So I was checking my social media feed the other day, and I came across a cutely drawn infographic comic series by Robert the Otter on ‘Weaponised Incompetence.’
It was my first time hearing the term, which in the comic was defined as “a behaviour pattern when a partner pretends to be bad at a task so they don’t have to do it”. Further, it may involve ‘playing dumb, doing a task poorly, or reverting (sic) to the other person because ”you’re better at it than me”’. The phenomenon is purportedly common in ‘cisgender, heterosexual relationships where males lean on their female partners’. But a quick disclaimer is given that it is not only perpetuated by men, and it can also occur in many other settings outside of marital/domicile relationships.
My initial reaction to this previously unfamiliar term was one of shock. Weaponisation implies intentional harm! I recalled fondly how my army buddies would shirk off certain tasks, claiming they didn’t know how to do it, to avoid trouble or simply be lazy. These, and more recent instances, certainly annoyed and amused me to various extents, but I could never imagine them intending harm upon me.
To be honest, I appreciated how the topic was treated with great sensitivity. I especially liked that the article stressed that one shouldn’t be quick to judge the partner in question as their ‘incompetence’ may be genuine and valid, not a front for wiggling out of responsibility. The tips and tricks on how to deal with a partner engaging in ‘weaponised incompetence’ were mostly actionable, reasonable and compassionate; solutions included open communication, setting boundaries, and accruing knowledge (although, the ambiguity of the term was awkward).
Is ‘weaponised incompetence’ well-understood?
I was struck by how the bulk of the comic seemed to focus on marital relationships, and men’s major complicity in this act. So, I tried to do a search on Google to educate myself on this topic.
Interestingly, it seemed that popular articles on ‘weaponised incompetence’ flooded the web in the last year or so. Despite a handful of articles addressing weaponised incompetence in the workplace, many focused on the phenomenon, particularly in cisgender heterosexual relationships. I discovered that almost all seemed to suggest that women were primarily the victims and not perpetrators.
This did not seem unreasonable, since women still do most of the housework and childcare in the UK. A peer-reviewed study from the Netherlands confirms this, and further shows that a small majority of women in such situations perceive doing more housework as being fair. In Singapore, a survey was conducted by Ipsos recently in 2021. It almost coincidentally agreed with the Dutch study in showing that slightly more than half of women were happy with the division of labour at home, whereas about around 66-75% of men were satisfied.
So, while women were not miserable, they definitely were not pleased about the division of labour at home. Certainly, weaponised incompetence could be contributing to negative perceptions of unfairness in such relationships. But fairness perception, though not unrelated, ought to be conceptually distinct from weaponised incompetence. The former indicates a personal and subjective experience, while the latter is a particular behaviour. Therefore it ought to be studied in a different way by questioning and examining different sets of assumptions, and using different methodologies, tools and protocols.
Regardless, it seemed reasonable to think that incidences of weaponised incompetence could contribute to feelings of unfairness. Unfortunately, it seemed impossible to find deep scholarly work on the conceptual validity of the term, as well as the manifestations and prevalence in various types of relationships. For now, I had to rely on these popular-level websites and articles, such as the ones cited by the comic (one located in the relationship section of ‘mbg’, a health and lifestyle website, and another from a website on fathering, Fatherly). Both articles feature relationship coaches, psychology professionals, and social workers, often asserting (without evidence) that weaponised incompetence is more common in men, and particularly constrained to housework.
The roots of ‘weaponised incompetence’
Despite trying to maintain an open mind, anecdotes, claims and opinions from relevant professionals, without reference to any formal study or body of literature prompted me to remain sufficiently sceptical. Such information was at the lowest rung on the hierarchy of evidence, and so I decided to dig a bit deeper into the origins of the idea of weaponised incompetence.
Its original form may have been ‘skilled incompetence’, describing the state of being conflict-avoidant. This gave way to ‘strategic incompetence’, which describes the incredibly familiar case of a lazy co-worker pretending to be incapable of performing a task. However, the co-mingling with other recently formed concepts of ‘mental load’ and ‘emotional labour’ birthed the idea of the current iteration of ‘weaponised incompetence’.
For the uninitiated, mbg explains that mental load describes ‘invisible labour involved in managing a household and family, which typically falls on women’s shoulders’. But why is ‘mental load’ defined so narrowly in the context of a household? Doesn’t every person experience a form of mental load while performing activities of varying physical and cognitive intensities through a typical workday? Couldn’t a construction worker be risking his physical safety due to various mental pressures? It seemed apparent that ‘mental load’ had been specially appropriated by feminist scholars, possibly as a technical term to be used in explaining inequalities in performing household chores. But the problem with that seems fairly obvious – appropriating a phrase that ought to include many types of people in it is confusing, catastrophising, and deliberately exclusive.
