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[essay] Humanism and Manipulation - Transience Divine
June 6th, 2007
07:26 pm


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[essay] Humanism and Manipulation
Here's one that's been on my desk too long: How does humanism judge modern manipulation and what role does manipulation have in a humanist ethics? Can humanism enlighten manipulation with ethical limits? Is humanism a sensible philosophy in a world of manipulation?

The humanist worldview is from a simpler time, before existential power games, mass media advertising, human system dynamics, cognitive science, and analysis. A basic tenant of humanism is rational self-creation. But naive self-creation is a myth, and a poisonous one. From soul to sole, we're products of our culture, our peers, our privileges, and the deepest quirks of our individual complexes. There's still a powerful role for a kind of free will, but not-- for lack of a better term-- Christian freedom.

Manipulation-- the subverting of self-determinism-- is a constant fact of modern life. It comes in two distinct forms. Micro manipulation-- between two people-- is the art of management, seduction, and psychology. Macro manipulation-- moving a population-- is the science of politics, business, and culture. In recent years, both branches have been honed to lettersharp points.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist whose Don't Think of an Elephant brought to the left what Jerry Falwell did for the right. He showed that the battleground of politics is in authoring the public discourse. If people are arguing for or against tax relief and partial-birth abortion, the public mind will reach predictable conclusions; if they hear about clean sky bills and public protection attorneys, they'll reach others.

Lakoff attacks the enlightenment myth that "the truth will set us free." Humanism claims that "if we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they'll reach the right conclusions." But facts alone are inert. People make decisions based on emotional appeal, conceptual framing, and social perceptions. Lakoff's human is a thermometer in a soup of cultural memes.

Our mechanism for choosing between conflicting truths transcends reason. Reason only works within the context of a consistent frame of meaning. Since every idea comes with its own frame, conflicting ideas can seem internal reasonable. Even our ability to choose a single frame for judging ideas is questionable: if you activate a frame enough in someone's head by speaking from it, and it will naturally become their default frame.

Classical humanism excuses a piece of the human creature from its context. Humanism says that we are capable of creating in ourselves and the world a utopia of free actors. It's not clear, however, that we want such a utopia, even if it's possible. Manipulation is useful, and can be used for good as easily as for ill.

Certainly some manipulation is necessary and helpful for children, to keep them safe and nurture self-awareness. Plus, without being indoctrinated into a culture, the human animal cannot grow. The idealist humanist transcends culture, but culture is a necessary and irreversible step in that path.

In moderation, manipulation is a powerful tool in psychology and education. People get stuck in ruts, develop ill-founded conceptions of the world, and forget to use the full extent of their abilities. External intervention is caring.

The world is too full of facts and opinions and options that political and cultural expression is necessary, and all expression is manipulative. Without loud and repeated expositions on the situations in Darfur and Iraq, or of gay rights and art expositions, people forget.

Everything we say and do contains an unavoidable element of manipulation. Our privileged role as Sartrian Others infuses every action and inaction with meaning. Every relationship has an element of power struggle, each of us trying grapple others into acknowledging our existence as free-willed, indefinable beings.

The pervasiveness and necessity of manipulation demands that we use it consciously. The potential for hurting others by its unacknowledged use is enormous. Refusing to acknowledge manipulation is disavowing responsibility for it. Good people have a responsibility to develop their powers of manipulation, micro and macro.

But necessity is not a justification for unhindered use. There are ways to manipulate more and less, and more and less appropriate situations, approaches, and responses.

One possible principle is that manipulation must be used in the service of providing for free choice. For example, the purpose of education is to raise people who have the background and skills necessary to teach themselves. Manipulation in psychotherapy should be limited to making clients more capable of making choices in their lives.

Troublingly, this conception of manipulation is always as a means to an end, with the end being the only justification for the means. Moreover, it's the particular Kantian evil of making another person into a means to one's own ends. How much manipulation is allowable for how lofty of ends? And if 50's era housewives delude themselves into being mostly happy, who's to say their lack of choice is wrong?

Another solution is to respect a kind of anarchy, in honoring the right to refuse. If everyone can start life as independent and free and with 50 acres and a mule surrounded by high walls, any connections they choose to make are a consensual invitation to be manipulated. But that is a fantasy world. We are not free in that way, we cannot live independently from society, and there is no exit from our fellow human beings.

We need a new conception of humans and humanity for the modern world. Human choice is a medley of manipulation, and manipulation is a prerequisite to choice. Manipulation is not the Schopenhauer's beastly exertion of power—it is amongst the highest and most noble arts of which humankind of capable.

Manipulation is a fundamental relation between people. The myth of the rugged individual disconnects our selves from our framing, the manipulative relations that constantly create us.

