As I was listening to CBC’s The Current, I opened my Facebook messages to find one from a stranger in Alberta. He described how he wished I had been among Bruce McArthur’s victims and called me a sexist slur. As I read the message, the radio was broadcasting voices talking about male rage and the online communities that amplify it.
I know male rage really well. While the men in my real life are overwhelmingly good people, the men in my virtual life are overwhelmingly terrible. Years ago, the first time my life was seriously threatened, it was because of white hot, racist male rage that drove some men to insist they would find me if I didn’t stop talking about systemic racism.
As my career has advanced as a writer, more people have felt entitled to tell me what they think about me. Not what they think about my ideas though; mostly, what they think about my appearance, my role in society as a woman, or they insist I shut up.
A few weeks ago I became the target of an international harassment campaign for pointing out that systemic racism and sexism are factors that follow us in death as they follow us in life. I received tens of thousands of replies and messages and nearly 30 million Twitter impressions. The vast majority of the messages were deeply or violently sexist.
The attack in Toronto has brought the online anti-feminist world into the light. All of a sudden, what is always there, biting at the ankles of all of us who identify systemic injustice, is mainstream news. Alek Minassian was apparently motivated by his deep hatred of women, and journalists are scrambling to understand the “incel” movement to which he near certainly belongs.
Arshy Mann has been watching this movement for long enough to connect the dots: “They’re finding each other on online communities and they’re radicalizing each other,” he said on The Current. But, these “involuntary celibates,” men who blame women for a lifetime of being rejected by them (lifetime, of course, is misleading, as many of these men are very young) are part of a broader swamp of anti-feminist online activists, including so-called Pick Up Artists, Men’s Rights Associations and others.
While the men in my real life are overwhelmingly good people, the men in my virtual life are overwhelmingly terrible.
These groups are “more and more anti-feminist and more and more extreme,” Mann said.
At the same time, another important narrative has emerged. How safe are our roads? Toronto’s chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, on another episode of The Current, argued that Yonge and Finch, the intersection where the attack happened, is a good example of why high-speed traffic should be kept far away from pedestrian walkways and public spaces where people gather.
I’m glad that we’re talking about both. Both issues raise important questions that society must contend with, take seriously and debate.
But what we know about Minassian raises another much broader issue, one that brings both the women-hating world of social media together with urban planning, and many other social problems that have exacerbated our social solidarity.
Facing 'a bleak world'
We live in a society where our collectivity has been undermined in every way possible, and the Greater Toronto Area is ground zero for how we have been ravaged by forces that seek to drive average people into the ground. Economic forces have systemically undone our sense of community. As youth move into adulthood, they must contend with a bleak world: they’re massively indebted, they can’t pay for unreasonable rents and they’re sold lies in colleges and universities that their down payment in tuition is an investment in future earnings.
Minassian was near certainly caught up in these forces. The Toronto Star obtained his resume and it shows a very spotty work history for a 25-year-old. His most recent employment was in 2016 at a job he held for five months. Two months before that, he had a four-month stint of work. He worked part-time during the 2013-2014 academic year at Seneca College. He studied at Seneca from 2011 to 2016, for a Bachelor in Technology, Software Development, a degree that would have cost $38,040 in tuition and ancillary fees (more if you factor in other mandatory fees). In September 2017, he did a short stint in the Canadian military, before he asked to leave in October.
Short-term, precarious or unstable work feeds into social isolation. Researchers at McMaster University found correlations with precarious work and increased anxiety, increased mental health challenges, increased feelings of isolation and fewer opportunities to volunteer. And importantly, lower income, which is made worse by record-high tuition fee debt.
At the same time, a Statistics Canada report found that between 1974 and 2001, young people’s transition to adulthood was more and more delayed, especially among young men. While by their 30s, men and women catch up to each other, important life events are increasingly delayed for men during their 20s.
Less stability, fewer opportunities to meet people and more anxiety create the conditions where someone might turn to online subcultures for community and validation. Certainly, online communities help everyone expand their friend network, and this is borne out by other Statistics Canada research. When the community that someone finds is toxic or violent, it can serve to radicalize them.
In Minassian’s case, we know the end result, even if the portrait of how he ended up there isn’t yet clear.
At the second press conference given about the Toronto attack, one journalist asked if it’s reasonable to even try to stop these kinds of random acts of violence: they’re chosen specifically because they’re random, after all. It’s a fair question, but it personalizes the act in such a way that delivers no solution.
The reality is that violence rarely comes from nowhere and always depends on systemic forces to bear it to fruition. That’s true in the Bruce McArthur murders. That’s true for every domestic assault. It’s even true for violence that we call accidents: workplace accidents, road accidents or failures in the health system that take someone away from us too soon.
We need to reflect on the negative impacts of social inequality, a lack of public services and supports, widespread precarious employment, sky-high costs of living and, of course, intense sexism and gendered violence. Throwing our hands in the air in exasperation is the easy way out. I have the thousands of messages that tell me that the causes of this attack were systemic and way more widespread than many would like to believe.
There’s no question that the solutions to prevent a similar event must be systemic, too.
Nora Loreto is a freelance writer based in Quebec City. She's the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media and her bylines appear regularly in magazines and online news sources. She also co-hosts a podcast with Sandy Hudson.