Response to Simpolism on ACiM

Simpolism has kindly written two posts in response to my own recent barrage—the first, “Is Communication ‘Manipulation’?” investigates his gut reaction to the idea that in communicating, he might manipulate others; the second, “On Behavioral Hermeneutics,” tries to figure out what kind of claim ACiM is.

The posts make good points, and introduce a number of useful concepts for orienting ourselves within the ACiM framework. But they also, a points, I believe misunderstand what I mean by ACiM (“All communication is manipulation”). This is hardly Simpolism’s fault—practically everyone who has interacted with the idea has made similar types of misunderstandings. I imagine this is a product of the connotational baggage the term manipulation has accumulated over the years. In my own months of writing and thinking about this idea, that baggage has slowly become invisible, the popular meaning replaced by my own. But when I send the ideas out into the world, I get reminded what a concept like manipulation is often taken to imply.

Here are the things that the ACiM claim is “agnostic” to, i.e., does not weigh in on, or imply, about communication or manipulation:

  • Whether manipulation implies the dishonest representation of reality.
  • Whether it is non-consensual in the effects it achieves on the manipulated.
  • Whether its ends are selfish or selfless.
  • Whether the outcome of the manipulation attempt are exactly or even approximately what the manipulator had in mind.
  • Whether the manipulator has a very specific, concrete behavior in mind which he attempts to evoke, or simply a general zone of preference.

That is, communication can be either honest or dishonest, consensual or non-consensual, selfish or selfless, and in each case it is manipulative. These are connotations that come from the pejorative everyday sense of “manipulation,” and not from the more neutral, technical sense by which we might “manipulate” an object, or “manipulate” a computer program. We’ll walk through Simpolism’s posts to understand how this misunderstanding plays out, and how manipulation (and by extension, communication) can be better conceptualized.


I’ll address “Is Communication ‘Manipulation’?” first. Here, Simpolism sees manipulation as breaking two important implicit rules of sociality. One is the “authenticity” rule, which he puts nicely: the expectation that the appearances one “puts on” roughly reflect reality, at least in the ways which pragmatically matter for the observer on whose behalf the appearances are put on. (That is, for the reader who is being written to.) The examples he gives of manipulation include: (1) falsely claiming that you have no money in your wallet, when the check comes for dinner with a friend, (2) misrepresenting the state of your finances, to trigger sympathetic charity, (3) claiming you want a friend to come over because you feel lonely, and then using them for a ride into town. The examples make an implicit claim to comprehensiveness, giving examples from outright lying to a misleading spirit, but their throughline is the misrepresentation of speaker agenda:

Lacanian psychoanalysis would call the former structure “perverse” and the latter “neurotic.” The neurotic is bound by the rules (“I could never do that”…) while the pervert knows the rules and disavows them (“the rules don’t apply to me, what are you gonna do about it?”). Thus the colloquial critical reading of “communication is manipulation” is that it’s perverse, that the person who thinks like that is breaking some implicit rule of socializing, and the reader disavows the statement.

The distinction between perversion and neurosis is a useful one. And by Simpolism’s use of “colloquial,” it’s unclear whether he thinks this is a legitimate critique of ACiM as formulated, or merely a knee-jerk response to the connotative baggage of the word “manipulation.” But to be abundantly clear here: there is no reason to associate misrepresentation with the ACiM thesis, or assume that manipulation implies misrepresentation, or that the ACiM thesis does not morally distinguish between honest and dishonest representation.

I think we see very clearly the way honest statements are themselves “manipulative,” in the strict sense of altering receiver (“reader”) behavior, when we give honest equivalents of the examples he lists. So, someone who calls up a friend, claiming honestly to be lonely, solely with the intent of hanging out—the desire to hang out in upfront and the caller has no other agenda—is still making an attempt to get the friend to hang out with him. (And indeed, in certain cases, being perfectly up front and honest about desires can be more compelling, which is to say, more reliable in bringing about desired behavioral alterations.)

