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Incels and Free Speech Online

There seems to be an online group for everything these days.

Dog-lovers, vegans, book clubs, and political parties alike assemble online to share their opinions and passions with others who think like they do. I remember joining websites based on my interests, reading about Young Adult novel fan theories and movie reviews. There is something empowering about community, about being heard and accepted. The expansion of social media has allowed us to assemble, to make new friends, and to start a conversation. We are now more connected and more open than ever, an amazing web full of different people bonding over shared interests.

The internet is amazing, yes, but also terrifying.

I was taking a hike with my aunt when I learned about incels. She told me she read about them in a New Yorker article in which Jia Tolentino defines them as “a subset of straight men calling themselves ‘incels,’” or involuntary celibates, who “have constructed a violent political ideology around the injustice of young, beautiful women refusing to have sex with them.”

The language the incels use is violent and dehumanizing, as they refer to women as “femoids,” using the pronoun “it” rather than “she.” In fact, there is an incel vernacular that is used on message boards and in online groups, shared speech which unifies the men even further. On these message boards, they share their feelings of rejection and loneliness, but also in-depth fantasies about rape and murder, illustrating a deep hatred for women that goes beyond sexual dissatisfaction.

It is disturbing, no doubt, and yet easily accessible.

Though many people love to toss free speech around as an all encompassing law, there are limits to what we can say. Contrary to popular belief, there is speech that is unprotected by the Constitution, notably obscenities, fighting words, and the encouraging of unlawful behavior. However, it can be difficult to enforce these footnotes to free speech. What seems obscene to one person may be normal to another, and though judges use the reasonable person standard, it can still be very subjective with no definitive regulations on what we can and cannot say.

The current political climate seems to embolden those with shocking or discriminatory opinions and encourage them to speak their minds with no consequence, even if their speech could potentially incite violence. We saw this last year at the Charlottesville rally, during which racial and anti-Semitic slurs were thrown around and talk of war and retaliation were rampant. We see it online every day, as people call for Twitter officials to unverify neo-nazis and work against their rhetoric. Twitter, among other private websites, refuse to remove violent and fearful rhetoric from their websites despite the fact that private companies are allowed to take down content regardless of free speech. Companies and citizens alike are fearful of removing abusive content, anticipating the angry responses citing censorship. The conversation around free speech has become unproductive and reactive.

An open and free internet is unifying and exciting. However, it is our duty as users and consumers to notice and discuss when we see content that targets or endangers groups of people.

As a woman, reading the incel message boards is deeply troubling. Yet, it is complicated to pick apart online comments and decide whether or not they should be protected under the Constitution. We all have a right to assemble and share our thoughts. However, when speech incites violence or lawlessness, it is also our right to openly question whether or not that is okay. It is important that we continue this discussion in order to create the most free, safe, and productive internet for everyone.


Emma Ragusa is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature.

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