Shouldn't misogynist violence be classified as terrorism?

Plymouth shooting was an act of hatred against women. Viewing it as a mental health issue is a red herring

Floral tributes left near a home following a shooting incident in Plymouth earlier this week. Police say six people were killed last Thursday in an that wasn’t terror-related. AP Photo
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It was the fact that he killed his mother first that got me. Jake Davidson, a 22-year-old white man, last week gunned down five people, including his mum and a three-year-old girl during a 12-minute killing spree in the southern British port city of Plymouth. He then took his own life.

He was a man who truly hated women. It wasn’t just by the evidence of his actions. He said it himself. “Women are arrogant and entitled beyond belief” and that he was "bitter and jealous" that women apparently "treat men with zero respect or even view them as human beings". He justified sexual assaults on women because "women don’t need men no more" and pitied himself as an "Incel" who are "essentially a race of outcasts, abused and forgotten by humanity" who deserve "a better place in society".

Incels – or involuntary celibates – broadly believe that men are entitled to women. Some even say that if women refuse, they can be punished. While the name sounds innocuous enough, it is built on a rage-filled worldview that a man not getting sexual fulfillment is actively being repressed by women.

According to Kings College London researcher Florence Keen, one of the biggest forums in the UK has 13,000 active members. And even though Ms Keen does say that it is hard to determine whether all Incels are violent, mass shootings under the broad banner are growing in number. In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a rampage at the University of California stabbing and shooting students before killing himself. Several more have taken place in the US, as well as Germany and Canada.

Davidson subscribed to several gun-related online video channels, including one providing training videos for firearm owners. Why then, many have been asking, was his firearms license renewed earlier in the year?

This is probably because extreme misogyny is often not taken seriously as a threat. But this horrific event has created a strong argument that has already been brewing for some time, that not only should misogyny be a hate crime, but that extreme misogyny – as espoused by the likes of the Incel movement and now playing out with horrifying regularity in multiple countries – should be classed as a form of terrorism.

Under UK law, terrorism is defined thus: "Use or threat of action, both in and outside of the UK, designed to influence any international government organisation or to intimidate the public. It must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause."

There is no question that such acts intimidate the public. Just ask any woman. The hot debate is whether extreme misogyny is an ideological cause.

The Incel movement does have a strategic purpose: to terrorise women into giving them what they see as their due, and to punish them if they don’t, the big picture being to give men dominance that they believe is a man’s right.

Such a classification would ensure that ideologies of this kind are properly scrutinised and monitored and have the resources and attention on them required to properly tackle them. But it just isn’t taken seriously.

The question is whether the general public attitude towards violence against women is misguided.

Consider some of the common reactions when women are attacked, raped or killed. Some say it is "her fault", that "she should have stayed at home", "she was out late" and "she wore the wrong clothes". Often the focus on the perpetrators is driven by empathy. They are often humanised for supposedly having mental health issues. On other occasions, they get the "lone wolf" tag. In a 2019 research conducted in the West and published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, two studies found that blaming sexual harassment victims is linked to empathy for male perpetrators.

The hot debate is whether extreme misogyny is an ideological cause

But reframing hatred as a mental health issue is a red herring. So many people undergo mental health challenges, but they don't go around massacring people. The lone wolf label denies the network of links to dangerous ideologies.

All of the above obfuscations can distract from a legitimate motivation for such violence, which is misogyny. And rather than push back with phrases such as "not all men are misogynistic", there need to be honest conversations about the problem.

At the beginning of the article, I noted that Davidson was a "white" man. The adjective can be jarring for many in the West and can make them uncomfortable to use it, given the default view here is that terrorism happens to white men, and is not perpetrated by them. This is in large part why people in the West have struggled to characterise violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups as terrorism. Hence the use of such labels as "lone wolf". There is, however, a strong argument to be made that what happened in Plymouth is nothing but terrorism.

The debate itself is important, because it shines a spotlight on the scale and pervasiveness of two problems, but particularly misogyny. Whether it is the misogyny of the everyday kind or the extreme variety, it has a terrifying and life-altering impact on women’s lives. When someone hates women so much that they kill their own mother after being radicalised online, we need to talk about this. There are no excuses left to shy away from it.

Published: August 19, 2021, 9:00 AM