Coercion, manipulation, reason, persuasion

“Many have suggested that my use of the word ‘coercion’ is non-standard and that I should find another word, but I think that is the quest for a euphemism. People don’t like using a harsh word for something they think is morally right. But if you prefer, use the word ‘manipulation’ instead—as long as it is clear that manipulating children is not taking them seriously either.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 1st January, 1995

Someone said:

“1) Why you object to parental expression of disapproval of the conduct of their children; and 2) Why you only object to the expression of disapproval, but not to the expression of approval.”

Approval can also be coercive. Expressing disapproval was not one of the things I mentioned, but the key thing is whether it is coercive. It is possible to say that you think something is wrong without in any way being coercive. For instance, if you think it is wrong, while actually helping the child to do it, then the child is not going to in any way feel coerced.

“It also seems to ignore one of the primary benefits of living with other people: being able to draw upon their knowledge. I, for example, want the other people I live with to express their disapproval of things I do in some cases, such as when I’m attempting to do something by means which aren’t as good for my purposes as a better way that others know of and which they then tell me about.”

These two paragraphs above presuppose that it is impossible to disagree with someone without hurting them. For instance, we are benefiting from this person’s advice, as you might say, and he is benefiting from our advice, precisely because we disagree, and we are not coerced. That is, we are not, in the words of that definition, being made to do something we don’t want to do, or having something done to us that we don’t want, or anything like that.

“I’m not sure what I think you should call it, but your use of ‘coercion’ is decidedly nonstandard. It encompasses both reasoned persuasion and unreasoning brutality.”

The question one might ask, is “is there anything apart from brutality that counts as unreasoning?” That is—is there any kind of behaviour towards other people that counts as unreasoning? Similarly, would one classify blackmail as “reasoned persuasion” just because it doesn’t threaten violence? If it is blackmail that is just to reveal something one is embarrassed about, then there is no violence threatened even implicitly. (See ‘Influence’ versus ‘coercion’ on this).

If we were talking about psychologically abused women, nobody (well… not that many people anyway) would be making this fine distinction.

“Your personal definition of the word coercion has much in common with the blurring of the term by the radical feminist, date-rape, all-sex-is-rape contingent. They are guilty, as are you in your own way, of attempting to smudge up the important and very real distinction between persuasion and force.”

It is true that they attempt to smudge the distinction between persuasion and force, but there are other categories besides persuasion and force—for instance, blackmail. So although there is that line between force and not-force, it is not the case that everything that isn’t force is persuasion. Some people, BTW, refuse to accept the threat of force as being in the same category as force. For them the force has to be actual, initiated, so if someone attacks you, you can use self defence, but if they merely threaten to attack you, then you can only threaten to defend yourself.

“I see nothing to be gained by this deliberate degradation of semantic content, and much to be lost. Equivocating between the credible threat of force behind genuine coercion and a simple expression of opinion or feeling about another’s decision is fertile ground for the home-grown tyrant.”

I am not equivocating. Among the things which are not force, I am making a further distinction which it is important to make.

“Here’s the question: Do you similarly disapprove of any similar display of approbation, having happy faces made at him for example, when he has made a determination with which you concur?”

If that is your systematic reason for smiling at him, that is very bad. Of course it will happen during any discussion that often you will be glad when he says something with which you agree (but under some circumstances one might be alarmed when he says something with which one concurs) but mostly, what one will be smiling at him for is that he is succeeding in meeting his own values. That is the thing that matters.

When we are talking about educational theory or any kind of psychology, we cannot expect the theory of what happens inside a person’s mind to depend upon things the person does not experience. When one is talking about psychology, a definition of coercion that is suitable for use in psychology must be one that depends upon the person’s subjective perception of it. Therefore, for instance, if a person subjectively experiences two different situations in the same way, then it’ll have the same psychological effect on the person, and if one of those things is harmful, the other will be too, or if one isn’t, neither will the other be. If the person experiences two things differently, even though they both look very similar on the outside, then you can expect the psychological effect of those two things to be different. So it is no good looking at the meaning of words or even at ordinary usage to find out what the effect of coercion is; the definition has to be based upon what is perceived subjectively, and if that varies from ordinary usage, then I’ll just have to use a different word. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t.

Many correspondents have suggested that my use is non-standard and that I should find another word, but I think this is the quest for a euphemism. People don’t like using a harsh word for something they think is morally right. But if you prefer, use the word “manipulation” instead—as long as it is clear that manipulating children is not taking them seriously either.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Coercion, manipulation, reason, persuasion’,

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