TikTok trends come and go, but one that I can’t stop thinking about is “weaponized incompetence.” The template for this trend is quite simple: Show how poorly tasks are done when the person expected to do them is simply incompetent.
These videos are usually meant to shame the person targeted by the video, or for the creator to get some consolation from the internet. However, I find this less important than the presence of weaponized incompetence beyond my For You page. It saturates our lives, yet we rarely seem to recognize its many forms.
Essentially, this is the mindset of someone weaponizing their incompetence: “If I do a bad job, then no one will ask me to do it again.” It’s not ignorance, and it’s not incapability: It is a purposeful unwillingness to try. It is TikToks of women asking their partners to do a household chore or task, only to be met with such poor results that they end up doing it themselves. And when it comes to doing the task again, they won’t want to ask their partners.
This isn’t just a TikTok phenomenon, either. Women ages 15 and older end up doing an average of two more hours of housework daily than men in the same age category. This additional work goes unnoticed in many cases — 59% of women say that they end up doing the majority of the household work but only 34% of men agree that their partner does more work. In heterosexual partnerships, this disparity must only be widened by men who leverage weaponized incompetence to thrust the least desirable tasks onto their partners.
Considering how weaponized incompetence works within heterosexual couples is usually where thinking about the subject begins and ends. However, it’s much more widespread.
Acknowledgment of this mindset existed long before any TikTok trend. A Wall Street Journal article dating back to 2007 coined the term “strategic incompetence,” describing it as an “art” and “skill” that can be used in the office for tasks that someone doesn’t want to do. The article suggests that this behavior is ingrained in us at birth. As children, we pretend not to know how to do chores when our parents ask us; as adults, we continue this behavior.
Even though the article, in comparison to TikTok, takes a more positive view of weaponized incompetence, the fundamental premise remains.
Weaponized incompetence could be considered a universal experience. Plenty of us have experienced the shortfalls of other people’s incompetence. Exhibit A: The sighs and groans that fill a room when a professor brings up a group project. The sadly all-too-common situation is where one group member falls short, and the other members have to work harder to complete the project, only for all the members to receive the same grade.
It’s a frustrating task, working with someone that chooses to not do the work, or even worse, they do the work so poorly that someone has to fix it for them. Other students are forced to fill in the gaps left by those who purposefully choose to slack off with the hopes of banking on the competence of their group mates.
Weaponized incompetence doesn’t end with simple tasks — it also damages our politics. People in positions of power are able to claim ignorance or dismiss the complexities of problems that they don’t want to discuss or fix.
Despite the headlines about critical race theory in recent years, seven in 10 Americans don’t know what critical race theory is. The same study found that 52% of Americans support teaching the legacy of racism in schools, compared to the 27% of Americans who support critical race theory being taught in schools. To fully understand the legacy of racism today, it’s necessary to learn about systemic racism. You can’t have one without the other. Weaponized incompetence in these situations persists when people vehemently oppose something they don’t even care to understand.
To admit that critical race theory should be taught in schools would be to admit that white privilege prevails within the legal system and policies. This is something that most Republicans don’t want to do, in order to keep legitimacy in the racial system established. Hence, they claim ignorance of the privilege they hold.
There is a supposedly strong debate about critical race theory, even today, and yet there are many who choose to remain ignorant about what these topics mean. The term is loosely used with activities that don’t match the true definition, and then deemed to be sanctioning racism in schools.
Even with these continued debates about how racism is being taught in schools, the underlying factor here is whether people are willing to learn about race: Whether they are willing to acknowledge their ignorance or prejudices. White Americans are the least likely to only talk about race with their friends and family, compared to Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans. If white Americans are not willing to have these conversations in the first place, then the incompetence of understanding racial issues just continues.
When white people choose to intentionally remain uneducated on these topics, they hold the expectation that people within minority groups must do the heavy lifting of explaining these topics. It is not the job of people of Color to explain racism and its implications to people that don’t make an effort to understand.
The root of weaponized incompetence is a difference of power between people. Knowing that the woman in the relationship will pick up the slack of household chores so that the house can be clean. Knowing that someone in the group project will finish the slides so that they themselves don’t get a bad grade. Knowing that remaining ignorant, or just completely ignoring, topics of race will allow current privileges to persist.
These situations all vary in complexity and implications, but stem from someone not wanting to do something and having the power to force someone else to do it instead.
It’s hard to accept, but all of us, some more so than others, are guilty of this bad habit. We shouldn’t force the people around us to do our work for us. The first step toward correcting this behavior is to recognize when we think of weaponizing our incompetence, and then put in the work to just not do it. Especially when it comes at the expense of others.
Jamie Murray is an Opinion Columnist that writes about American politics and interpersonal relations for The Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.