And if the caller should claim they are “only” sharing information, I do not think we need to be particularly skeptical or suspicious, or read into the situation much, to ask, Why share that particular piece of true information? Why go out of one’s way to share it? We can safely assume, I think, that when someone chooses voluntarily to ring a friend, and tell her that he is lonely, that this purportedly neutral “representation” is very much motivated and in fact a species of request. If the dialed friend made time in her schedule, and offered to hang out, and was then turned down, she might be confused why the information was shared in the first place—What does he want from her, anyway, huh? And she would likely assume that he wanted something else, wanted her to help him brainstorm social activities, or set him up on a date. And all this is quite consensual. But there is no question the communication “I am lonely” is designed to set off a chain of reactive actions in the person who receives it.

The loneliness example also illustrates how easily manipulation can be consensual, that is, the reader is aware of the effects which the writer is trying to achieve, and consensually provides them. Indeed, it is very often the case that we know exactly what behavior someone is trying to evoke in us, and often we choose to comply. A simple example is the command given by a drill sergeant to a new recruit. (As I understand it, this consensual nature is one basis of Gricean linguistics—that the reader understands the intent of the writer.)

(To clarify the first- and second-order comprehension that underlies the consensual/non-consensual distinction, first-order comprehension does not involve conscious “understanding” as it is often conceived, but rather, any re-action that responds roughly to the re-action the speaker hoped for. It is the behavioral response, or action, itself. And second-order comprehension involves a conscious awareness of what response is desired, making its delivery consensual barring other constraints that might jeopardize this status.)


Simpolism continues, after giving the examples of misrepresented desire:

The other commonality is that all these situations involved misrepresentation with the intent of using the other as a means for a particular end. This is colloquially expressed via the Kantian ethical imperative of “treat other people like ends in themselves and not like means,” on account of their shared humanity. Thus, we can call the imperative to not treat others as means the “shared humanity rule.”

While the connotational baggage of “manipulation” as a pejorative are such that we assume individuals manipulate for selfish ends, this is simply not the case. Even in the pejorative sense of the word, individuals can and do manipulate on behalf of countries, ideologies, companies, to an extent beyond selfish interest. As Goffman writes, we play for a team, a set of ideas and individuals whose interest and survival we care about. When we tell a noble lie, we are manipulating the response of the lied-to party for their ostensible sake. In other words, the manipulated reader, of our manipulative writing, is both ends and means of the manipulation. And if we care about a person, and prioritize their happiness even above our own, as parents love children, we may work to manipulate them into happiness, or what is colloquially called “cheering them up.”

On this topic, I cannot take seriously an ethical imperative that takes literally the idea that people ought not be treated as means. It is a good torque statement, which can be taken with a certain spirit or feeling—that sacrifices of human experience for the sake of abstractions or objects is folly; that others’ experiences are “ultimately” as morally sacred as one’s own. But spelled out literally, it prohibits all forms of organization, from business to nation-state, from employment to warfare. Every time we need an outcome that depends on an individual’s behavior, we must use that individual as means. Ethical use merely means that the use of the individual is for pro-social ends, or is done honestly and consensually. (The former is a consequentialist approach, the latter is deontological; you may take your pick or weigh them together.)

In other words, I see no ethical assumption or implication to the designation of communication as manipulation. Since the very first formulation of the claim, it has always been agnostic, and the ethical dimensions arise depending on the kind of manipulation: whether it is honest or dishonest, whether it is consensual or nonconsensual, whether it is done for petty selfish ends or noble selfless ends. It is merely the fact that, for information—for communication—to have any effect at all, it must achieve this effect through agents who receive the message and choose to alter their behavior. Without agents to act as its medium, information is impotent. Thus, information which wishes to be “potent” must alter the behavior of those parties that receive it.


Simpolism suggests that the phrase be altered to “All communication is vibe manipulation,” where “vibe” is a shared mood or atmosphere that exists between 2+ agents interacting. This feels similar to Natural Hazard‘s previous argument that, in many cases, what feels phenomenologically salient, in his own communicative acts, is not the alteration of behavior so much as the mental state, or “experience,” of another participant.

