BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After the Toronto van attack last month, a new term has the media trying to make sense of a motive.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The man who killed 10 people with a van in Toronto this week was preoccupied by his status as an “incel.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Short for “involuntary celibate.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s an online community frustrated with their romantic lives with women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It cast a new and more frightening light on the so-called “manosphere,” a complex agglomeration of websites, blogs and chat rooms united in the view that men, predominantly white men, are under attack. The manosphere includes a wide range of responses to that, from fathers' rights groups, to tips on pick-up artistry, to the so-called “Proud Boys,” a far-right fraternity that restricts self-pleasuring to once a month, to Men Going their Own Way, or MGTOW, whose website abounds with contempt for women and the civil society that’s empowered them. But the manosphere's also has spawned an unlikely hero, Jordan Peterson.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In the past two years, the Canadian psychologist and academic has been adopted as a hero of the Donald Trump-loving alt-right.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Perhaps but essentially he’s just a conservative self-help guru, motivated neither by hate or fear. How do we sort out the different spaces and thought leaders that offer refuge to aggrieved men? First, we call Will Sommer who explores conservative media in his newsletter, Right Richter. Will, welcome back.
WILL SOMMER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can we start by defining some terms? What’s an incel, how do they fit into the alt-right puzzle?
WILL SOMMER: Incel is short for involuntarily celibate. It’s people, mostly men, who are not having sex and they’re really mad about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILL SOMMER: And so, they sort of weaponize this into some really, truly toxic misogyny and anger at the world.
WILL SOMMER: And you find these people where?
WILL SOMMER: Some particularly slimy internet forums, on 4chan, for example, or they were recently kicked off of Reddit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the pickup artist community a subset of this?
WILL SOMMER: There are two branches of the same issue. You’re talking about guys who are not getting the romantic relationships or sexual relationships that they would like. In the case of pickup artistry, this was a big thing maybe a decade ago. You know, these guys thought there’s this cheat code essentially to get women and then when they found that you can’t just wear some gaudy jewelry to a bar and your entire life’s gonna change, this hope curdled into anger and misogyny, and that’s how we got incels.
The pickup artist movement has also become very focused on this idea that women control society and drastic measures -- up to violence -- are called for. The prototypical angry incel is Elliot Rodger who went on a rampage in California a few years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The incel community only represents one direction for aggrieved young men and only one small part of the manosphere, right?
WILL SOMMER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We also have Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, and he advocates a different kind of message to his mostly white male audience on YouTube.
JORDAN PETERSON: For 10 years, if you didn't avoid doing what you knew you needed to do, what would you be like?
WILL SOMMER: Yeah, so Jordan Peterson has what is certainly, compared to incels, a much more positive message. They're both answering the question, why are there these young men often living with their parents and they don't have a direction in life? So what you do with them? Incels would say society is skewed against us and just get really mad about it. Jordan Peterson, he’s positioned himself as this internet father figure, and so he has catchphrases that are “clean your room, bucko,” kind of like get out there and get some stuff done.
JORDAN PETERSON: I don't think that young men hear words of encouragement, some, some of them never in their entire lives, as far as I can tell. That's what they tell me. And the fact that I’ve been speaking, the YouTube lectures that I’ve done and put online, for example, have had such a dramatic impact is an indication that young men are starving for this sort of message.
WILL SOMMER: His book about getting your life together is a New York Times bestseller. He gets millions of views on YouTube. He’s a very prominent figure. And with Jordan Peterson there’s kind of like two tracks. There’s the get your life together part and then there’s a part that appeals to, I think, a lot of young right-wing men. He’s very anti-political correctness. He has these viral videos where he's kind of going up against a liberal and defeating them with logic or what have you.
JORDAN PETERSON: Diversity, inclusivity, equity, all of those things together, in particular, make up a very toxic brew.
WILL SOMMER: You might think of a classic Jordan Peterson fan or someone who’s really attracted to this as someone who is being told all the time, well, you’re white, you’re a man, well, you have all the advantages. But their lives are not going the way they would like. The question is, well, why is that? Well, maybe you blame the left and you blame minorities. Or Jordan Peterson offers the alternative of, well, perhaps men have been, you know, sort of twisted away from their natural nature. Let’s put this sort of heroic idea and kind of get back to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you were saying there are really two parts to Peterson's attraction, the life coach part and also the anti-PC part. The anti-PC part conjures up red pilling, you know, from Reddit --
WILL SOMMER: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- seeing the world clearly in a way that everyone else seems to be blinded to.
WILL SOMMER: So a lot of these Jordan Peterson fans, they’re young man very fixated on the supposed strictures of feminism and identity politics. A big Jordan Peterson thing is criticism of identity politics. He’s very fixated on issues of campus speech, stuff like that. And, of course, whenever campus liberals overreach or do something ridiculous, that’s something that gets very popular on the right-wing internet. Jordan Peterson has, in part, made his name by standing up against that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By being a free thinker.
WILL SOMMER: Yes, exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Free thinking, this is something that Kanye West on his recent journey invoked.
