Andrew Tate, influencer, pornographer, self-confessed misogynist, and alleged rapist and trafficker, is much in the news nowadays. One of a host of concerns about him is the way he has convinced many teenage boys and young men in the UK that he is an authority who can reveal secret truths about the world, and how by following his guidance they too can grow into men with fast cars who are able not only to get away with abusing women but to make money from it. Predictably, it did not take long for such concerns be dismissed as “a full-blown moral panic”, evidence not of real harm but of “the hysteria of modern feminism” (ironically echoing one of Tate’s claims that feminism is to blame for young men’s lack of self-esteem).
In an earlier post, here, I looked at Robert Bly’s book, Iron John, and questioned Bly’s insistence that boys require the influence of older men in order to grow into responsible adults - that ”only men can change the boy into a man”. It is not succumbing to moral panic to be concerned that, for many boys, it is a man like Tate who has become that influencer.
Adolescence is a period of discovery, not least about sex. I noted, here, the important role that violent pornography now plays in the making of modern men. It’s no longer just photos of naked women that male adolescents masturbate over, it’s videos of women being subjected to extreme violence, degradation, and torture. This, increasingly, is boys’ sex education. But, as Robert Jensen has suggested, initially pornography exposes a fear of inadequacy:
“Pornography ends up being about men’s domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear; That we aren’t man enough.”
(Robert Jensen, Does Porn Make the Man?, AlterNet Nov 2007)
What Tate says to boys is that, like him, you can become ‘man enough’, but to achieve this you have to internalise an understanding that women are second class citizens, and that you have to toughen up, be in control, and treat them rough.
Porn shows boys the destination. Tate shows them a way to get there. And his way requires an empathy bypass.
"I don't think he's emotionally capable of feeling love, for anyone or anything…. there's just nothing. In the space in our brains where we feel love and compassion and empathy… it's just a hole, there's nothing there.”
(‘Sophie’, Andrew Tate was violent and coercive, says ex-girlfriend, BBC 6 Feb 2023)
J S Mill’s Monster?
Self-styled reactionary feminist Mary Harrington has written an article suggesting that Andrew Tate is John Stuart Mill’s ‘Monster’ (a reference, I imagine, to the Creature created by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and not to the female genitals in Robin Morgan’s poem of that name). To suggest that a vile misogynist is a product not of internet age patriarchy but of a philosophy book, On Liberty, that was published 164 years ago is an astonishing claim. It’s a claim which totally distorts the message of that book, and diverts attention away from the patriarchal assumptions that John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill (its joint authors) vehemently challenged, and which Tate embodies.
On Liberty, Harrington suggests, encourages the “experiments in living” that will be enabled if “custom” is discarded. The only checks that it offers, she adds, are minimal legal constraints on personal freedom where it harms others. Andrew Tate, Harrington observes, similarly promises that men can access “freedom, wealth, fast cars, and a superabundance of hot, compliant chicks” if they discard “social norms”.
Harrington implies, with this bizarre juxtaposition, that Tate’s misogyny stems from Mill’s philosophy, and suggests that the customs that Mill opposed should be reinstated, to manage differences between the sexes. Not only is this implication crass, it is based on a total misrepresentation of what Mill was proposing. She may have given an accurate summary of Tate’s key message. But it’s hard to see as anything other than wilful distortion her interpretation of what was meant in On Liberty by “experiments of living”, “custom”, and “harm”.
Here’s the sentence in chapter 3 where the reference to “experiments of living” (not experiments in living, as Harrington misquotes) appears:
“As it is useful that while mankind is imperfect that there should be different opinions, so that there should be different experiments of living, that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them”.
It is clear from the context in which this sentence appears that “experiments of living” are innovations that are needed if individuals and societies are to flourish. These experiments have to be proved practically to assess whether or not they improve on the status quo. If they don’t, they should be discarded, The sort of experiments that John and Harriet envisage (for clarity, I shall use just their first names from now on) are those described at length in a co-written chapter of John’s Principles of Political Economy. This assesses whether or not co-operatives can retain the advantages of competition while achieving a fairer distribution of income - an ‘experiment of living’ that is as far removed from Tate’s entitled misogyny as it is possible to imagine.