I fully agree re: phenomenological salience. When it comes to the abstractions individuals use to navigate social life, both the emotional state of an interlocutor, and the emergent “vibe” of the interaction, can be the primary “control” abstraction—an “interface”—targeted by a manipulator. I do not, however, agree at all that this “vibe” is in any way “supreme” over behavior as the goal or motivator of communication.

First, the kind of interaction Simpolism ascribes “vibe” to is an incredibly specific type of interaction between friends hanging out. This is not, and has never been, the prototypal instance of communication. Animal signaling, group activities (e.g. hunting, cooking, foraging, building), and inter-agent conflict (from poker to warfare) host far more foundational instances of communication than “friends hanging out.” The latter has very little evolutionary value, and there can be no question that language emerged primarily to support the former set of activities, which are survival- and reproduction-critical. “Small talk” and “shooting the shit” must be seen as odd, emergent outgrowths on the foundations of communication—not vice-versa. They are still somewhat mysterious to the ACiM frame, but their mystery does not quite rise to a rebuttal—simply a challenge.

Second, we should ask “What is a vibe?” I see a vibe as a rough synchronization of mental states between interaction participants. That synchronization occurs—always, and can only occur—by actions on the part of each participant. A certain tone, a certain facial expression, a certain utterance or question, create phenomenological effects in an observing participant. That participant must then mirror with actions of their own, reinforcing the vibe—the reader becomes writer, or more accurately, we are constantly reading and writing simultaneously.

The feedback between participants may eventually result in achievement of a vibe, but it is first and foremost accomplished or constructed by actions, only materializes in actions, is only ever visible or salient or available to each party’s senses through actions. And while a vibe may be sought out as ends—for instance, an individual may seek a vibe solely for the pleasure of existing within that vibe—the situation is analogous to that in which one participant manipulates the other into complimenting him, “so that” he can feel good about himself.

In other words, the action of the manipulated party has an affective “pay off”—sometimes this payoff is literal capital, sometimes it is a feeling—but in either case, the payoff is the product and purpose of the action. And it should not surprise us that an individual manipulates another individual’s actions because those actions produce desirable effects: this is, after all, always the reason an individual manipulates another individual. An action is almost always, definitionally, is a means. Even those philosophies that reify actions as ends in themselves—such as ritual cultures—are typically interpreted as enacting the rituals for their desirable mental, social, and structural effects. If these effects disappeared, the action would be without reason.


This brings us to the more difficult response, “On the Hermeneutics of Behavior,” which seeks primarily to ask what kind of claim ACiM is, and what its epistemic basis is. Simpolism calls ACiM a hermeneutics of suspicion, a tool of interpretation which reads a “deeper intent or meaning into a situation, beyond what participants say or think.” This is a reasonably accurate representation—sometimes. In the case of the drill sergeant and army recruit, both parties understand exactly that the goal of the drill sergeant is altering the recruit’s actions (both short-term and long-term). There is no question as to the interaction being one of “moulding,” training, conditioning, etc. Nor over whether the soldier is a “means” or an “ends” (he is a means).

It is however true that in many cases, our conscious or introspected explanation of why we have performed a communicative action does not ascribe manipulative intent, or does not specify an action. In part, I think this is an obfuscation of language—we will attest that we were “trying to signal we aren’t romantically interested in him,” without also acknowledging that what we are really trying to do is shut down the interaction—i.e. get him to bugger off—without escalating it—i.e., we do not want him to cause a scene, get angry, injure our bodies or reputations, etc. We have behavioral outcomes in mind in such situations, even as we offer linguistic abstractions which pretend we don’t—and this is, in my opinion, specifically because there is a pejorative sense attached to altering other people’s behaviors.

