THE ART OF MANIPULATION

THE ART OF MANIPULATION

Extracts from the article by A C Grayling

18/11/2009 

 

The vast dispersion of information on the Internet has in recent years sparked a huge rise in awareness of government malpractice worldwide. The intelligent person of today is simply more informed than his pre-net equivalent; though the sheer volume of information which we sift through causes some to wonder whether it is necessarily a beneficial thing.
Manipulation is a broad topic, with endless opportunities to be blunt when careful consideration should be taken in mind. In my humble opinion, to state that all governments manipulate their people is probably true: after all, government from its original Latin roots means “control of the mind”. This may initially seem overstated, but only because of the negative connotation associated with manipulation.

 
There are thousands of examples for the positive and the negative. The school child is manipulated to work by his or her fear of punishment; yet potentially benefits in life from the opportunities open to them from better grades. Parental actions performed with the best of intent for the child are often thought of as manipulative to the adolescent.
The action itself remains in neutrality – the issue therefore is not to somehow stamp out its existence as though it is the cause of our problems, but to become more astute as to where the positive meets the negative, and that is very difficult.
Is the perceived negative in the initial action of manipulation or the result thereafter? Is it justified if used for the greater good?
The following extracts from the article:
“The Art of Manipulation” by British Philosopher A C Grayling

 

Describe someone as Machiavellian and in that word you describe him as devious, crafty, scheming – and above all, manipulative. By this we mean he achieves his ends by manoeuvring people in ways they do not quite understand, at least until it is too late. He does it by blandishments and flattery, or by tricks and sleight of hand; sometimes he does it by playing different interests off against each other, by pulling secret strings, by concealing his true aims with artifice and ruse, and always by misleading those whom he is getting to do what he wants. These were among the techniques that Niccolo Machiavelli advised a prince to adopt in ruling a populace.

 
That last point, about misleading people, is what makes manipulation so objectionable: it implies that the manipulator has acted against the will or the interests of those he battens upon. His victims feel, if they discover what he has done, that they have been subjects of a stratagem, which they would quite likely not have agreed to if they had realised what was happening. No one likes to be outwitted ; still less does anyone like to be tricked. To describe a given act as involving manipulation implies that both these things have been done to someone.

 
In one way it might seem odd that manipulation should have a pejorative connotation. After all, we often try to persuade, influence and cajole others. And we are used to being subjected to persuasion and efforts at influence from the culture around us: advertisers are perpetually after our attention, sales men after our money, and politicians after our votes, all of them employing as much inducement and enticement as they can muster. Neither they nor we are above employing whatever rhetorical arts we know, and even bribes of various kinds. Why is manipulation not regarded as just another repertoire of activities, central as they are to the continual negotiation and jockeying that is social life?

 
The chief factor common to all manipulators is skill at penetrating the psychology of others. A needle sharp awareness of the weakness and desires of those they practice upon is the manipulators key weapon. Everyone has weaknesses, ranging from fears and insecurities to love for another person or an ambition so burning that it makes them vulnerable.

 
Even hope can be a weakness that manipulators exploit. Stephen Jay Gould, better known for his biological insights, once astutely remarked that “when people learn no tools judgement and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown”.
The art of politics – some with justice call it a black art – almost always involves some manipulation. Some of it is overt, as when party whips secure their own sides votes by direct threats to expose mistresses or concealed homosexual proclivities. But much of it is covert, a long game played by means of tweaking and pulling many threads. Politics is like herding cats, with so many conflicting urgencies and so many different interest groups on the warpath about their own special concerns that the politician’s life is very like being the conductor of an orchestra in a mad house. Since rational discussion is not likely to get far in such a place, astute manipulation rises high on the list of practical options.

 
When a statesman is described as great because he was able to persuade his country, through oratory or example, to adopt a certain line of action, his guidance of affairs is not described as manipulation but as influence at least, and more likely as leadership. All successful manipulators could just as accurately be described as leaders, or as influencers and guides, because by definition they have led others along a path chosen by themselves.

 
The word “manipulate” has a fascinating etymology. It derives obviously enough from the Latin for hand (manus) and “to fill” (plere) and occurs in that ancient tongue as manipulus to mean, literally, a handful (and figuratively, sheaf of wheat). In French manipule is a pharmacist’s measure – a handful of medicinal powder, for example. Manipulation in that same language meant a certain method of mining ore, by pick axe and sweat. Its first recorded use in English with the negative connotation of underhandedly manoeuvring others without their knowledge and against their will is very recent: it dates only from the 1820s.

 
In our own way the palm for manipulative skill goes to the Hollywood film industry. Any run-of-the-mill movie in any genre, whether romantic or “family”, animated, horror or adventure, can make its audience laugh, jump, or weep at the press of a hackneyed button. We all recognise the tropes that achieve this, and yet they still work; we go to the cinema not to glower at the screen on guard against being manipulated, but precisely in order to be manipulated. It is a generally benign and often cathartic experience, and to be welcomed accordingly; but it is manipulation nevertheless, even if it is one of the very few cases where we are unlikely to think it disagreeable.

 
It is obvious why less benign forms of manipulation matter. They typically involve unfairness, and come too close for comfort to lying and cheating. They use people as pawns in the achievement of the manipulators aims, in violation of the great ethical principle enunciated by Immanuel Kant, that other people should always be treated as ends in themselves, never as means to further ends.
Manipulation is par excellence the using of people as means. If we do not mind being persuaded, it is because we are aware of what is happening. Discussion, argument, even bribery, which changes our minds or re-routes our actions, is a far cry from a process in which we find ourselves doing something or taking a position that we did not realise that we were being steered into by activities we did not fully understand.

 
The skills of psychological penetration that the manipulator relies on can be combated only by two things: having no weaknesses, which is a human impossibility though it was recommended by the Stoics of ancient times, or by being watchful and sceptical, which is far more achievable. Count your spoons when the snake-oil salesmen visit: thats the motto for the forefront of our minds when the advertisers, politicians, preachers – and talent-show judges – are at work among us.
Taken from The Independent on Sunday 15 Nov 2009
Introduction by Opa
O.N. 18/11/2009

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