“Injury to others” , or “harms”, are not insignificant throw-away terms. They are central to the whole argument of On Liberty. Harriet and John spend many pages describing different types of injury or harm that would justify limits on individual freedom. They emphasise that “owing to the absence of any recognised general principles, liberty is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted.”
Men’s liberty to oppress and abuse women and children is one of the main freedoms that John and Harriet insisted should be withheld rather than granted. They each wrote newspaper articles and letters which outlined in gut wrenching detail abuses committed by men, and which excoriated the legal judgements that let perpetrators off lightly. In On Liberty, John and Harriet were particularly critical of “moral vices” such as “the love of domineering over others” and “the pride which derives satisfaction from the abasement of others”. It’s pretty obvious that, applying the framework set out in On Liberty, Tate’s liberty is one that should be withheld, not granted .
Custom, for Harriet and John, was convention that stifled innovation, and with it improvement. Societies dominated by custom, they suggested, stagnated and eventually collapsed. This did not mean that all customs should be rejected. Again, what was important is what proved to be practical. If innovation improved on existing customs, those customs should be replaced by new ones. If there was no improvement, existing customs should be retained.
It should be stressed, too, that John and Harriet’s notion of improvement did not mean physical growth beyond limits set ultimately by nature. Indeed, they did not think continued physical growth, except in poor countries, would be desirable, even if it were physically possible. As John makes clear in the chapter Of the Stationary State, in his Principles of Political Economy, “the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer”. Human improvement in advanced economies, he suggests, does not require increased production, or continued conquest of nature, but it does require a fairer distribution of the rewards of production:
“I know not why it should be a matter of congratulation that persons who are already richer than any one needs to be, should have doubled their means of consuming things which give little or no measure except as a representative of wealth.”
This is hardly an endorsement of the lifestyle that Tate pursues and recommends to his followers.
Not content with misrepresenting Harriet and John’s arguments in On Liberty, Harrington goes on to misrepresent their writings on sex equality. Drawing on Louise Perry’s book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (2022), Harrington suggests that John and Harriet downplayed sex differences such as those involved in choice of mate (women looking for emotional intimacy, contrasting with men looking for looks). Harriet and John recognised such differences, though they characterised men’s preferences as being about something darker than how women look. But they identified the source of these differences not in evolutionary psychology but in a political system, patriarchy, whose oppressiveness could and should be contested. There is no way that John and Harriet would have accepted the Harrington/Perry argument that equality is not possible because women’s emotional intimacy cannot be diminished. Instead they believed that achieving equality required men’s capacity for emotional intimacy to increase. Sex equality for John and Harriet meant much more than equality of opportunity in professions. Equality within intimate relationships was, for them, at its core.
Which brings us back to custom. Harrington’s belief that custom must be preserved because it helps manage sex differences contrasts with Harriet and John’s awareness of how custom can enshrine oppression. Nowhere is this clearer than in their awareness of the support that custom gave to ”the almost despotic power of husbands over wives”. That this custom was resistant to change did not make it any less pernicious. It was only two decades ago that the custom of marital rape became a crime in England and Wales, and only 5 years ago that a YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage was not rape.
When John and Harriet married, in 1851, they were determined not to bow to the oppression embedded in the marriage contract of the time. Before their marriage, John wrote a commitment to Harriet (who was the widow of John Taylor) eschewing the privileges which custom and the law at the time would bestow on him as a husband:
“Being about, if I am so happy as to obtain her consent, to enter into the marriage relation with the only woman I have ever known, with whom I would have entered that state; and the whole character of the marriage relation as constrained by law being such as both she and I entirely and conscientiously disapprove, for this among other reasons, that it confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will; I, having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers (as I most assuredly would do if an engagement to that effect could be made legally binding on me) feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring such powers: and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them. And in the event of marriage between Mrs Taylor and me I declare it to be my will and intention, and the condition of the engagement between us, that she retains in all respects whatever the same absolute freedom of action and freedom of disposal of herself and all that does or may at any time belong to her, as if no such marriage had taken place; and I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretension to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage.”
Far from preparing the ground for Andrew Tate, Harriet and John’s writings, and what we know of their relationship, are powerful antidotes to everything that Tate represents. I shall explore those antidotes, and their contemporary relevance, in my next post.
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Excellent, once again!
so interesting. i have mary harrington's new book ordered and am interested in what she says. but i always like to cross reference (so i can form a more independent perspective) and your writing will help me to do that. thank you.