Empathy for the incel

There were many reasons why I decided to study witches for my PhD; I don’t think I’d considered quite how relevant it might be to the world we’re living in. From the near-constant misuse of the term “witch-hunt” to describe the #MeToo movement to the frankly absurd claims from incel-enabler and pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson and the ooze of misogyny emanating from it all, I couldn’t possibly have picked a more newsworthy subject. That is at once fascinating and profoundly depressing.

Peterson recently claimed in an interview that we all know that witches live in swamps and witches are real. Other than Peg Powler, who is better known for haunting waterways than swamps, I can’t think of one. I can’t see either the ferocious Baba Yaga or the heroic Nanny of the Maroons hanging out in a swamp, to be honest. I know fairy tales aren’t documentary evidence but if we’re talking about myths made real, then witches live in the forest in remote cottages, they live in castles and they live amongst us. That is rather the point of the witch myth. 

However, if we’re looking for a root of evil, I don’t think it’s witches we should be looking at. Witches are not spending their time cursing people any more than feminists have monthly meetings to decide who women will and won’t sleep with. The absurdity of the conspiracy is exactly what made people believe in witches in the first place – the reasons are so complex and multi-layered it’s easier to find a single focus to apportion blame. If Peterson is even half as intelligent as he claims, he knows that. He makes a lot of money from exploiting the insecurities of hopeless young men and puts many more people in real danger – as does his publisher and the media outlets that give him air time.

However, witches do have something to teach us. In magic, there is the “rule of three” which suggests that anything you send out into the world returns to you threefold. That means there’s a very specific reason why those young men pouring their vitriol and misogyny on the internet can’t get girlfriends – they’re putting out a measure of obnoxious fuckery which gets returned to them in spades. Even if you don’t believe in magic, it’s pretty clear that if you are rude then you aren’t going to get people falling over themselves to get to know you.

Historically, witches were often independent women with a measure of knowledge and a general attitude of not giving a damn what society thought of them. That’s the reason they’re considered a threat. All the whiny young men thinking they deserve a medal for figuring out how society works and how unfair it is are missing the point. If you can see that you have a lowly position in a hierarchy, you are entirely free to not give a fuck about that position. The dual tyrannies of status and looks don’t have to be obeyed – and they don’t have to be taught a lesson, either.  

I’ve been trying to write about this. I’m a single woman in my forties; in short, just like those angry, entitled incels, no one wants to fuck me either. My first idea was to have a bunch of middle-aged women taking to the streets with machine guns demanding young men sleep with them. I stopped because it seemed too comic – young women wanting sex may be slutty, but if you’re over 30 it tips over into ridiculous and vaguely pathetic – and I don’t think there’s anything funny about this. Then I had an idea that you could riff on Swift’s Modest Proposal with an “Immodest Proposal” that those incels sleep with the middle-aged women no one wants to admit have sexual impulses. In the end I abandoned that, not just because it is not incumbent on women to solve this problem but because I realised – I don’t care enough about the issue. Sure, no one wants to date me. Sometimes, it sucks. I still have a vague hope that I’ll meet someone at some point. Most of the time, though, I am way too busy with my friends, my family, my work and the many delights and adventures they bring me. I have a lot of love in my life and honestly do not care what other people think of me. 

There’s another lesson that witches can offer us – empowerment. They don’t ask permission, they don’t wait for some arbitrary allocation of status and they don’t sit and complain about how unfair life is. In that way, women are often like witches. The single women I know don’t worry about how they rank within arbitrary beauty standards, or what their status is and how other people view them. They’re way too busy living their lives. Actually, the women in relationships are the same. As are the men I know. The difference between this and a world view which sees violence as the inevitable result of perceived unfairness is empathy. I think that’s the reason I’ve been struggling to write about this. I know I need to have a measure of kindness that’s going to take time to get my head around.