Politics & society

Georgia attack reflects misogyny, racism embedded in mainstream society

Killings fit pattern of misogynist violence, Berkeley scholar says

women with flowers mourning the victims of Georgia mass murder

Women in the Atlanta area prepared to lay bouquets at a makeshift memorial to the eight people killed by a gunman on Tuesday in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. (Photo by Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Georgia law enforcement agents and the FBI have only begun to investigate Tuesday’s murder of eight people — six of them women of Asian descent — and much about the killer’s motivation remains unknown. But the shocking violence, the targeting of massage parlors and the suspect’s expressed intention to kill women for being a sexual temptation indicate that he was motivated, at least in part, by misogynist beliefs, says UC Berkeley scholar Alex DiBranco.

While investigators are probing a possible racist, anti-Asian rationale, that motive appears to be closely intertwined with rage against women, DiBranco said in an interview yesterday. The killings, she added, “definitely fit a pattern of misogynist violence … based on dehumanization of women and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies.”

headshot of Alexandra DiBranco

Alex DiBranco (Photo by Victoria Remler)

DiBranco is the executive director of the Institute for Research into Male Supremacism (IRMS), a two-year-old international research center, and an affiliate scholar of the Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies (CRWS).

After the arrest of Robert Aaron Long on Tuesday, the IRMS issued a statement on the Georgia shootings, noting the intersection of male supremacism, racism, white supremacy and xenophobia. “Details of the shooter’s motivation thus far suggest that the attack is a reflection of the misogyny and racism embedded in mainstream society,” the IRMS said.

Officials identified those killed as Daoyou Feng, 44; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Soon C. Park, 74; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Yong A. Yue, 63.

The killings were a central topic of discussion during an online panel discussion yesterday (Thursday, March 18), co-sponsored by IRMS and CRWS, that focused on the institute’s February report, “Misogynist Incels and Male Supremacism.” The report was co-published with the nonprofit organization New America.

In the interview, DiBranco said misogynist incels — “incel” is short for “involuntary celibate” — are emerging as an important force in right-wing extremist culture and warrant close attention from law enforcement and policymakers.

The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Berkeley News: The IRMS statement issued yesterday says that the Georgia attacks reflect, in part, the misogyny embedded in society. Can you elaborate on that?

Alex DiBranco: There is a tendency in the face of misogynist and racist attacks for commenters to depict the attackers as fringe actors, acting out of some extreme ideology that is unconnected to mainstream society. But that just isn’t the case. Male supremacism and white supremacism are deeply interwoven into the structures of U.S. society.

Over the past year, as found by a Stop AAPI Hate report released the same day as the shootings, there has been an increase in anti-Asian American hate incidents, with women reporting at 2.3 times the rate of men. This increase has been fueled by xenophobic rhetoric coming not from some fringe group, but from the Republican Party and the former president of the United States.

Men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, perceiving women as sexual objects that exist for their use, blaming women for their own sexual desires — these are elements not only of extreme misogynist ideologies, but endemic to our society. The United States’ exclusionary and imperial history informs the present culture in which Asian women in particular are othered, objectified and hypersexualized, and harassment, abuse and assaults of Asian women are tolerated.

Do you see any signs, at least outwardly, that suggest the Georgia attacks fit a pattern of violence against women that are associated with misogynist ideology or with men who identify with misogynist incel beliefs?

The Georgia attacks definitely fit a pattern of misogynist violence against women based on dehumanization of women and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies — and this can mean both a sense of entitlement to sexual access to women’s bodies and a sense of entitlement to perpetrate violence against women’s bodies, if they so desire.

In recent years, most acts of ideology-driven male supremacist mass violence have been related to the misogynist incel ideology, bringing that movement greater attention. Misogynist incel ideology is founded on these premises of dehumanization of women, entitlement to women’s bodies and justification for perpetrating violence.

But these premises are also foundational to other male supremacist belief systems, including that common to perpetrators of domestic abuse — what is sometimes called “everyday violence” — and predate the misogynist incel community.

No evidence has emerged yet indicating that the Georgia shooter was influenced by the misogynist incel community. Instead, he appears to be motivated not by a particular organized misogynist movement and ideology, but by racism and misogyny familiar in mainstream society.

But is this an actual movement? Are there organizations — are there websites and chat rooms — that advance these ideas of dehumanization, objectification and violence?

Yes. Some male-supremacist movements, like the men’s rights movement, predate the Internet, getting their start in opposition to the feminist movement beginning in the 1970s. However, the expansion of Internet access and online discussion forums in the 1990s and 2000s enabled the wider spread of ideologies and the development of new movements organized online.

Dedicated forums organized around particular groups, such as misogynist incels, as well as channels on 4chan, advance misogynist dehumanization and glorification of violence. Manifestos from perpetrators of mass violence are quoted, and worldviews are presented and analyzed, such as beliefs in the “red pill” or “black pill.”

Misogyny is also a main pillar of the “alt-right,” along with racism and anti-Semitism. Then, on the other hand, we have the misogyny and racism absorbed from media, education, politicians, culture — in other words, we are simultaneously dealing with specific organized male supremacist and antifeminist movements, with more generalized “everyday” misogyny that might show up as gender-based harassment or violence, and with the entrenched structures of male supremacism and white supremacism.

How prevalent — and how important — is the misogynist incel movement in the overall right-wing extremist movement in the U.S. and other countries?

The misogynist incel movement has primarily been connected to acts of violence in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., there have been attacks motivated primarily by misogynist incel ideology, and ones in which misogynist incel ideology intertwined with other far-right and white supremacist ideologies. Misogyny and male supremacism are important aspects of the overall far-right movement in the U.S. Beyond misogynist incels, other groups, such as the Proud Boys, are also of concern.

In Canada, the 2018 Toronto van attack connected to the misogynist incel movement is one of the three most fatal acts of mass violence in the country. With a recent guilty verdict in that trial, and another case involving terrorism charges based on what they term “incel extremism,” the movement holds particular concern for that country.

While incel-related violence has mostly been limited to the U.S. and Canada, as a movement organized primarily online, its forums reach members across borders. A report from Sweden found that their country was disproportionately represented among visitors to misogynist incel websites.

What can policymakers can do to address this threat?

In our report, we discuss five key recommendations for confronting male supremacist ideologies and violence. One of our recommendations is to intervene early, such as through K-12 education and via existing structures. This goes back to the point about misogyny (and racism) being embedded in society.

One of the IRMS fellows, Erin Spampinato, has written about how the English literary canon reinforces these ideologies of boys’ and men’s sexual entitlement, objectifying and dehumanizing women. Then there is the abstinence-only education pushed by the Christian Right that is riddled with harmful gender stereotypes, such as men’s uncontrollable urges and women’s responsibility to appear chaste to avoid tempting men — a framework echoed by the Georgia shooter’s claims of seeking to eliminate sexual “temptation.”

Comprehensive, consent-based sexuality education, English and history curricula designed from a gender and racial justice perspective — these kinds of changes at the roots can impact the full spectrum of misogynist harms and violence.

There’s also an urgent need to allocate significant funding to research and program design in this area. Interested individuals can view our full report for more detailed recommendations speaking to the deradicalization and countering of violent extremism fields.