In June, British American influencer Andrew Tate was charged in Romania with rape, human trafficking, and forming an organized criminal group to sexually exploit women. The self-described misogynist’s emergence as an internet sensation over the last year or so has sparked concern internationally, given his noxious influence over many young men via the “manosphere” — the ecosystem of websites, blogs, and forums that promote a supposedly beleaguered masculinity, misogyny, and opposition to feminism.
Ex-kickboxer Tate has his defenders and enthusiasts even beyond his core demographic of misguided male adolescents. Podcaster Joe Rogan demurs from Tate’s most extreme woman-hating ravings, but has praised him as emblematic of good breeding; to complain of the “toxic masculinity” of Tate and others is simply to be unappreciative of “the men who carve the world.” Psychologist Jordan Peterson, a regular guest on Rogan’s podcast, insists that he is uneasy at Tate’s alleged “pimpy side,” but appreciates Tate’s defiant individualism. Peterson expresses sympathy with Tate’s message that “forthright aggression is preferable to a cringey defeat” — defeat presumably meaning accepting supposedly politically correct social conventions about masculinity and feminism.
To better understand where Peterson is coming from, it’s worth considering his attacks on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre with reference to his concept of “bad faith” — in short, lying to yourself to avoid responsibility for your real situation. Peterson does not grasp the complicated history of Sartre’s political engagement that he so condemns, nor the Sartrean concept of bad faith, which he throws back against him. But his intervention is interesting insofar as it points to a key operative logic in figures like Tate and his defenders. Without making an iota of a concession to his vile worldview, this also offers some potential to tap into something that Tate’s followers misindentify in his message — the understandable but wildly misplaced wish for a meaningful, flourishing life.
These prolific voices on the manosphere are not all equivalent. For instance, as Jacobin contributor Ben Burgis has argued, Rogan is worth taking more seriously in that he represents a demographic that often holds objectionable views in many areas, but is also potentially amenable to left-wing politics. Rogan has shown curiosity for democratic socialist ideas and even endorsed Bernie Sanders. Certainly not all those attracted to the culture of the manosphere can be shaken loose from the reactionary bloc, but it is worth considering how we might appeal to those who are potentially open to a more serious politics. To that end, it is illuminating to highlight the bad faith of advocates of traditional “masculinity” based on biological nature.
Bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, involves a form of lying to oneself and, more specifically, lying to oneself about the true nature of one’s human condition. For Sartre, there are two sides of what it is to be human: facticity and transcendence. Facticity refers to given attributes or features: one’s given physical attributes, personality, features of ourselves that we find situated in the environment. For example, being a man, being American or Armenian, the family that one grows up in, where and in which historical period one lives, etc. Facticity is the ground from which we act on the world (and acting on the world also changes our facticity).
Transcendence, on the other hand, is synonymous with freedom. It is our always-present power to negate the surrounding world and to invent something new. Bad faith emerges from fleeing our freedom. Freedom is commonly thought of as one of our most prized conditions, but it can also give rise to a feeling of overwhelming responsibility.
When we feel the anxiety that this freedom thereby produces, one tempting response is to deny it and to affirm only our facticity: I am a fixed thing, without power to change my situation; I am more akin to rock than a self-transcending subjectivity. This bad faith pretends that essence precedes existence: we are a predetermined entity whose nature is already predefined, so that we are simply what we are and nothing more, perfectly coincidental with ourselves.
Sartre’s classic example of this is the café waiter whose every gesture is exaggerated, labored, and stylized: “He is playing at being a waiter in a café.” As an aside, Tate’s lawyers defend his conduct by saying he is simply playing a character. They are right, but not in the sense that they think; Tate’s every gesture smacks of a hammed-up performance of what he insists he already is.
Psychology and Ideology
So, why is bad faith an insightful category to understand the politics of the manosphere? There are two expressions of this form of reasoning common in this culture: first, the bad faith of biological determinism, often expressed in the language of evolutionary psychology; and second, the premium that such figures put on authenticity in a wholly insubstantial way, which amounts to another bad faith flight into facticity.
Tate routinely appeals to “human nature” as an irrefutable explanation for his aggression and acquisitiveness, sneering at “losers” as the unlamented waste of natural selection. Rogan’s enthusiasm for Tate’s predatory prowess is similarly in keeping with a trend of interest in crude evolutionary psychology and biological determinism.
