The recent van massacre in Toronto brought the term “Incel” – short for “involuntarily celibate” – into common usage, when it was revealed that the man in the van, Alek Minassian, identified with that grievance-collecting, Internet-based constituency.
The Ur-text for the Incels is a humanity-indicting manifesto entitled “My Twisted World”, issued by 22-year old massacrist Elliot Rodger, who blamed bullying high school boys and the pretty girls they attracted (but who rejected Elliot) for his social isolation and rage. Rodger killed six young men and women, and injured several others, during a May 2014 rampage in Isla Vista, California, after which he killed himself. A theatrical type, Rodger came through in his videos as a fantasist, projecting himself as a James Bond-like sophisticate, somebody who deserved the adoration of women. In a suave, affected manner, Rodger at one point referred to himself as a “Supreme Gentleman.”
The trope went viral because, after all, what could be more horribly paradoxical than a “gentleman” who hates all humanity, and whose most animating desire is to torture and murder women? One blogger likened Rodger to the character Patrick Bateman in the 1987 film, American Psycho, in which Christian Bale played exactly that role – by day a handsome, successful man of impeccable manners and comportment, rewarded by effortless access to sex with beautiful women, by night a blood-drenched psychopathic monster.
The trope stayed with me because in my literary experience the word “gentleman” has far more complex resonances than the seemingly superficial aspects of self-presentation that fascinated Elliott Rodger. I say “seemingly,” because it is possible that Rodger, in his own pathological way, had sussed out something in our culture, something in the historically unprecedented nature of male-female relations ushered in by feminism, that contains a legitimate seed for male grievance.
It should go without saying that Rodger’s and Minassian’s actions were appalling and that the theme I am about to elaborate is in no way a justification for any man’s active hatred for women or humanity in general. (But obviously I do have to say that to dampen the Twitter mobbing that will inevitably result from publication of these thoughts.)
My point is only this: that even very disturbed people often want to believe their violence is a response to an injustice. They may take in by osmosis a vibe, an unhealthy social or cultural attitude beginning at the top and wafting downward and across society – and I would emphasize the “top”: people in political or cultural authority – that accumulates as a kind of psychological plaque in their unconscious, “permitting” detonation of their hatred on those they perceive as a threat to themselves and society.
A case in point: In 2012, when Pauline Marois was the leader of the Parti Québécois, she ran a fear-based provincial campaign on the alleged fragility of French in Quebec, expressing open hostility to the English language, with first covert, and then overt encouragement for popular revulsion at hearing it spoken. She even complained about its use in people’s own homes. This was a level of anglo-baiting unprecedented in my memory as a long-time resident of Quebec. It is fair to say that a filament of language fascism began to glow threateningly red in the political air.
At the height of the tension, 48-year old Alex Montreuil, visiting Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital (a predominantly anglo institution) for a CT scan, went to the cafeteria for lunch. He explained to the woman making the sandwiches – in English – that he was violently allergic to tomatoes, and asked that she don fresh latex gloves before making his sandwich to avoid any traces of tomato from previous handling. She complied.
As Montreuil was eating, a 30-something woman approached his table, and screamed in French, “Here we speak French, not English.” Montreuil responded, “In my city, in my country, I can speak the language of my choice.”
The woman withdrew for a few minutes, then returned and threw a tomato sandwich at Montreuil’s face. Within seconds, his face and body were swelling dangerously.
In a more serious incident, also related to the charged atmosphere ginned up during the campaign, anglophone Richard Bain, a man obsessed with politics, targeted Pauline Marois for assassination during her election-night victory party, firing a shot at the back door of a Montreal concert hall that killed a security guard and wounded a stagehand.
Poisoned political or cultural air is not good for grievance-collectors with poor impulse control.
Are mentally damaged Incels channelling a similar gender toxin that’s “in the air”? I think they may be. The trope “Supreme Gentleman” is the clue, because the word “gentleman” is code for the concept of male honour in western culture, just as the word “lady” used to be code for female honour. “Lady” is of course rarely used today, unless in irony, for the word calls forth an image of womanhood – sexually repressed, self-effacing, creatively stifled – that bespeaks oppression under patriarchy.
