Consensual and non-consensual manipulation

Previously on communication as manipulation: “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation,” “All Communication is Manipulation,” “Linguistic Fit,” “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?” and “Economics Thinking.”


Here I want to distinguish between two types of linguistic meaning or understanding. If communication is an act intended to achieve effects, then comprehension of the first order consists of any interpretation which achieves the general effect desired by the writer (by “writer,” I mean a generic term for the agent representing, expressing, speaking, etc). We can call this a first-order reading, which may or may not accurately comprehend the written message. (That is, we can imagine erroneous first-order readings, which do not result in the desired effects.)

Comprehension of the second order involves understanding the effect desired by the writer. We can call this a second-order reading, which may or may not accurately interpret the effects desired by the writer.

Often, second-order comprehension can undermines first-order comprehension. I don’t even think I need to give examples here, since situations readily come to mind in which, by understanding how a speaker is attempting to manipulate us, we subvert his attempted manipulation. However, less obvious, but occurring prevalent, are cases where second-order comprehension actively reinforces, or is a precondition of, first-order comprehension. When an officer gives an enlisted marine an command, the marine may have to “mind read” in order to determine what the officer wants him to do. The local, immediate goal of the reader of such a message is to be manipulated in the way desired by the writer.

In “All Communication is Manipulation,” I wrote:

Sometimes, we are perfectly transparent about both our desire to be manipulated, and our manipulation of others. These cases include requests in the business world to “pitch me” or “persuade me,” or dating dynamics in which (archetypally, a woman) desires to be talked into a relationship, or into sexual engagement. When we feel torn or ambivalent, we may call upon others to resolve our ambivalence through a strong rhetorical showing, and will feel swayed to one position or another even as we acknowledge that the account we have received is highly partial and highly interested (in the sense of motivated or biased).

Broadly, cases where second-order comprehension reinforces first-order comprehension can be labeled consensual. Cases where second-order comprehension subverts the first-order can be labeled non-consensual. This labeling is rather agnostic to the actual effects of the manipulation: non-consensual manipulation may be performed “for the good of” the manipulated, and consensual manipulation may in turn come at the cost of the manipulated’s welfare. Noble lies are a famous example of non-consensual manipulation which is performed (ostensibly) for the good of the manipulated. Abusive power structures illustrate the second case.

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