Its premise is that humans are transhistorically, unchangingly powered by primal drives, especially hierarchy, competition, and aggression. By extension, war is a natural feature of human society. Faced with the Russian and Chinese threats to American hegemony, Tate’s primal masculinity is a model to aspire to. To suppose otherwise is to be “unrealistic about the world.”
Evolutionary psychology’s function as Sartrean bad faith is further illustrated by Rogan’s regular guest, former special forces operative and Republican congressman, Dan Crenshaw. In response to Rogan’s eulogy of competition and martial arts and complaint that wokeness is rendering America “full of pussies,” Crenshaw averred: “We know it to be true. [. . .] The reason I love the subject of psychology is because it kind of tells us things we already intuit to be true.”
In this instance, Crenshaw insists that suffering deep trauma will make you a better person “as long as tell yourself the right stories.” The determinism of the vaguest, unspecified “science and a lot of psychological research” is put to service of militarism: the stark ramifications of warfare are ultimately inevitable, minor, and superable.
A comparable figure is British podcaster Chris Williamson. Shooting to semi-fame through his appearance on the UK TV dating show Love Island, Williamson admirably concluded that celebrity culture was a vacuous trap. He set out to reflect on what it would mean to live a fulfilling life, adding an interesting personal tone by relating to his painful childhood experiences of being bullied.
In this he echoes Rogan and one of his regular guests, retired Navy SEAL David Goggins, who both talk about the pain and distress at the inadequacy they felt as young men. In his laudable questioning and task of “understanding the world,” Williamson has unfortunately found answers from a generally reactionary assortment of fitness gurus, proponents of assertive masculinity, critics of feminism, and champions of evolutionary psychology.
In a recent interview, Williamson presented psychologist Cory Clark as an expert in evolutionary psychology, which, he stressed, is also “one of my areas of obsession.” As part of her case that psychology is censored by a “woke” academic elite with little interest in scientific reality, Clark insisted that people simply dislike conclusions that regard differences according to gender and racial group as results of evolutionary psychology or behavioral genetics and reject scientific findings for men outperforming women or whites outperforming blacks on that basis.
Both conflate “censorship” with justifiable skepticism about scientifically trivial and socially malicious research. But attempts to harness the authority of “science” to legitimate existing hierarchy is nothing new, nor is Williamson and Clark’s maneuver of sheltering behind the proclaimed aim of simply seeking out truth against those who would censor it out of “hypersensitivity.” Reviewing such a tradition, Noam Chomsky wrote some fifty years ago:
Imagine a psychologist in Hitler’s Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards antisocial conspiracy and domination and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that “a neutral commentator . . . would have to say that the case is simply not settled” and that the “fundamental issue” is “whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance”? I think not. [. . .] Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value.
Chomsky insisted that those who wish to research questions linking race and intelligence face a heavy burden of justification: for the mere undertaking will reinforce the most reprehensible prejudices. “In fact,” Chomsky argues, “it seems that the question of the relation, if any, between race and intelligence has little scientific importance (as it has no social importance, except under the circumstances of a racist society). . . . It would, of course, be foolish to claim, in response, that ‘society should not be left in ignorance.’ Society is happily ‘in ignorance’ of insignificant matters of all sorts.”
The Poverty of Evolutionary Psychology
Williamson, determined to harness the authority of science for his anti-feminism, laments the lack of deference to evolutionary psychology in academia, pondering whether “mainstream science” is redeemable, given its supposed culture of “censoring” the “scientifically accurate, but politically incorrect.” In fact, even in its most sophisticated variants, evolutionary psychology is prone to reductivism. As sociology professor Hilary Rose and life sciences professor Steven Rose state,
While all biologists share the assumption that humans are an evolved species, evolutionary psychologists go much further, making the profoundly un-Darwinian assertion that “human nature” was fixed in the Pleistocene and has not changed since. Their argument is that biological evolution has not been able to keep up with the rate of cultural change, summed up as “stone age minds in the twenty-first century.”
In doing so, evolutionary psychology “ignores evidence from both archaeology and population genetics.”
Sociologist of violence Siniša Malešević goes further, arguing that the “abundance of violent narrative representations stands in stark contrast with the actual experience of face-to-face fighting which is remarkably rare.” Malešević shows that violent intrahuman combat, far from a full, tragic constant of human history, is dependent on very specific social and historical contexts. These involve interactions of highly contingent alignment of social organizations (notably states), ideological frames, and micro-interactional processes. Rogan and Crenshaw’s belief that men have recently been rendered egregiously docile counter to the iron laws of history and biology simply does not withstand the merest empirical scrutiny of humans’ propensity for pugnacity.