What is honour? James Bowman, author of the 2006 book, Honor, a History, offers a succinct and sense-making definition when he states, “Honor is the good opinion of those who are important to you.” Honour is not synonymous with morality. If you are a member of the Mafia or of Islamic State, honour is a driving force for murder. For the Marine Corps, on the other hand, it is honour, not morality, that will send members back into the thick of battle to rescue a fallen comrade.
Morality is a private matter whereas honour, as Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “acts solely for the public eye”. Although its status in western culture is diminished today, a sense of honour is not entirely moribund in our culture. It still flourishes in the military, as noted above. And though we may struggle to recognize and define honourable behaviour in many aspects of life, we usually have an instinctive grasp of what constitutes “dishonorable” behaviour.
According to Bowman, honour is sex-specific and immutable. Male honour is rooted in physical courage; women’s honour in sexual modesty. Thus, most men are not offended at being labelled lotharios, but they are deeply insulted or ashamed to be called out as cowardly. Conversely, most women are not in the least ashamed at being called risk-averse or even cowardly, but they will be offended if they are called sluts. (Notwithstanding the “Slut Walk” phenomenon, which celebrates sluttishness, but which remains a marginal and probably transitory movement.)
In the West, ancient honour codes combined with Christianity to form the ideal of chivalry, and with it the concept of the gentleman and the lady. According to the chivalric code, men are obliged to respect the sexual boundaries that women erect, protect women from, or rescue women in, distress, commit to domesticity as the price of sexual and patrilineal tranquillity, and observe the amenities that create a social atmosphere which exalts female beauty.
According to the code, in Bowman’s analysis, women show respect and admiration for men performing acts of courage or unusual competence, demonstrate high selectivity in their bestowal of sexual favours, and conduct themselves with the kind of dignity and restraint that promises sexual trustworthiness to a future partner.
Most important, according to the code, men agree to refrain from ever using their superior physical strength against women, potentially dangerous as it may be in the heat of emotional conflict, and women agree to refrain from using their great power to sexually shame and humiliate men, potentially dangerous when casually deployed against fragile and unstable targets. Needless to add, most of these ideals, though paid universal lip service, were often observed in the breach. (But that is the history of the human race regarding all ideals.)
We no longer recognize that paradigm, of course. Or rather, we no longer recognize half of that paradigm. For even though “honour” as a driver for behaviour is almost entirely vestigial in our culture, the concept of the “gentleman” has not been completely plowed under by the feminist juggernaut. Gentlemen linger on in popular culture – not because men refuse to let it die, but because women want it to live.
To illustrate: the highly successful 2001 film, Bridget Jones’ Diary, was meant to be a contemporary update of the 19th century Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. In the latter, the archetypal English gentleman, Mr. Darcy, is finally united in marriage with the archetypal English lady, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, after negotiation over and around a series of obstacles set up by his pride and her prejudice. Both characters exhibit exactly the kind of behaviour at all times that I have described above.
But in the film, Elizabeth-turned-Bridget is a chain-smoker, a binge eater, a domestic slob, and a heavy boozer – not to mention a gal who finds bad boys attractive. To drive home the point, she is shown at the film’s beginning being (willingly) sodomized on a first date with a known cad. Bridget wins her men through casual sexual availability, signaled by provocative dress and affect. She is the exact opposite of the original sexually modest Elizabeth, who wins her man through sparkling wit, self-discipline, family loyalty and strength of character. She shows evidence at every plot turn of an incorruptible value system, extreme dignity under duress, and respect for others with high moral standards. Eminently well suited in character, if not social standing, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth deserve one another because they are honorable peers – and their actions prove it.
Strangely, almost two centuries later, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mark Darcy has not changed a whit from the original Mr. Darcy. In actor Colin Firth’s faithful role reprisal, Darcy is still rich, scholarly, respected, well-mannered, diffident, and slightly prickly in much the same way as Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy. But Bridget is so very far from replicating Elizabeth that even in a comedy, their union is by any stretch of the viewer’s imagination inexplicable. Mark claims to like her “just the way you are”, but that is pure wishful thinking on the part of the script writers: how could a cloned Mr. Darcy, for whom social vulgarity was anathema, respect, let alone find attraction in anyone so common, so coarse, so lacking in self-possession, so not Elizabeth Bennet?