We need Martin Buber's gestalt shift to the supremacy of the relationship. Buber says that there is no "I", only sides of the "I-It" and "I-You" relations. To be the "I" in an "I-It" relation is to manipulate. For Buber's, the "I-You" relation was one of passive appreciation, but that is exactly the attitude of openness to manipulation.

We have freedom and choice, but it is a free-will negotiated in concert with Others. The ethics of manipulation are reflected back on us immediately, because they define us. To manipulate another as a means to an end is to oneself become a means. To subvert another's humanity—even in the service of helping the rise more powerfully from the ashes—is to become an accessory to that process.

Humanism holds that self-service is a natural good. Because of our rationality, our humanity, the fact of our social existence and the goodness inherent in free choice, the path to utopia is in our ability to improve our own situations. If ever more powerful modes of manipulation seem to sour self-service, the problem is not in manipulation, but in our selves.

Current Mood: contemplativewings

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 12:27 am (UTC)
Yes, the Interesting Problem, to which I have little to add.

I need to get around to reading some Martin Buber at some point. I suspect from what little I know, that I disagree with what you say:
To be the "I" in an "I-It" relation is to manipulate. For Buber's, the "I-You" relation was one of passive appreciation, but that is exactly the attitude of openness to manipulation.
That seems to fall back on a simpler idea of what manipulation is than the rest of what you say. Manipulation is not merely treating the Other as Object, it is treating one's own process as Object. Thus manipulation can function in the I-You relationship, as I understand I-You relationships and manipulation. He who moderates his own behavior to avoid distressing the Other is manipulating, after all and that is not outside the I-You relationship.
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 12:30 am (UTC)
That said, manipulation in the I-it relationship is exploitative and Bad, while manipulation in the I-You relationship is not.
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 03:57 am (UTC)
I don't understand what it means to treat one's own process as Object. Say more? You're right that I was being a bit loose here. I meant to argue that Buber's relationships were infused with, or at least naturally connected to, manipulation (which I think you agree with).

I also like your point that I-It manipulation is bad and I-You manipulation good, but it seems like a poetic claim at this point. Maybe it means that the only ethical manipulation is loving manipulation (whatever that means)? It seems like the "I" and the "You" have different modes of manipulation, and I'd like to say that both kinds of manipulation are ethical, but I'm having a tough time delineating what each does. Another possibility is that the "loving" of an I-You relation is exactly the sense that the relation is valued greater than the "I", and that this isn't the case with I-It relations.

Definitely read I and Thou when you have a chance. Buber's basic conceit is beautiful, and I found it powerful. You might decide that Buber's religion or philosophical inclination spoils his ideas, but probably not entirely.
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 05:42 am (UTC)
I don't understand what it means to treat one's own process as Object. Say more?

What you're referring to manipulation is at heart the awareness that one can modulate one's conduct to others consciously. Most people go through life on autopilot, largely reacting to others without conscious intervention in their reactions. They may mouth the words of free will, but they behave more like Elizas. Thus, to them, the idea that you can pick and choose your responses on the basis of, well, what you think best (on whatever criteria system you chose) is a profoundly radical idea.
(And very transgressive and threatening to some people, btw.)

The awareness that everything you do interacting with Others has effect on them for good or ill is an obvious awesomness, one which most people shy away from, because of the attendent moral implications. Many (most?) people don't want to take ownership of their conduct. They want to believe it can't be owned. They want their conduct to be comfortably exculpatorily involuntary. "I couldn't help it, I was angry." The idea that you have this enormous power in every human interaction, all day, every day, life long, is something that a lot of people can only confront if it comes with the belief, "but that's OK, you don't have to do anything about it."

Combining the realization that one both has effects on others and that one knows how to change those effects, that they are susceptible to rational choice -- and tactical and strategic thinking -- is the closing of the feedback loop which gets one to, well, the point of your OP.

Manipulation can be the treatment of the other as Object (the It in an "I-It" relationship) instead of as a Fellow Subject (the You in an "I-You" relationship). But manipulation is, definitionally, the use of the Self to effect the Other, thus it necessarily treats the Self as an Object. Or more precisely, one's process of relating to and communicating with the Other. One is not merely "handling" the Other, one is stretching forth one's volution to grasp and manipulate one's communicating, itself: how one speaks, what one says, one's body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. In manipulation, one makes of oneself one's instrument.

Music is what happens when we stop just howling and start controling our voices to put pitches into deliberate places in time, using our voices as instruments of our wills; manipulation is what happens when we stop just reacting and start controling our reactions to present the Self which is best to our aims -- be those aims to harm or to heal -- using our Selfs as instruments of our wills.

It is the closing of a feedback loop. It is the "if I know that doing X will cause Y in another, I will then predicate my doing X on how I feel about the desirability of causing Y in that other" feedback loop.

