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Andrew Tate and the search for meaning

Since Andrew Tate was arrested in Romania, there’s been a deluge of articles trying to make sense of his influence. How does someone with such objectionable views hold sway over so many young people today? There are no doubt many compelling insights into this question, but perhaps one of them is that he offers guidance and significance to a generation that’s hungry for meaning.

3 mins

January 18, 2023

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Over the last week or two, there’s been much hand-wringing in the press over controversial social media personality Andrew Tate’s influence, particularly over adolescent males.

This concern is not new, but it has seen a crescendo into the current furore following his arrest for multiple counts of rape and human trafficking. There’s no shortage of evidence that the 36-year-old is deeply troubled, and a dangerous example to impressionable young men. The question is though, how has he managed to be so influential to this demographic, and to what appetite and instinct is he appealing?

Tate made his name as a kickboxer and now styles himself as a self-help guru. His image is that of a wealthy, cigar-smoking playboy, surrounded by flashy cars and expensive watches. If the optics sound gauche and dubious, they’re nothing in comparison to his explicit messaging. Tate is a self-described misogynist with a ‘Taliban’ view of women. He states that women belong in the home, rape victims should take some responsibility, and that violence against women is appropriate. Such extreme and repulsive views are normally the preserve of more obscure pockets of the internet, though his TikTok videos have been viewed more than 11 billion times. Clearly these provide compelling clickbait, but what is it about Tate that holds such magnetism for adolescent males?

This BBC article tackles this question seriously, with one teacher commenting that part of his appeal is that he is ‘articulate, disciplined and good looking’. A thoughtful piece from The Independent by Clint Edwards points out that he is speaking to young men and we aren’t: ‘They want to understand the world around them, and what their place in it is…Our silence is his oxygen.’ While no articles remotely condone anything to do with Tate, they can see that his success in reaching young men is partly due to a vacuum of role models and guidance.

No doubt sense-making is at least part of Andrew Tate’s appeal in a culture that is often confused and lacking in clarity. Tate seems to be offering simplistic narratives to understand the world, and a route to bettering oneself – both of which appeal to confused adolescents. The same was said of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s stratospheric rise in popularity a few years ago – though the two do not fit in the same category. But perhaps it’s more than sense-making and masculinity that draw people to Tate. It’s the deeper desire for meaning – that, at least, is the hunger he excites.

Andrew Tate embodies the desire for satisfaction and meaning through money, sex, and power. The fast cars and fat cigars, the domineering posture towards women, and the sheer bravado of his persona all tap into primal human urges (particularly in young men). These have been powerful influences on people across space and time; leading Freud to suggest that we’re fundamentally driven by sexual desire, and 20th-century psychiatrist Alfred Adler to say that it is a will to meaning that drives human action. Freud and Adler founded two different schools of Viennese psychiatry, though there was a third which is a more compelling and humane way of understanding the human condition; that of the Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl.

Victor Frankl survived living in several Nazi concentration camps, including a spell at Auschwitz. While there, he collected observations that led to his classic book Man’s Search For Meaning. As he watched who survived and who died in the concentration camps, he noticed that it was those people who had a reason to live- some hope which gave meaning to their lives- that tended to survive, echoing Nietzsche’s comment that ‘he who has a why can bear any how’. Frankl pointed out that, like those in concentration camps, we’re all heading for the grave; everything is in a process of decay. We need to find some meaning to hang the chaos and confusion of life on- this is the motivating force that drives us. Where Freud said we are driven by the need for sex, and Adler, the desire for power, Frankl points out that these are misplaced ways of looking for meaning.

We are drawn to money, sex, and power because we think they'll fill that existential hunger for significance.

Though as Frankl points out, we’ll never have our fill of these things- our appetite for them is infinite. As if to make this point exactly, when business magnate Warren Buffett was asked how much money would be enough, he quipped back, ‘just one more dollar’. While money, sex, and power all have a strong lure, they’re ultimately shallow and unfulfilling places to find meaning. Frankl suggests that instead, we should look for meaning in aspects of life that are intrinsically satisfying – moral good, spirituality, relationships, and creativity. All of these are an end in themselves, and make the experience of life richer and more meaningful.

Andrew Tate appeals because he offers what sounds like meaning to lost teenagers who are hungry for it. Because of this, however perverse, wrong-headed, and immoral Tate is, we can’t cancel his views into non-existence. We should, however, try to tell a better story by pointing to those things (with our words and our lives) that provide a ‘better hope’, as the writer in the Bible’s book of Hebrews puts it. If we don’t do that, then we shouldn’t be surprised when the next violent misogynist starts influencing a lost and hungry youth.

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