If such conceptions of biological determinism are so inadequate as an explanation of the social world, why are they so popular? Simply put, such narratives are intrinsically attractive to conservative forces, since their logical corollary is that the powerful should be unimpeded in the exercise of their power. In this understanding, existing social hierarchy is not simply desirable but natural, so any contestation of it is not simply mistaken but pathological. It is no coincidence that Williamson contrasts a supposed “male” view on self-improvement, which accepts that the world is “immutable” beyond the individual, in contrast to a “female” view that advocates changing the structures of society and “is just fundamentally patronizing.”
To return Peterson’s bad faith charge with interest, appeals to this putative essential human nature afford the comforting myth afforded by bad faith of facticity. The allure of evolutionary psychology and biological determinism is that I need not, in Sartre’s sense, assume my freedom: I am simply acting out of inexorable biological impulses, the most vital of which is to dominate.
For all the hot air spent insisting on the need to cultivate the hypermasculine self, through an attitude of buccaneering individualism and refusal of convention and conformism, these claims amount to meek compliance, comforting illusions, excuses and alibis about an inescapable essence. In shirking freedom in this way, contemplation, reflection, and solidarity that challenge the status quo are all foreclosed.
Bad Faith’s False Promise
Sartre tells us, however, that bad faith ultimately never works. You cannot really lie to yourself without being aware of the lie. For all Tate’s ranting and snarling self-aggrandizement, he oozes a deep-seated sense of childlike inadequacy and insecurity. Whether in fact rooted in his childhood or an equivalent source of stunted emotional development, we can recognize Tate word for word in Catholic philosopher Herbert McCabe’s description of emotional fragility:
What happens to the child who has lost faith in her parents’ love? The first thing is fear — a fear that she does not matter, that she has no value or importance. [. . .] The child who is deprived of love is characteristically defensive. She is terrified of admitting any inadequacy or guilt — I mean terrified of admitting it even to herself. She becomes gradually self-righteous, convinced of her rightness, with a conviction that conceals, and is meant to conceal, a deep anxiety. She is not able simply to accept herself, warts and all, as valuable because someone loves her. So she has to create a self-image for herself, a self-flattering image.
She will have to protect her importance by having power over others. She will be terrified of being at the mercy of others, vulnerable to them. She will guard her self-image with possessions which make her independent of others. She will at all costs protect what she calls her “freedom,” meaning her isolation from others and the demands they might make on her. She will see the world as a place fundamentally of competition and struggle in which she has to win, rather than of friendship and cooperation.
Judging from his recent remarks, Peterson, against his own deterministic psychology, seems to see in Tate a kind of independent self-creating maverick — and thereby admirable to that extent. Tate himself incessantly insists on self-creation against weakness in general and conformist thought in particular. His mantras about the discipline of working out and lifting weights function as a shorthand for this broader ethos.
Likewise, Goggins and fellow former Navy SEAL and Joe Rogan regular guest Jocko Willink emphasize self-realization and the achievement of freedom through self-discipline and application. One Willink video juxtaposes his motivation spiel voiced over assorted gym rats in action, insisting that by “grinding out . . . then you will find your freedom” (embarrassingly laboring the point, Willink has a big sign in his personal gym reading “freedom”).
Self-discipline and working out are certainly not bad things per se. But their elevation as a generalizable solution for social malaise is absurd. It is also bad faith. It disarms before the facticity of a socially imposed image of how men are supposed to be. As historian Jürgen Martschukat also shows, the imperative to be fit is fully in keeping with neoliberal logics of self-responsibility, resilience, performance, and market competition. Rather than heroic transcendence and unbounded self-creation, the fitness grift encourages us to follow blindly a pre-given script for “success,” defined as being pliable to the demands of productivity.
Tate has recently expanded his conversational repertoire, from proud misogyny and get-rich-quick schemes to his conversion to Islam. Judging by a recent interview in which he claims to be “acting under the instruction of God to do good things,” he has not embraced the religion to draw on intellectual resources for self-reflection, compassion, social justice, or love. Instead, he finds the sanction of bad faith for his conduct. Tate fully subscribes to the Islamophobic reduction of Islam to viciousness and misogyny, but finds that quite appealing.
Part of the draw of Goggins, Willink, Tate, et al. is their self-marketing as motivation gurus, pointing to their warrior ethos as a guide for making something of yourself. This taps into contemporary capitalist society’s permeation by both meaninglessness and the message of glaring personal inadequacy. Much as these figures emphasize their self-made success and hold themselves up as exemplars on that basis, it would be more plausible to say that they go about their own unmaking.