What about emotional labour? Arlie Hochschild, who coined the term, claims that the way it is used in popular parlance, and potentially even feminist discourse, has led to a concept creep away from the original meaning of the term. While originally invented to denote the emotional effort required to work professionally in a particular occupation (regardless of gender), it is now being used in a muddied and imprecise way to describe household activities done by women. She argues that while language changes, such concept creep leads to blurriness of thinking, and removes the focus from the realities of social class.
If ‘weaponised incompetence’ was built upon these problematic concepts, how strong was its conceptual validity in the very particular realm of household relationships? Like mental load, has it been improperly particularised to the realm of performing household chores? And wouldn’t that deliberately discount the mental load that men carry while at work, especially if theirs could possibly be more physically and mentally demanding? It doesn’t mean that there are no men failing to put in equal effort, but does priming people to think in such a narrow way in favour of women’s personal experiences and struggles (alone!) encourage a compassionate and collaborative dynamic between couples?
A closer reading of the infographic comic
Despite the attempt to appear balanced, the above imbalance is clearly baked into the comic. For example, one panel depicts a distraught mother executing several ‘micro-skills’ such as ‘organising’ and ‘planning’ and ‘cleaning’. In contrast, her partner donning a work suit simply ‘works for money’, while sardonically commenting that it ‘looks fair’.
Anyone who is reasonably employed knows that ‘working for money’ involves a myriad of mentally exhausting micro-skills as well, such as ‘organising’, ‘planning’, ‘managing multiple stakeholders’, ‘achieving timely results’, ‘not failing high-value, high-risk tasks’, and many more. These tasks are no more or less valuable or challenging than household work and childcare. But it is an oversimplification to portray men as being completely put together and having no other responsibility other than generating income, which is supposedly an effortless task (especially if you’re an executive wearing a suit in an oppressive, capitalistic society).
I then advanced to an incredibly strange panel, claiming that men had been socialised from boyhood to not want to pick up ‘daily knowledge’ and ‘navigate society’. This sentence made absolutely no sense to me – anyone who has gone through adolescence and ‘adulting’ knows the challenge of having to navigate an increasingly bigger world, regardless of gender. But a glance at the war in the comments section suggested that all of that meant…doing housework? And picking up their socks from the floor?
Besides the bizarre claim that boys were subliminally taught that picking up shoes is a feminine duty, was the panel simply talking about not being lazy? How lame must a man be to attribute his failure to put his shoes away to an incompetence in picking things up? And if navigating a supposedly modern and egalitarian society meant tying ponytails, then do we also speak of women learning to do rough and tumble play with their sons as well?
Concept validity, narratives and agendas.
Was I being pedantic and nitpicky? Possibly. But it seemed that at a basic level, the comic had the tendency to attribute character deficiencies to men, by raising questionable claims that strayed from a reasonable definition of ‘weaponised incompetence’. As with many other ideas in psychology, weaponised incompetence seemed to me just as susceptible to concept creep, especially within popular discourse (like the comments section). That means that the original meaning is deliberately expanded to include other domains, without proper justification to the point that its original meaning is distorted or diluted.
Furthermore, ideas and concepts which spawn from popular psychology could be built upon science that is at best mistaken, or at worst, altogether absent. The implicit bias test is a recent psychometric tool that has received overwhelming criticism in recent years for lack of replicability. In certain cases, malicious actors may weaponise pseudoscientific psychological narratives to advance certain ideological agendas.
An example of this is described by Dr. Michael Scheeringa, who developed an interest in toxic stress theory, which posited that stresses in childhood can rewire one’s brains permanently in a negative way. It was used as the basis for enacting certain progressive policies in certain areas in the US. However, upon reviewing the scientific literature Dr Scheeringa found little support for the theory. Instead, he found out that the term was invented by a paediatrician, and then popularised and propagated via social justice activists and institutions. After publishing his findings in Psychology Today, Dr Scheeringa’s article was eventually censored for questioning something that had become scientific and public health dogma, and provided the false justification for political action.
This story demonstrates that we ought to be cautious with unsavoury narratives that may insidiously be lurking under ideas from popular psychology. In my opinion, ‘weaponised incompetence’ is itself an idea that is weaponised in a similar way, in order to advance a particular feminist narrative of an irresponsible male partner. It is popularised by certain professionals in the industry who present it as a valid insight, especially into male deficiencies in relationships, without actually having a shred of scientific validity. It is also propagated in an oversimplified manner via media such as online comics.
This is not to put any blame on Robert the Otter, who is obviously trying to produce positive materials as an avatar of the beloved Singapore mammalian icon. But I also hope that if he reads this, he would pause to think about the source and truthfulness of the ideas that he wishes to express.
Even though I emerged from this journey with a distaste for the idea of weaponised incompetence, I did learn some important things about women. For instance, according to the Ipsos survey, women consistently report having insufficient personal time to look after their well-being, more so than men, especially when they have children. Husbands need to look into closing this gulf if they want to please their partner and have a rewarding marriage. If it means working on their so-called ‘weaponised incompetence’, and striving to relieve some of the pressures from their wives, then I’m all for it.