On April 23, a van struck and killed 10 pedestrians, injuring 16 others, on the sidewalks of Yonge St. Eight of those killed were women, including 22-year-old U of T student So He Chung. The alleged perpetrator, Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old Seneca College student, now faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.
In trying to explain conflict and violence, the gender variable is frequently overlooked — particularly the ways in which toxic masculinity and misogyny push young men to express their anger and disaffection through violence against women. The Toronto van attack is an example of the gender variable close to home.
Prior to the Toronto attack, Minassian posted a message on his Facebook page referencing an “Incel Rebellion” and expressing admiration for Elliot Rodger, who committed a massacre in Isla Vista, California in 2014, also motivated by a hatred of women.
Minassian’s Facebook post has shone new light on a little-known subculture on the internet. ‘Incels,’ or ‘involuntary celibates,’ are an online community of men who attribute their lack of sexual success to biology, feminism, and society as a whole. Due to genetic factors such as appearance or height, incels believe themselves to be inherently undesirable and destined for a life without sex. They typically view their lot in life as unchangeable, describing themselves as having lost the genetic lottery. Incels hold particular contempt for women, whom many incels feel owe them sex and romantic attention. Some incels are more extreme, discussing and encouraging violence against women.
Like Minassian, some of these more extreme incels also idolize Elliot Rodger. Before carrying out his attack targeting women, Rodger recorded a manifesto about his lack of sexual success, his disdain for women, and his desire to seek revenge. After the Yonge Street attack, some incels celebrated online when news of it broke and said women were to blame because they wouldn’t have sex with the accused person.
Racial double standards
Even though far-right extremism — a category to which Minassian surely belongs — is a far greater threat than Islamist violence in Canada, mass murders are frequently associated with Islam because of the political weight the religion carries in the War on Terror climate.
Following the attack, CBC’s Natasha Fatah tweeted a witness statement that the attacker appeared “Middle Eastern.” Although Fatah later deleted the tweet, it went viral and was exploited by right-wing media outlets, including the Toronto Sun, Breitbart, and Infowars, and far-right personalities like U of T alumnus Faith Goldy. For hours, an unverified and politically charged statement was treated as fact. Although Fatah had later tweeted another witness statement accurately describing the attacker as white, it circulated far less on social media.
The National Post’s Barbara Kay, immediately after the attack, with no confirmation of the motive or identity of the attacker, argued that it was reasonable and preferable to assume that the attack had been inspired by ideology — namely Islamism — because “patterns lead to predictions,” and Islamist van attacks are one such pattern. She argued that ideological attacks provide some sense of order and hope because they can be understood and addressed, whereas isolated attacks produce chaos.
In her column, she cited University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson on his explanations of order and chaos. The very same Jordan Peterson was quoted as saying, in a recent New York Times piece, that Minassian was “angry at God because women were rejecting him,” and that the “cure for that is enforced monogamy” — a model for the redistribution of sex.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that we generally do not ascribe terminologies like ‘ideology’ or ‘terrorism’ when the motive is gendered and when the perpetrator is white, as we would when the attack is somehow connectable to Islam. Even though Minassian’s ideology is clearly misogyny, he is conversely justified by comments like Peterson’s that suggest that the responsibility lies upon women to not anger or reject men. Minassian’s misogyny is protected by our culture’s misogyny: we blame the victim while we afford the attacker humanity.
Indeed, the media granted Minassian a complex narrative which warrants the reader’s sympathy: a “socially awkward software developer,” a “failed military recruit” with “health challenges” and autism. The problem is stripped of ideology and individualized. Yet we would never do the same were the attacker to be brown, Black, or Muslim and their motive linked to Islam. The fact that the Toronto Police were praised for their de-escalation and arrest of Minassian, for example, stands in stark contrast to the notoriously fatal cases of police escalation against racialized men like Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku.
Evidently, terrorism remains restricted to a particular script that is invoked only when the attacker and their motives relate to a politically charged issue. The facts remain that we fail to identify misogyny as an ideology that informs mass murder, and that Black and brown people who are suspected of violence are not afforded the same humanization as people like Minassian.
From the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal to the recent Toronto van attack, misogynistic violence should compel us to have difficult but necessary conversations. It is an urgent problem that we must address ideologically and institutionally, not simply in the context of the attacker’s ‘mental health.’ Our culture must encourage young men to deal with emotions in healthy, constructive ways. We must also scrutinize the racial double standards in legal and political reactions toward mass violence. This includes the media, which must commit to a more responsible journalism that evaluates the consequences of reporting in politically sensitive contexts.
At U of T, there must be conversation on misogyny and how it operates within our institutions. The work of Silence is Violence on campus and Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against the university and Trinity College remind us that educational institutions must answer for their role in violence against women. Whether in our campuses, workplaces, or homes, there is much work to be done if we are to realize gender justice and eradicate the ideology known as misogyny.