I’m gonna do me.
I was in the sunken place and then I found the new me
Not worried about some image that I gotta keep up
Lot of people agree with me, but they too scared to speak up.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This has become part of the whole etiology, hasn’t it? I mean, Jeet Heer in The New Republic recently observed that Kanye, despite voicing right-wing ideas, eschews the idea of conservative in favor of free thinker and that it's a common trope in certain circles on the right where reactionary ideas are recast as radical inquiry and those who dare criticize such inquiry are accused of silencing free speech. Is that overly reductive or an accurate reflection?
WILL SOMMER: I think it’s true that conservatism as we’ve known it, perhaps in the Reagan administration or what Paul Ryan represents, I think is losing steam in terms of appealing to people. Your other options are Trumpism or you present it as sort of this forbidden thing that it's cool to get into. For example, a popular claim made by people on Infowars is that --
MAN: Conservatism is the New Counter-Culture.
WILL SOMMER: And we’ve seen that appeals to Kanye, and it’s also something that Jordan Peterson offers, you know, being this intellectual outlaw.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who are his ideological peers? I mean, how do we situate his thinking in the broadly-shifting right and also within the manosphere?
WILL SOMMER: Jordan Peterson fits in with a lot of other people who talk a lot about free thinking or being a classical liberal, stuff like that, Dave Rubin, Stefan Molyneux. And then there's also a lead with --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you say a classical liberal?
WILL SOMMER: They don’t want to identify as conservatives or Republicans because that’s kind of a tired brand, and it’s also one that doesn’t really appeal to a lot of young people. So you describe yourself as a classical liberal. Free speech is your main issue. And it’s also a political constituency that doesn't exist outside of YouTube, so it’s very easy to constantly be shapeshifting in terms of your actual politics or your policy beliefs. A lot of times when I describe Jordan Peterson or a figure like him as a conservative, people on the right will say, you fool, he's a classical liberal, as though that means anything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. He doesn’t like it when he’s called a member of the alt-right and, really, there's no reason to lump him with the alt-right, the alt-right now being a synonym for a white supremacist.
WILL SOMMER: During the Trump campaign, there were a lot of people who weren’t racist who identified themselves as alt-right. Certainly, there were a lot of white supremacist members of the alt-right but since 2017 and especially since Charlottesville, we've seen nonracist or -anti-Semitic members of the alt-right fall away and try to redefine themselves in other ways. A lot of them are called alt-lite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILL SOMMER: Or they describe themselves as the new right. I would say it’s unfair to describe Jordan Peterson as a member of the alt-right ‘cause right now that essentially means like David Duke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He could be located on what some people call the intellectual dark web, right?
WILL SOMMER: Yeah, the intellectual dark web is a term a lot of these figures describe themselves as or their fans see them this way. This comes from the actual dark web, which is a difficult-to-access portion of the internet where it's hard to trace things. You know, it might be where drug deals go down, for example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, it’s associated with criminal activity.
WILL SOMMER: Exactly, so they’re appealing to this kind of forbidden nature of the knowledge they’re discussing. [LAUGHS] These are the ideas too dangerous to exist on the actual web or within the mainstream intellectual discourse, and so, you have to kind of dig for this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how should we understand all of this in relation to the manosphere, incels, men going their own way or the Proud Boys who conserve their precious bodily essence, and so on?
WILL SOMMER: If the question is, what do we do with all these men in the modern world who are having difficulty fitting into life, essentially, for Men Going Their Own Way, they would say that society sort of shackles men with things like marriage and children, and so, you know, I’m going to go lead this ostensibly hedonistic lifestyle. In the case of incels, they say society is irreversibly against us and either get mad about it online or just kind of stew or commit acts of violence. In the case of Jordan Peterson, he says that there is a way for men to make their way in the world and here are the strictures and structures by which to do it. And in the case of Proud Boys, they say men need fraternal companionship and we’re going to have this men’s organization that also gets in a lot of street fights --
-- and has rules about masturbating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay so, as we observed, there are a lot of people in the media who sort of lump Peterson into the alt-right and that’s just not correct. So how do you think, in general, the media are reading the right-wing ecosystem that we’ve discussed and, within it, the manosphere?
WILL SOMMER: I think there is not a lot of familiarity with these issues and these figures, so that then when they spill out into the news, whether that be because Jordan Peterson has a bestselling book or because an incel went on a rampage, I think there's a tendency to lump all of these people together as “the right,” and there are a lot of different strands, often warring strands. I think the media often blurs the lines between these different groups. And, frankly, it's to their benefit when the media does this because then people who are familiar with this stuff, maybe they’re followers or what have you, they see it and they say, oh my gosh, the people in the media don’t know what they're talking about and it further ties these people to this alternative media structure.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, saying, well, if they get this wrong, think of what else they get wrong.
WILL SOMMER: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thank you very much.
WILL SOMMER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Sommer is an editor at The Hill and writes a newsletter about conservative media called Right Richter.