I also like your point that I-It manipulation is bad and I-You manipulation good, but it seems like a poetic claim at this point. Maybe it means that the only ethical manipulation is loving manipulation (whatever that means)?

*TWITCH.* "Loving" hasn't stopped an atrocity yet, so I find it a thin reed to rest upon. If we must go with inner states, I prefer "beneficence" understood not as a sentiment but an attitude or a track-record. (Note I choose advisedly the concept of "beneficence", literally "well-making", over "benevolence", literally "well-willing".)

As you note in the OP, the problem of realizing the extent of this power/influence we all have over one another (btw, have you seen the movie "Crash" (2005? 2006?)) is that it pretty much throws "consent" out of the window. There is no meaningful consent in the sense we would like to believe for moral purposes. All of us, our consent is being manufactured and compromised and subverted every day.

[User Picture]
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)
What you're referring to manipulation is at heart the awareness that one can modulate one's conduct to others consciously.

Question: is this awareness Type-correlative? I tend to think of this sort of awareness as a characteristic (if not exclusive) trait of the INTJ -- is that correct?

Indeed, I think of the tendency to consciously manipulate *oneself* as a rather INTJish thing -- and that ability to manipulate oneself tends to be useful when manipulating others...
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 05:42 am (UTC)

But the heart of the I-You relationship, it seems to me, is regarding the Other as a Fellow Subject, an Actor, an Agent in his or her own right, who acts upon us even as we act upon them, and that the way that we demonstrate this regard for the other as a Fellow Subject is by treating their consent or withholding of consent as meaningful. That is to say, it seems to me what makes an I-You relationship an I-You relationship is that each person in it considers the other to be a consenting being, whose giving and withholding of consent are to be treated as meaningful.

So it seems to me that while consent as a moral principle is not and cannot be rigorous, ethical conduct requires us to attempt to act as if it were, to the utmost of our ability. While we may not be able to truly consent to anything, we must act as if Others can as much as possible.
[User Picture]
Date:June 8th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
Well said! I don't know if your conception of the I-You relation is the same as Buber's, but I think it's a good one.

My experience of life is so bound up in these kinds of conscious choices that I find it difficult to believe everyone doesn't do them. When you choose a style of dress, or present yourself during a job interview, or flirt, you're choosing to act a certain way for the effects it will have on others. It seems like people are consciously making manipulative choices all the time, but they would react poorly to their actions being called manipulative.

Manipulation is a loaded word. And people assume that acknowledgment of it is tantamount to endorsement-- or rather, to unqualified endorsement, since I think most people do approve of some level of manipulative behavior.

And part of me thinks they're right to shy away from open acknowledgment, if it would encourage its use. I've read books expounded different methods of manipulation, and in most of them it's clear that a kind of ethical humility is lost. The flaw of these books and their authors is not a lack of beneficence. It's a lack of reciprocity.

I want a new word, just for subject-to-subject-style manipulation. Conduction, maybe (from conduct, not conductor).

I agree that consent is an important element of conduction, but I find it to be very poorly defined in real life. An effective manipulator can work plenty of maleficence and get more consent all the time. As you say, consent can be manufactured. I remember that we talked about consent some Wednesday, but I've forgotten the details.

Active consent can usually only be asked for by adding some element of artificiality into a situation. The withholding of consent is even more problematic, because it's never clear what's being refused, or if anything is being refused. This is a problem I'm always running into when flirting-- trying to guess when my attention is not reciprocated, and to what degree that's an indictment on my actions.

Of course, no one ever claimed that real ethics were easy or clean-cut.
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
Nice. I agree, especially with the idea that manipulation, as defined here, can be good and necessary in the deluge of information we have today. In any case, it is inevitable. Interesting discussion on whether "I-it" vs "I-you" is good or bad. In a way, it comes down to intention - whether your "end" is beneficial to those you use as your "means". Another aspect of it is whether in using someone you view them as a tool or means, or a human being, your equal. I suppose that is part of the distinction between "it" and "you".

Unfortunately I don't have time for a more in-depth post right now, but am very interested in this discussion.

(by the way, i think you mean to say "tenet" in the second sentence of second paragraph)
[User Picture]
Date:June 7th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
So arrogance or superiority of the manipulator who considers others incapable of decisions and lesser beings can quickly degenerate into attitude of "others are just things whose purpose is to serve my ends", therefore it's okay to deceive them, to the point of it's okay for *them* to die for my cause (to put it dramatically). The extreme quickly goes into evil end of the scale.
Date:December 8th, 2007 09:31 pm (UTC)
Hi. You don't know me; I found your journal by reading friendsfriends. But you seem like an incredibly interesting person who shares many interests with me, so I'm introducing myself. :)

(I don't really have anything to add in response to this post, but I found it interesting.)
[User Picture]
Date:December 13th, 2007 06:25 am (UTC)
Thank you, and it's nice to meet you!
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