When newsflashes began to ping on phones across the UK on Thursday evening, we were hastily reassured that although something terrible was happening in Plymouth, it wasn’t a terrorist attack.
It wasn’t until the next day that the story began to unfold. A man had shot dead his mother and four other people in the neighbourhood before killing himself. But it definitely wasn’t terrorism, local MP Johnny Mercer was quick to tweet. The Devon and Cornwall Police were equally swift in reassuring the public that this was not a terrorist incident.
But the information coming out about the shooting has made many question just how we define that and whether it matters. The killer had links with the Incel movement (an abbreviation of involuntarily celibate). It’s an online movement with an increasing number of men that is linked to violence against women. At its heart is a violent misogyny that believes men are entitled to sex and holds women accountable for depriving men of it. These men believe they are involuntarilty celibate because women are denying them a human right.
These beliefs and values sit at the roots of a grotesque culture and accompanying behaviours where men are encouraged to rape, abuse and murder women. On Thursday, when Davison, 22, shot five people dead, members of these groups had been goading each other to commit mass shootings.
Laura Bates, the feminist writer and activist who founded the Everyday Sexism project in 2012, recently wrote about going undercover in the Incel community - posing as a young man called Alex. What she found haunted her. She talks of a boy who complained that a girl has rejected their advances being advised to 'rape it', of men crowing over the violent deaths of women hoping 'he raped her first' and others saying they hope rape doesn’t get legalised because it would 'take all the fun out of it'.
It’s sickening reading, but it’s real and it’s radicalising our boys to hate women. I don’t say that lightly, but this isn’t a few lost boys who need a good talking to. Recent figures revealed that three of the biggest Incel forums are pulling in half a million clicks from UK visitors each month.
Jonathan Hall QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has written about the incel threat in reports to parliament. He says that 'Incel(dom) definitely can be an ideology for the purposes of terrorism', but that 'you don’t want too many people being labelled terrorists because then people get demoralised.'
Maybe, but the problem with that is that money is spent on combatting terrorism and people are invested in ensuring our teenagers aren’t radicalised so we can all live free of the fear that someone else’s beliefs will put our lives in danger.
Terminology matters: it directs the resources.
Similarly, it matters what we call a hate crime. Currently, gender isn’t a recognised characteristic that you can be officially hated for, which means crimes against women are treated less severely and taken less seriously than crimes that are motivated by hostility towards the victim's disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.
Language matters - not least because it shows what we value. It shows what and who we want to protect. It shows what we find acceptable, what we’re prepared to stand against. It reveals what we really believe.
Language is literally a message to the world, informing belief systems, world views and creating culture and behaviours. It matters that we are prepared to use our language to speak up for women.
We find it easier when it’s about ‘others’; as the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan we have been rightly horrified at ‘their’ barbaric, extremist beliefs and actions. Part of that horror is a concern for those women who will lose their right to education, medicine and multiple other things. It’s a very real fear for all those women who face violent reprisals for taking the opportunities the last 20 years has offered them. We’re prepared to recognise this ‘foreign behaviour’ as part of a terrible ideology and we think it should be stopped, we think it should be fought.
But we must also recognise the beliefs and the ensuing violence that is perpetrated nearer to home by people who look and sound more like our mate from the pub. We need to invest in tackling extremism we find hard to believe exists, we need to throw everything we have at ensuring our children are safe from it, boys and girls, and that we are actively working to create a different culture - a culture of consent and respect.
The police and powers that be decide whether what happened in Plymouth was ‘a tragic incident’, ‘a domestic dispute that got out of hand’ or an act of terrorism, but we each get to choose how to respond, how to raise our boys and girls and teach them another way. We get to choose to speak up and do something to end violence against women and girls.