If you define manipulation as intentionally pushing other people’s buttons to try to get them to do what you want – or agree with you about something – or take your side in an argument – then I think it would be fair to say that we all engage in at least some degree of manipulation in our daily interactions with our fellow humans.
And, arguably, there are some positive forms of manipulation. A good example of that would be the well-intentioned button-pushing strategically employed by wise parents to keep their kids in line and out of trouble.
But some people take manipulation to dangerous extremes. And some people have a real talent for that.
One of the most effective forms of manipulation is emotional extortion, which involves exploiting another person’s faults and failures (basically anything that person feels guilty or ashamed or insecure about) and using those negative emotions as a means of control.
Amplifying someone’s fears and then playing on those fears can also be very effective in that regard.
And, if you want to take a more direct approach, using the threat of punishment or even physical violence to control someone very often does the trick.
Most abusive relationships consist of both a manipulator and someone who is being controlled through manipulation of some kind.
Sometimes manipulators seek to control entire groups of people, and there have been cases in which those skilled in that art have gotten people to do all kinds of things that they wouldn’t have done otherwise, up to and including murder and mass suicide. These sorts of social arrangements are usually called cults.
Manipulation also occurs on the much larger scale of entire societies and nations. This is what we typically refer to as politics.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this common variety of manipulation usually just involves using persuasive speech and other media tools to influence people’s views and opinions about this or that, often with the aim of getting them to vote for a particular candidate and/or political party. This is a legitimate and necessary part of how our democracy works.
But there have been far too many instances in world history when the uses of political manipulation got way out of hand, entire societies went bat-poop crazy, and a whole lot of people ended up getting killed by their own governments and/or fellow citizens.
Sometimes this involved a charismatic leader building a cult of personality centered on himself, and at other times it was perpetrated by a group of like-minded people working together to create a mass political cult centered around an ideology. In the worst cases, both of those things were going on at the same time.
With all that said (and not to be alarmist or anything), I think the level of political manipulation currently taking place in our own country is starting to creep into worrisome territory in some regards.
There’s certainly a lot of emotional extortion being used to leverage America’s past and present failings regarding certain issues to advance some pretty extreme ideologies. And we’re seeing the formation of organized (and even institutionalized) systems of social manipulation, through which those ideologies are being aggressively pushed and those who refuse to conform to the newly established speech rules and groupthink are shamed and punished in some very real and unpleasant ways.
And on the other side of the equation, we’ve got a sizable populist movement and personality cult that, though I can relate to it and sympathize with it in many ways, I still find it a bit disturbing and potentially dangerous in other ways.
If you’ve been following American politics at all for the past few years, you’ve probably figured out what (and who) I’m referring to in both cases.
But, regardless of your political leanings, there are some measures we all can take when it comes to mitigating the threats posed by mass manipulation. Quite simply, you just need to keep your eyes open and your brain turned on, exercise your God-given right to think for yourself, educate yourself on your Constitutional rights, and stand up and speak out whenever the manipulators try to take things too far, even if the manipulators in question are on your political team.
Unfortunately (as we all know), that last part is where the mitigation process usually breaks down and partisan politics kicks in.