “profile” of the average incel, insofar as you can create one: all talk, in a way. People actually worried about violence against women aren’t likely to find it here. Sorry. I know it’s more fun to lurk on incel fora than to address a population of repeat offenders serving time for their third or fourth domestic abuse charge… anyway.
How do you respond to the inevitable “Oh, so you’re defending misogyny? What, you want to marry Elliot Rodger?” type of discourse?
Fortunately, no one so far has accused me of wanting to marry Elliot Rodger, though I have been asked why I don’t offer to sleep with incels myself if I want to help them so much. Basically, I try not to respond to that discourse at all because I’ve realized that doing so is an exercise in futility. But if I were to respond, I’d say that first of all, I’m not defending misogyny, even if at times I’m defending misogynists, because I think we need to keep a sense of proportion, for everyone’s sake. If a young and inexperienced person is misogynistic, don’t we want to give them room to learn and grow? What are we going to do with all these people that don’t live up to our standards of enlightenment, and what do we expect as a result of whatever that is? Because if it’s painting everyone with a brush of “terrorist,” (and even “misogynist,” which many incels are not, though the culture generally is) then I guarantee we’re going to push more people into hateful extremes. Even if one doesn’t agree with that guarantee, I think we can learn more from talking to people than from making word clouds based on bad taste jokes… and also give people a chance to be heard, and to hear themselves. I think that’s very powerful.
I obviously disagree with those sorts of arguments, but in listening to your podcast, I did notice that there might be some ethical quandaries. Like, if you’re giving some otherwise unknown kid a megaphone to say what he wants, don’t you think there might be some risk he exaggerates, or curates his story in a very specific way, to garner sympathy? Do you ever fact-check what these guys are telling you, or is the point more to let them tell their story on its own terms?
I’m not presenting “the news” with most of these episodes. I don’t ask for people’s real identities unless they offer them, so there’s no real way to fact-check except against their own sort of “testimony” online — I do that sometimes. But ultimately, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. The people go on relatively anonymously, and I don’t think most of them are that interested in gaining sympathy. The ones who distort things are usually representing their genuine perspective. Some of them embellish to make their lives seem more dramatic, but those details aren’t really that important. There’s a law of large numbers effect, where I feel like the overall picture I’m getting of the experiences in this community is realistic.
If someone says they were bullied in childhood or that their parents don’t pay attention to them, or whatever, they probably believe that. There are a handful of guests whom I suspect are exaggerating quite a bit... I might very gently pry but I don’t really want to catch them in a lie; I’d rather just keep the conversation moving. I think what can be learned from their continued participation outweighs the importance of calling out this detail or that, and shutting the whole thing down. I’m not The New York Times, and thus have no obligation to screw over my sources. :-)
What surprised you most about incels?
How much they wanted to talk, to be heard by someone not in their milieu. There are a few “incel experts” in the field of CVE (countering violent extremism) who sell books and give talks based on their intrepid work “infiltrating” (public) incel fora and going “undercover” online — “assuming” a fake identity as an incel by creating an account on a forum. Impressive, no? I’ve been asked if I’ve ever considered “going undercover” myself, because I could potentially learn so much more about incels by calling myself SuicidalAutist45 and using an anime avatar. All the secret terrorist plots would be revealed to me that way, I guess, is the conceit. But apart from those, lots of incels want to talk and to be recognized. It shouldn’t have surprised me. There’s a reason their websites are public, you know? And that’s a very human desire. But it did surprise me.
I’m working on a live podcast segment that centers on Andrew Tate, a truly noxious manosphere type. My working theory is that one reason some young men are drawn to Tate is that there’s a mean-girl version of online feminism — “Fuck you, neckbeard — stop harassing me!,” etc. — that ends up dominating the discourse for algorithmic reasons. Fuck you, neckbeard does good numbers both if you’re a liberal writer trying to carve out a niche as a particularly edgy truth-teller, and if you’re a conservative trying to show how crazy online feminists are. I think Angela Nagle has made a version of this argument, that the sheer nastiness of a lot of “progressive” online culture might help nudge people toward darker places. What are your thoughts on this theory?
Yes, absolutely. And many incels point this out, that there is a double standard — especially in progressive spaces — when it comes to the sexes, in terms of what’s censored or condemned, and what’s allowed or even championed. One of the first incels I talked to mentioned “the errant ‘men are trash’ tweet,” as a shorthand for feminist talk that’s actually just misandrist, and that this kind of talk is considered empowerment, or at worst just written off as cute, or harmless, or relatable. The reverse would not be true. Statements like that about women on social media lead to banned accounts and alarmist reports by organizations like CCDH and ISD. In my personal opinion, it’s sort of natural for men and women to gripe about each other’s behavior in private. Now with online culture, that private stuff becomes public, in all its bitterness and ugliness, and people reading things they probably shouldn’t. Men look in women’s spaces; women look in men’s spaces. I know young women who’ve read manosphere content in their teens or early twenties and found it very damaging to their self-esteem. Well, the reverse is true too. Incels spend a lot of time talking about what they see in “private” sort of women’s spaces, where women just excoriate men they meet, in every way imaginable… all of it is so unhealthy for impressionable minds. I don’t know what can be done about it. But yeah, I think internalizing that kind of stuff can lead people down a rough road.
Who are other trustworthy voices on incels and online radicalization that my readers should check out?
William Costello has been on my show a bunch of times; he’s currently studying evolutionary psychology with David Buss and did a really important study about incels. Simon Cottee has written beautifully about incels and online radicalization. His takes about the extremism “business” — the people who study it, cover it, “counter” it, etc., are canon. Sophia Moskalenko, whose study I linked, is brilliant and does real analysis. James Bloodworth’s exploration of dating apps and the modern dating economy is really sharp and insightful. Mary Harrington is superb and really funny. I don’t know if Crumps (Mike Crumplar) writes about incels anymore, but you should read him anyway.