In other words, I believe that part of the reason we don’t view our communications as manipulative is because we are strongly pressured to distinguish ourselves from the “bad” kind of manipulation—selfish, Machiavellian, dishonest puppeteering. We mistakenly believe the “bad” kind of manipulation involves “altering people’s behavior,” and so “good” communication must pretend not to have any such behavioral effects or intentions. And yet, looking at examples like our lonely (but fully honest with his desires!) phone caller, or our army drill sergeant, we can see that plenty of transparently, uncontroversially behavior-altering communication is ethically unproblematic.

On this note, Simpolism speculates that ACiM will provide a sort of cover for “bad” manipulation, a concern also brought up by Hazard: “I fear that the use of ACiM as defense will, as I explained in my long-form blog post, act as an explanation that one can use to get around responsibility for the bad kinds of manipulative behavior.” And yet I believe exactly the opposite: by breaking out of this mistaken notion that it is somehow “bad” to alter others’ actions with our speech, and to intend to alter others’ actions with our speech, we can re-orient to the actual problematic behaviors that separate what we think of as “rule-abiding” communication from “rule-breaking” manipulation. These, as already mentioned, include properties like honesty or dishonesty, consent or non-consent, and the conesequences of the manipulation.

In other words, ACiM helps us de-muddle our mental models, which are hopelessly confused on this issue. Right now, any individual can—if he feels offended—choose to label and stigmatize a communicative behavior as “manipulation” if he chooses to, on the grounds that it is an attempt to alter his behavior, because all communication is an attempt to alter behavior. Accusations of rule-breaking need to be founded on real distinctions between rule-breaking and rule-abiding behavior—not on the mood, sensitivity, and adversarial orientation of the accuser, armed with the weapons to label any utterance manipulative.

So what sort of claim is ACiM? Simpolism gives me the option between a vacuous tautology—of course all actions have effects—and a hermeneutic vision, where “communications are really specific attempts at manipulating behavioral outcomes.” Which do I choose? Well, of course I choose neither. Or, if I must choose the latter, I will tweak it first.

Why choose the latter, whose primary difference is building intent into its frame? Because while the fact of environmental alteration and sensory feedback is vacuously true of all systems, the intent to alter the environment—of which other agents are a part—is true of all control systems. And there can be no question, or there was not any question among cyberneticists, such as Wiener, that evolved organisms are control systems.

Simpolism’s addition of “attempt,” here, may be a real tool in clarifying the ACiM phrase. I have always seen it as implied, that there was “successful” and “unsuccessful” manipulation, all tied up in the idea of manipulating. And thus I preferred the pithy version of the phrase, “All communication is manipulation.” But I can clearly do with being more explicit—so ACiAM from here on out.)

One of the most important metaphors I hoped to ground ACiAM in, when I defined it as essentially cybernetic, was that of “steering,” etymologically foundational to the cybernetic concept. What I hoped to argue, as I had argued before, was that the act of steering reader behavior through one’s writing does not imply that one has a single, specific, concrete behavioral outcome in mind. Rather, a writer—a control system—has a preferred set of outcomes, and its writing is shaped, is directed to, making this preferred set more probable, and making the dis-preferred set less probable. Simpolism writes:

Arendt distinguishes “work” from “action” in that the former is based on an imagined outcome, like a craftsman making a table, while the latter is a “setting into motion”, an act of initiative, where one does not know what will come of their act, yet decides to do it anyway. ACiM as hermeneutic posits that “all communication is attempted behavioral manipulation”, which supposes that the writer intends some concrete end state in terms of the others’ behavior.

And while Arendt’s distinction is a useful one, it seems clearly the case that no product of work ever lives up to its imagined outcome, and no action is performed without a range of expected outcomes. That is, we always have a factor of uncertainty and a factor of expectation. Simpolism, a Fristonian to the end, likely agrees with this. But what I believe follows from this in-between-ness, of all action, is that relative specificity—while a meaningful dimension of manipulation, like honesty or consent—ought not be the basis for distinguishing between manipulation and non-manipulation.

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