From Andrew Tate to Jordan Peterson, a phoney zero-sum-game argument sits at the heart of anti-feminist backlash

From Andrew Tate to Jordan Peterson, a phoney zero-sum-game argument sits at the heart of anti-feminist backlash
The real reasons to be worried about men's quality of life does not mean discussions about equality should become a zero sum game. Syuzann/Shutterstock

Clips of men sharing controversial opinions about women and masculinity do swift business on social media.

Despite personally being banned from Twitter, social media influencer Andrew Tate is the most common face seen in these videos. And conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson remains a fixture too. Aided by algorithms that reward outrage, their hot takes and moments of “owning” feminists proliferate. Yet their seemingly rational arguments about the importance of masculinity conceal a more dangerous side – one which could harm men and women alike.

The arguments put forward by Tate and his kind centre around traditional gender roles. They propose that men should be physically strong and seek resources and status (in today’s world, money and fame), while women should serve their partner and nurture their children. Women who follow these expectations should be cared for. Women who do not should be punished.

These arguments embody how psychologists conceptualise sexism. According to ambivalent sexism theory, there are two co-occurring types of sexism. The first, benevolent sexism, represents ideas which seem positive but actually undermine gender equality.

One example is that men and women are different but complementary. Take Peterson’s conceptualisation of order and chaos as reflecting masculinity and femininity. On the surface, this idea seems to benefit everyone, as men and women can rely on each other to make up shortfalls. For example, it could mean that women are more creative (chaos) while men are better at making those ideas reality (order).

In reality, men and women are more similar than different. Yet humans love categorising ourselves and others, so we fixate on and overemphasise the differences. This can result in men and women being pigeonholed into specific roles.

The second type of sexism, hostile sexism, reflects outright negative evaluations linked to gender. For example, someone could believe that women are inherently inferior, manipulative, or too easily offended. This is a regular feature of Tate’s videos, which are littered with sexist slurs and references to the need for men to control women.

Tate and Peterson rationalise these views as intellectual ways of understanding the world. Yet both forms of sexism solidify gender roles, which can, in turn, make people feel less able to challenge them, such as by pursuing non-stereotypical careers. We need a diverse range of viewpoints for the best problem solving, so tackling this is vital for societal progress.

What’s more, hostile sexist beliefs in particular are associated with increased tolerance of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Normalising ambivalent sexism could in turn normalise such attitudes. This has clear potential to hurt women.

Equality as a ‘threat’

Strong progress has been made towards equality in the West. Women are now professors, CEOs and heads of state – and stereotypes about women are changing accordingly. Yet despite the fact that equality benefits everyone, every stride comes with backlash against it.

It’s common for people like Tate and Peterson to justify their views by saying that men’s issues and concerns are routinely ignored. And it is indeed the case that male health, homelessness and suicide have been historically under-discussed and underfunded.

But to raise these issues as an argument against more freedom for women is to feed the false idea that men and women are battling for power.

This “us vs. them” perspective does emerge in political debate when one group feels threatened by another, generally when the other group is attaining power and resources. Such perceived competition may be further heightened if it is considered to be zero-sum – that is, when individuals believe that one group’s gain requires another group’s loss. Through this lens, women’s improving status in society must be hurting men’s opportunities. People who believe this may be motivated to reverse progress on gender equality. However, this notion is based on a false premise. Gender equality actually leads to more economic growth and so more jobs for everyone, regardless of gender.

Talking it through

The good news is that understanding this zero-sum framework provides potential solutions to the backlash against gender equality. Intergroup relations research has reliably demonstrated that getting the opposing sides to meet, talk on equal footing and create shared goals reduces animosity. We can start to reduce negativity towards feminism by starting conversations about gender issues in ways that do not make men feel threatened.

We should help them realise that equality benefits everyone, not just women. Gender equality leads to economic growth, better health outcomes, and a wider range of opportunities for the whole population.

We also need to promote positive male role models who embody this message. Bridging this divide will make influencers like Tate much less appealing, and everyone will reap the benefits.

The Conversation

Bethan Iley receives funding from the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy Research Studentship scheme. She is affiliated with the Framework for Open and Reproducible Research Training (FORRT).