On the Anniversary of the Isla Vista Attack

Ten years ago, a misogynist perpetrator killed six people in Isla Vista, California, all aged 19 to 22: David Wang, James Hong, and George Chen (the shooter’s roommates and their visiting friend), and Katie Breanne Cooper, Veronika Elizabeth Weiss, and Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, passersby outside the sorority where the perpetrator had sought to massacre young women but failed to gain entrance.

While research on male supremacism and misogynist violence has increased over the past decade, substantial issues remain in scholarship and media, including a frequent tendency to dismiss gender-based violence as non-ideological, insufficient attention to dangerous ideology and speech by misogynist actors and in mainstream society, and a lack of support for research informed by understandings of the structure and pervasiveness of male supremacism. Drawing on my 2020 case study for the Dangerous Speech Project, this article assesses the presence of misogynist dangerous speech and the consequences that require continued attention through an exploration of the specific case of the Isla Vista perpetrator and the manifesto, videos, and posts left behind after he killed himself, which have been referenced admiringly in misogynist online forums and by subsequent perpetrators of mass killings that have resulted in dozens of deaths in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Supporters celebrate the anniversary of the killings each year and have called the Isla Vista perpetrator a hero, martyr, and “patron saint” for misogynist incels, a group that coalesced as a distinct online mobilization in the wake of the 2014 attack, making these writing and videos and the continued response to them important subjects of study.

Male supremacism is the biologically essentialist belief in cisgender men’s superiority, (sexual) entitlement, right to dominance over women, and the erasure of trans and gender non-conforming people. As these beliefs have been undermined by advances in gender equality, new movements have developed around presenting cis men as victims, feminists as evil conspirators destroying society, and women as animals and sexual objects who should be stripped of rights. One such movement, now infamous due to its links to mass violence, is the misogynist incel men’s movement. The term “incel,” derived from “involuntarily celibate,” has its roots in a 1990s online forum founded by a bisexual woman to support people of all genders and sexualities facing challenges in developing romantic and sexual relationships. The community included sexist straight cisgender men who blamed and resented women. As these men also engaged with the growing misogynist forums on the new internet and social media platform, they coopted the term “incel” to exclude women and declare cisgender men like themselves oppressed by society and unjustly deprived of, and entitled to, (non-consensual) sexual access to women.

By 2014, self-identified incel men were active on 4chan and especially in misogynist “pickup artist” (PUA) forums, which promised to teach them how to seduce women, and alsoin the “PUAHate” forum dedicated to attacking the movement for its failed promise. The Isla Vista attack and its ideology inspired the separation of misogynist incel men into their own communities centered around dehumanization of and hostility toward women (including the renaming of PUAHate to “SlutHate” in the imminent wake of the attack).

Subsequent perpetrators of mass violence have referenced the Isla Vista perpetrator and have followed misogynist incel forums, so it is important to investigate how this movement utilizes dangerous speech and ideology. In my 2020 case studyfor the Dangerous Speech Project, I evaluated the Isla Vistaperpetrator’s autobiographical manifesto and other media, finding pervasive dehumanization of women combined with other major elements of dangerous speech. Dehumanizing women as “vicious, evil, barbaric animals” who “are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally”; the perpetrator considered this to be grounds for giving so-called “rational men of intelligence” control over women’s sexual and reproductive decisions. Calling himself “the supreme gentleman,” an appellation repeated by his supporters, the perpetrator painted himself as “the true victim,” and his attack as “retribution” for the suffering caused by women who were guilty en masse of having “struck first” in “the war” by not serving their purpose in providing him with sexual intercourse. An anniversary post from 2020 on the most prominent misogynist incel forum stated its agreement in dehumanizing terms: “One foid could’ve changed everything but no.” “Female Humanoid Organism,” and its shorter versions, “FHO,” “femoid,” and “foid,” have developed as favored terms for women in misogynist incel men’s forums, universally denying women’s humanity; other frequently used terms for women reduce them disparagingly to their genitalia.