This film appealed to feminists because they approved the message: here was a heroine who indulged all her appetites without curbs or consequences; who admitted to no social or civic or family responsibilities of the kind that are uppermost in Mark Darcy’s mind at all times; who mooched through life with next to no ambition (an attitude reinforced by an equally hopeless circle of friends); who exercised bad judgment in choosing men and precipitately promiscuous behaviour in holding them. Yet in the end, none of that matters because manly Mark Darcy, gentle, upright, honourable Mark Darcy, who can have anyone, chooses to marry Bridget Jones. Because she is adorable. In real life, however, a man of Mark Darcy’s character and values would be repelled by Bridget Jones.
Bridget Jones’ and Mark Darcy’s screen characters illuminate a curious postmodern cultural paradox. The gentleman must at all costs remain a gentleman in the same 200-year old mold Jane Austen describes. On the other hand, the “lady” may act like what we used to call a tramp. But the modern gentleman is not only constrained from judging such women’s behaviour as sluttish, he is obliged to endorse – no, embrace it, lest he be judged a misogynist. (Amy Schumer’s 2015 film, Trainwreck, posits a more traditional, anti-feminist ending to a similar mismatch, but the attraction of the gentlemanly sports doctor, Aaron, to hyper-slutty Amy in the first place seems equally inexplicable. The ending elicited criticism of Schumer’s film as a “betrayal”).
Our society is dominated by theorists who hold that gender roles are socially constructed, and that we have only to wish our instincts malleable to have them become so. If the theorists were correct, then men would accept the half-broken honour-based contract with grace. Many bamboozled men do, for modern life is marinated in feminist dogma, which holds female interests dear and men’s interests cheap.
Certainly the men who are getting lots of sex are happy to show outward deference to an untenable theory as the price to pay for it. Less culturally elite men, however, resent the new gender contract in which women have rights without responsibility and men have responsibilities without rights. Of course they do not normally act out that resentment in violence. Still, it simmers. That is not a good thing.
Then there are the men that are getting no sex, despite their best efforts to act as gentlemen. And who see other men, seemingly no more attractive than themselves, getting all the sex they want from women who have no apparent code of sexual honour whatsoever. They feel dishonoured. The disturbed among them, those afflicted with excessive self-absorption and paranoia, feel that promiscuous women and sexually successful men are conspiring to shame and humiliate them. “Supreme Gentleman” Elliot Rodger felt their pain, gave it a name and community, and, for the most disturbed among them, a murderous illustration of how to redress their shame.
The jettisoning of honour as a criterion for judging the behaviour of others has been the assiduously pursued task of “progressives” throughout the 20th century and beyond in the West. Conversely, the application of honour as the only criterion in judging the behaviour of others – notably the sexual behaviour of girls and women – is a pivotal cultural driver in the Middle East and South Asia.
Each of these ideologically-rooted drives represent poles of honour-related extremism. Both are socially destructive of healthy relations between the sexes. And both tend to obscure the fact that in moderation, honour is a force for good in society.
Nobody is pretending that men and women today should aspire to replicate the social conditions in which the relationship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet played out in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But there is a reason this honourable couple continues to attract fascinated and even envious attention from every new generation of women who discovers them. Something in our nature craves the constraints that produce the rewards an honour code – but a rational and mutually beneficial honour code suited to our individual era – can confer.
Bowman writes that there is a natural pattern to the emergence of honour societies among young men who have been liberated from family and social controls until natural self-correctives resocialize them. Men in the west typically seek resocialization when violence gets out of hand. Second and third generation mafiosos retreat into semi-respectability. Gang killings reach a tipping point and begin to subside. Likewise many women who have thrown off all sexual modesty eventually begin to interrogate the cost-benefit of their behaviour (even the Sex and the City women of the cognitive elite wondered aloud, over their martinis, “Are we sluts?”), and slowly withdraw from promiscuity.
Societies with strong honour codes produce men and women who develop a keen sense of personal responsibility, which is good for society as a whole. Too little, and nothing seems worth fighting for. Too much, and everything seems worth dying for. Finding the balance is the key. The Yonge St. massacre highlights how badly out of sync things are today.