We like to think of manipulation as being the province of especially corrupt people. We don’t really tend to think of it as being part of the social fabric, although there’s no doubt that it is. We are surrounded by it from all sides, with little escape.
The term manipulation is rather vague in and of itself, so let me try to give it a precise definition:
The goal of an act of manipulation consists of giving people the illusion of free will (in that specific instance, anyway) while controlling their thoughts and/or actions.
We can therefore differentiate it from threats against the person and the direct use of force (where there is no illusion of free will) and exploitation (which is not an act in itself). Of course threats in general can still be manipulation, such as in the case of a person who threatens to kill himself or herself in order to make the other person love them or somesuch (although this is of course an extreme example, it does happen).
The number of ways to manipulate people is almost endless. In fact, many such lists exist. But without going into details, we can basically put these methods into a few categories:
* Pretending to be in a different mental state than you really are (acting helpless, acting lost, acting suicidal, acting hurt, acting unloved, etc).
* Blaming others for one’s problems (also playing the victim and playing the martyr).
* Putting down other people (guilt trips, ridicule, passive aggressiveness) or pretending to be on their side (“people pleasing,” pretending to be solicitous, etc).
* Lie (tell stories and fabrications, exaggerate to build up problems, dividing people against one another, act sorry and insincerely promise to change).
* Distract people away from you (shame people, keep everyone upset).
These are interpersonal methods, but of course there are others. Public relations, for instance, is solely concerned with giving people the illusion that they are in control while conditioning them into doing or thinking specific things (in fact, the field was created in order to control populations for the power elite). The list of techniques used in advertisements would be as long as the one for interpersonal relations. They seek to exploit your desires in order to get you to consume while thinking you’re doing it of your own free will.
Likewise, the concept that politicians manipulate people will, I think, not surprise anyone, especially since they use many of the methods I listed. As for the others, we all know them: narrowing the margins of discourse, creating enemies, using a small number of negative events to create stereotypes, creating false dichotomies, and so on and so forth. They seek to control people (into accepting policies that expand their power) while giving the illusion of free will (democracy being the most important tool to accomplish this).
But there is also the important fact that we manipulate each other. Norms and models of behaviour provide the impetus for social pressure to be exerted. When someone is classified as a deviant, manipulation is ratcheted up until the person either gives up and “decides” to conform, succumbs to the law, when laws exist against their form of deviation, or sets himself apart from society.
This is very much related to the superiority complex. The understanding and acceptance of norms and models of behaviour makes one feel superior to those who don’t follow them, since being normal is the desirable state. This is especially salient in psychology, where one must be cured from “not being successful” or “not respecting authority” (especially that of the parents), and until recently, cured of “being a sexual deviant” (including being born a homosexual), and a gargantuan amount of medications are forced on innocent children in order to normalize them.
The fact that we are permeated by manipulation from all sides really exposes the doctrine of voluntaryism as a sad delusion. How can the individual be said to have free will when he’s being controlled by the people he knows, by social pressure, by the media, and every other way he has of communicating or interacting with others? The same argument can of course be raised about control in general, of which manipulation is just one part.
In the face of such a situation, there are two different attitudes that one can take: the resigned statist attitude, or the Anarchist attitude.
The former says, well, we can’t possibly win, so we might as well accept that manipulation will always be a part of our lives and make the best of it. Some even go so far as to propose that we should consciously use manipulation to get others to do what we want, and that this is justified by the desired results (“the end justifies the means,” a bankrupt moral principle if there ever was one).
The give-it-uppers sometimes also believe that there’s no point in supporting an ideology for which there is little hope of being expressed in the world. I’ve always thought that was a very strange way of thinking. I’m sure there are some people who adopt ideologies on pragmatic grounds, but surely that’s not true of most people. I believe in Anarchism because I believe it is the best way to understand how society works and informs us of the most moral perspectives on it. Whether it is achievable on a large scale or not is none of my concern. The fact that something fits best with my values is what’s important, not whether I can change the world with it or not (otherwise, what would be the point of believing in anything at all?).
One may argue that Anarchism concerns itself entirely with social change, and that as such an Anarchism without social change is empty. But this is to misunderstand the nature of Anarchism as an ideology. I believe that any philosophical approach to Anarchism must be primarily concerned with the individual’s mental, moral and emotional welfare. Besides, no social change can take place without some minimal form of evolution in thought and morality on the part of the general public, and how much more true must that be for any Anarchist change.
Which brings us to what I think is the proper Anarchist attitude towards widespread manipulation, or indeed any form of control. While we can do little to stem its tide, I think we need to look inwards, first and foremost, for the answers. As individuals, we must reexamine our own behaviour, beliefs and moral principles, with at least as much emphasis as we put on reexamining the behaviour, beliefs and moral principles moving the social institutions and roles that we criticize vehemently. We must examine if there is a disconnect between our beliefs about morality and our actual behaviour, and adjust the latter accordingly.
More specifically, no matter how often the statists may wish to throw back at us the thick-headed bromide that “you use the State’s services every day,” and no matter how easy it is to take the opposite attitude and deny responsibility for everything we do, it’s important to remember that we are responsible for the nature and extent of our involvement in all the social institutions that exist. In our own little way, we are individually responsible for feeding the mouth that bites us. But this should also lead us to the inescapable conclusion that we can also be responsible for ceasing to feed it.