The perpetration of violence or an “Incel Rebellion” is portrayed as virtuous by supporters, a stand against “corrupted” society and the “menace” of women, and a necessary response to a society ignoring their needs. The Isla Vista attacker had posted online calling on incels to “realize their true strength and numbers, and overthrow this oppressive feminist system”; his manifesto denounced a friend who will not condone violent action as a “weakling.” While his posts had little impact before his attack, his act of mass violence alarmingly demonstrated to future perpetrators the opportunity to have their voice heard through violence, and support for him on online forums grew through the years. Another anniversary poster on 4chan wrote, “May the incel revolution strike fear in the hearts of normies worldwide. Let the holy words of the Supreme Gentleman™ inspire many more people like it did with [the 2018 Toronto misogynist incel van attacker].” A reply included photos of the six Santa Barbara victims, writing that they “were rightfully exterminated by the Supreme Gentleman, terminology that evokes the destruction of vermin, a common element of dangerous speech used in mass tragedies such as the Holocaust. The Isla Vista manifesto explains, “I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts,” indicating his intention for this to be an act of terror, and selecting a symbolic target, a sorority, described as a stand-in for all the women he would like to kill but cannot.

While research into misogynist incels has increased in recent years—particularly since the two 2018 attacks connected to the mobilization in Toronto and at a Tallahassee, Florida, yoga studio—substantial problems remain reflecting a resistance to recognizing misogyny as ideology and a tendency to validate male supremacist victimhood narratives. In a 2023 article for Men and Masculinities, my co-authors from the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and I critiqued the preventing/countering violent extremism and counterterrorism fields for frequently treating misogynist incel men’s violence as a mental health issue in their research and publications, ignoring the dehumanizing ideology and speech that shapes their forums. We found that two of the concerning publications, one published in the Journal of Strategic Studies and one on the blog of a violent extremism research organization, were coauthored by the founder and administrator of the prominent misogynist incel forum previously mentioned, providing “a direct platform for misogynist incels themselves to shape knowledge production in a way that is not usually afforded other groups labeled extreme.’” One publication suggested that if the 2018 Toronto attacker, who used a van to kill 10 people in one of the most deadly acts of ideological violence in Canada and credited misogynist incel online discussions with inspiring his attack, had engaged” instead “passively reading” those forums, then he may have found the interactions to be a kind of venting and the community a psychosocial support that prevented his turn to terrorism. This, then, is essentially a promotion by and for the very forum that has housed much of the glorification of the Isla Vista perpetrator, and that ignores the impact of dangerous speech in precipitating violence. (Research assessing online forum comments by misogynist incels has also found “overwhelming support” for the Toronto attack.)

Misogynist incel and other forms of male supremacist speech, including antifeminist conspiracism, connect to a global threat of violence—not only mass violence, but also other forms of gender-based violence against individual cis and trans women, including intimate partner violence. A stabbing last month by a cisgender man targeting women at a shopping mall in Sydney, Australia, once again raised critiques regarding the resistance to naming misogyny as an ideology and gender-targeted violence as terrorism, regardless of whether the perpetrator was influenced by a particular movement or simply by the culture of misogyny pervasive to mainstream society.

While this article focuses on the misogynist incel case, it is a concern worth noting that a fixation on incels has also operated as an excuse in the media to ignore other manifestations and the popularity of misogynist ideology and speech in mainstream society. This work should be taken as an exploration of how a male supremacist movement can develop around dangerous speech and understood as a component of the overarching structures, movements, and ideology of misogyny. As we remember the Isla Vista victims on the 10-year anniversary of their murders—WeihanDavid Wang, Cheng YuanJames Hong, George Chen, KatherineKatie Breanne Cooper, Veronika Elizabeth Weiss, Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez—it is imperative that we give serious attention to the continued risks of misogynist ideology, speech, and violence.