Case Study 6: the Griff spots youth weaponizing youth?

While walking on Sunday, it occured to me that two parts of the Griff might be connected in ways I hadn’t seen.

Thus did “Failure to Launch” seem to connect to “Incel.”

Part 1: Failure to Launch

The Griff has been tracking the Failure to Launch problem for some time. This is the phenomenon that finds young men sitting at the verge of adulthood as if immobilized. They cannot see a path into adulthood.

Here are the various “mapping materials” we have collected with, and stored in, The Griff.

Veta Bates

(Thanks, incidentally, to Veta Bates [pictured] for her help with naming conventions in the Griff. As you will see in the introductory posts, I somehow thought “tile” was a good name for a part of the Griff. Veta didn’t come right out and say this was a bad idea, but I could hear her thinking it even at a distance of 60 miles.)

Lil Peep, photographer Miller Rodríguez, aka Pretty Puke, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Failure to Launch part shows a mixture of articles, screen shots, notes to self, etc. The data are compelling. We may see the crisis in the lives of Mac Miller and Lil Peep (pictured). The Griff also records “adaptive styles of masculinity” (in this case, possibly, the Ryan Reynolds character in Dead Pool) for sake of contrast and, when possible, intervention. The crisis is also evident in a slew of long-form journalism and academic studies. We are, as a culture, gnawing away at the problem.

In an essay, published in 2010 in the New England Board of Higher Education, Lane A. Glenn and Suzanne Van Wert said:

Only 43% of men are likely to graduate from college, compared with 60% of women. In addition to these bleak educational statistics, almost nine out of ten alcohol and drug violations are perpetrated by males; 95% of juvenile homicides are committed by boys; and 56% of men ages 18 to 24 live at home with their parents.

The bottom line: Young men are becoming less educated, less employable, less appealing as potential husbands and a greater burden to themselves and others.

The Griff is also drawing upon a series of ethnographic interviews I did in 2016. One interview in particular stays in memory. I had managed to corral 3 guys into conversation on the side walk of a strip mall in Los Angeles. After awhile, a kid turned up. He looked 16. He stood 15 feet away, just standing there, staring at us. (As an anthropologist I can report what I already know as a more or less successfully socialized male: when interacting with other males, staring is almost always a bad idea.)

One of us waved the kid over. He was thrilled to join us, clearly honored to be treated as “one of the guys.” Just as clearly he had no idea how to join the conversation or what to do once he got there.

Failure to Launch is a part of contemporary culture. It is in fact a giant crisis. Something in the way we define maleness is now broken and the effects are debilitating. I have sought funding to study this. No success. (If you, dear reader, want to fund me or join me, please do get in touch.)

So there it was. Failure to Launch. Sitting on the Griff. Blinking with alarm. Clearly this is something we need to reckon with. A damaged maleness has implications for education at every level, and especially the university and college levels. It will have implications for family life, the work force, parenting…well, maleness is so central to whether and how an individual participates in contemporary life, it appears to matter everywhere. Failure to Launch is an urgent part of our future.

Part 2: Incel

Incel is short for “involuntary celibate.” A superb Wikipedia treatment defines Incels as:

“members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. Discussion in incel forums are often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity, and self loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people… Incels are mostly male and heterosexual.”

That Incels exist is interesting and, for the Griff, noteworthy. But I put Incel on the Griff for three more specific reasons.

Reason 1: What interested me about Incels was less their spectacular inclination to hatred and violence than their robust sense of entitlement. Incels believe themselves entitled to a sense of injury. They believe they deserve better. I couldn’t help feeling this amounted to a contradiction. Incels withdraw from the world and then insist the world is withholding something from them. (But of course it doesn’t matter what an anthropologist thinks. We are obliged to accept what the respondent says and feels. This is something to be explained, not judged.)

Reason2: Entitlement is usually something that belongs to insiders, especially high ranking insiders. But here was a group of self declared outsiders, people who had failed a social expectation (that men will be sexually active) but who believed themselves entitled to an acknowledgement of the “injury” inflicted on them, a special status because of this injury, and, finally, some kind of redress.

Reason 3: Once outsiders can feel the sense of entitlement normally reserved for insiders, our culture is decentralizing, disaggregating. It has lost its gravitational field. And when that happens, well, we only need to look at politics to see what follows. In the language of Rousseau, we are becoming less an association of people than an aggregation. Or, to use the words of Erving Goffman, we are ceasing to be a “we.”

Incels are technically interesting. But that was not the reason the Griff was tracking them. I was in effect using Incels as a measure of something else. They have broken loose from a more conventional, shared, point of view. They are abrogating cultural powers of self invention. (And what could be scarier?)

You can see how the Griff is acting on me here. I am concentrating on Incel to the exclusion of all else. Or better, I am treating it as a rabbit hole or, more flatteringly, a thermal. I am going up or down within the confines of the idea. What I am not doing is looking at Incels in a broader context.

This changed Sunday when it suddenly occurred to me to connect Part 1 (Failure to Launch) to Part 2 (Incels). I think I was prepared to do this because I had just listened to the interview of Laura Bates by Sonia Sodha on YouTube. Bates has done ethnographic work of her own, and her comments are highly recommended.

Suddenly there it was. The possibility that some Failure to Launch males were being mobilized and in a few cases weaponized. Someone had found a way to turn a sense of personal crisis into a shared grievance and, sometimes, an agent of terror.

The problem was clear. I had been thinking about the Failure to Launch respondents according to what I had learned from that 16 year old kid in Los Angeles. By this reckoning, they were innocents of the first order. These were kids too clueless to be an agent of evil. These were kids too out of it to be a threat to anyone.

In fact when I go back to the Failure to Launch (FTL) part of the Griff, I find myself looking at language that suggests that FTL males are indeed innocuous. The pieces here talk about “snowflakes,” “overparenting,” “simp,” “failure,” and “suicide.” Only three entries “mass shooter,” “toxic masculinity,” and the essay on techno suggest more aggressive sentiments and motives.

But there is also a methodological failure. I had logged two parts of the Griff and just never stopped to consider the possibility that they might be interacting with one another. This tells me I need a method that prevents this from happening. I need to spend less time adding to the Griff and more time working with it.

And why not? I know enough about American culture to know that Americans believe this right to be inalienable: anytime we find ourselves defined by culture in a way that defames or diminishes us, we are free to refuse and redefine that culture. More simply, no one remains stigmatized for long.

So I should have looked to see if Failure to Launch was producing a reaction. (And indeed I still have to undertake this study to see if there is one.)

Ok, let’s sum up.

The blog is meant to do two things.

1) Share some of the things we have put on the Griff. And in this case there is I think grounds for alarm. Failure to Launch is by itself terrifying. That we are a culture that can no longer socialize young men must be close to a fundamental flaw. Fix this, the anthropological handbook says, or suffer lasting consequences and guite spectacular damage. But when we add to this, the Incel phenomenon, we are now looking at one trend being sharpened by a second. And that means the FTL trend has already began to metatize into something far scarier and more danger. (How we measure, track and predict this interaction is PRECISELY the thing the Grift is designed to do, but that piece of mapping the future will have to wait for a future post.)

2) To share the methodological issues that spring up when you are trying to map the future. Clearly there are good and bad ways to run something like the Griff, and clearly I am still learning what these are. I share them here so that you can build a better Griff.

Thanks to Robert Hall for several illuminating discussions on topics raised in this post.

Published by Grant McCracken

I am an anthropologist who studies American culture. Some of my books: Dark Value, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer and Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. I've taught at Harvard Business School and MIT. I am a self funding anthropologist. I spent half the year writing and half the year consulting.

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