Goggins, for instance, in his peremptory extolling of suffering, and running and lifting weights incessantly, seems nothing so much as ensnared by the compulsion of the death drive. Tate, meanwhile, more fundamentally diminishes his own humanity in his reveling in violence and the abuse of women. To borrow McCabe’s conceptualization, in contrast to Tate’s tiresome insistence that he is leading an exemplary life, he is in fact making of it a “prolonged suicide.”
The later Sartre adapted his conception of freedom as pure transcendence by factoring in ever more the concrete conditions that impinge on it. Today these have only become an even greater challenge than when Sartre was writing, given creeping social atomization and diminishing material prospects and outlets for satisfying work, particularly for young people. In that sense, the fact that the lifestyle advice that Tate, Rogan, Peterson, and Willink offer is implausible is not in itself surprising.
It has not escaped our attention on the Left that grappling with the fallout of capitalist realism is an uphill task. As Fredric Jameson remarked some years ago: “Crime, war, degraded mass culture, drugs, violence, boredom, the lust for power, the lust for distraction, the lust for nirvana, sexism, racism — all can be diagnosed as so many results of a society unable to accommodate the productiveness of all its citizens.” In 2023, we could add another item to the list: a figure like Tate being one of the most Googled people in the world.
The Good Life
Between Tate’s outright viciousness and Rogan’s more ambiguous conclusions, an important common denominator of these purveyors of bad faith is their explicit interest in the classic philosophical question: What is the good life?
That figures like these are worth thinking about at all derives from their appeal to this inquiry. Antonio Gramsci taught us that “common sense” can be leveraged into “good sense,” but that requires starting from where people are rather than where you would want them to be already. The Left might, then, profitably latch on to this starting premise of a widely felt need to question what a meaningful and flourishing life entails and how one might aspire to it.
In doing so, it needs to stress that if the contemporary social order generates pain, suffering, humiliation, and a thwarting of productive energies and capacities, the solution will not lie in trying simply to harness your supposed innate aggression, elbowing your way to a better position within the existing hierarchy. Sartre is part of the long tradition in philosophy that makes the vital case for the happiness of one being dependent on that of all. As Terry Eagleton puts it, “In damaging others, we are in the long run damaging our own fulfilment, which depends on the freedom of others to have a hand in it.”
This long-standing axiom is all the more important today. Amidst galloping inequality, entrenched precarity, collapsing social mobility, and ecological breakdown, even the most self-involved have an interest in a society based on cooperation rather than ruthless competition.
Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams forcefully argue in their recent book Hegemony Now that the wholly understandable desire to live a fulfilling life cannot be decoupled from the enhanced ability of the vast majority of society to do the same. This has the additional optimistic implication that we don’t need to restrict our bloc to those who show unusual moral upstandingness — but rather, can appeal precisely to their own interests.
Improbable though it is, instead of their pursuit of their conception of the good life, obsession with failure, warrior-capitalist boosterism, and bemoaning of a weak and effeminate society, the manosphere’s most prolific spokesmen would do better to pay attention to figures like McCabe and French writer Édouard Louis.
McCabe, too, identifies the mutual implication of aggression, war, and capitalism, but rejects its naturalization and draws very different conclusions from it: “What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism. . . . Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not.”
For his part, Louis, himself brutalized as an adolescent, is an impressive advocate of the popular classes and marginalized. He draws on the tradition of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, and James Baldwin to point to the dead end of bad faith adaptation to dominant social norms, including a supposedly natural aggressive masculinity:
Our history, our personal histories, are full of norms and standards that we fail to fulfil. So, maybe talking about failure is a way of challenging these fictions that we create: the fiction of masculinity, the fiction of femininity, of what is a real man, a real woman . . . of what is a good life. These fictions continue to shape our existence, even if they have nothing to do with our lives, or at least even if nobody can completely fit into them. Maybe talking about failure is a way of presenting things as they really are, as we experience them in spite of all the ideologies, illusions and expectations.
Ultimately, McCabe and Louis offer much more “realistic” conceptions not only of how the world functions, but also of the possibility of inventing a better one. One in which to live a flourishing, meaningful life is generalized in a sustained collective and democratic project of socialism, and in which aggression and war as a way of life are rightly understood as detrimental even to its ardent champions. One in which, as Sartre insisted, no one is free unless everyone is free.