Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Fifth Tool of Manipulation

    Have you ever watched a movie where the star and his sidekick need to get into a building or something, but they haven’t been granted access? You know how they always invent some outrageous story about being sent by or related to the CEO or whatever? And it’s awesome because everybody always believes them. But the thing about this is that we find it funny. Why, though? It’s not because such a scheme would never work and we like to see things like this played out in the realm of fiction. I think it’s because we all know it would work. . ... Do you know what this means?

     I’ve thought of a fifth tool of manipulation.

     Oh, yes. I don’t know exactly what to call this one. “Audacity” would be a good word for it, I think, although it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Basically, the best way to define this new tool is this: A method of manipulation in which the user convinces you to doubt your own sanity or intelligence by bluffing outrageously. They do it in books (just read P. G. Wodehouse), they do it in movies, and they do it in real life. And, again... it works. I know this because I’ve fallen for it.

     All manipulators lie. They lie as easily as they breathe. Deception is the foundation upon which all their social
interactions are built; their modus operandi. The trick is making you believe it. It’s not that hard: people, as a general rule, are incredibly gullible. I know this because I am a person myself. All the individual tools of manipulation are simply different manifestations of this deceit. Different ways, as it were, to lie. Manipulators are clever enough to realize that most people are already predisposed to believe everything they are told, and they have different styles of taking advantage of that. Do you know what I think? I think that belief is less about content than presentation. And that is scary, because it means that it pretty much doesn’t matter what we are told as long as the information is presented in a fashion we like. Enter the manipulator! Previously we discussed fear, flattery, guilt, and pity as tools of manipulation (*see my series: The Four Tools of Manipulation). But I think audacity is in an entirely different class of its own. Let me just outline how it works.

     A manipulator knows you already have a vague inclination to trust him, and he knows that you take all his words at face value. He is aware that you probably do not even think of disbelieving him unless you are explicitly told to by someone else you trust. And he knows, most importantly, that you sometimes place more faith in the information that he presents to you than in the facts you already possess. In short, if he is acts confident enough, he can effectively make you doubt your own sanity or intelligence. Let us construct a scenario to illustrate this. Say you asked a man to deliver some important documents to your desk. You needed them by three o’clock. Well, three o’clock came and went with nary a sign of said documents. Next morning they were sitting right there on your desk, exactly where you asked for them to be. So you confront the man you asked to give them to you (let’s name him Wesley. Wesley the Weasel.)

     “Wesley,” you say. “How come you didn’t give me those documents yesterday?”

     “I did,” says Wesley breezily.

     “No you didn’t,” you reply. “I asked for them by three, and they weren’t there.”

     “Well, I put ‘em there.”

     “You didn’t, Wesley,” you frown. “I checked.”

     “You didn’t check well enough,” Wesley insists. “I swear I put them on your desk at three.” He certainly looks truthful. Wesley looks you straight in the eye, and his expression simply oozes conviction.

     “Are you sure?” you say uncertainly. By now your memories of shuffling through the papers on your desk in a fruitless search for the important documents are fading fast. Maybe you just imagined that. It’s a memory, after all. You don’t have any proof except your own thoughts.

     Wesley nods emphatically. “I gave you those documents. I did.”

     And you know how the rest of it goes. If you are particularly strong-willed, you will probably ask him one more time if he is certain of his claims. But you and I both know that’s merely a formality, for you are doubtless convinced of Wesley’s truthfulness by now. I know I would be. Of course he put the documents there... He must have put the documents there...

     Wesley is very clever. It takes a lot of guts to play the audacity card. This scenario deals only with disagreements about the past, but the audacity card can work in almost any situation. The reason it succeeds particularly well regarding disputes about the past is that it doesn’t exist any more. The past, I mean. All that remains is the truth that it was. But, luckily for you, you have a functioning memory with which to prove it. Now, of course, nobody’s memory is perfect (except for a woman named AJ, who, I have heard, can recall every moment of her life with perfect clarity and recite an accurate statement of her activities given any date and time. But I’m straying from the point.), and that’s why it’s so easy to make you doubt yourself. Also, manipulators are notorious for playing on people’s desperate hope of “nobody’s that bad.” You and I, because we are reasonably honest people (one hopes), would never think of committing ourselves so wholly to such a blatant lie. We would never play the audacity card because..... well, because we just wouldn’t. Lying grates unpleasantly on the conscience. And because of the aforesaid desperate hope (“Nobody’s that bad!!”), we shrink from believing that others could commit themselves so easily to a falsehood. Most of us really do not like to think others are capable of such shocking misdeeds. We like to think that we are all Care Bears. And so it’s easier to believe that you made a mistake than to think that Wesley is lying to you, lying on purpose with no regard for righteous conduct and even less for your feelings. That’s one reason the audacity card works so well.

     And, as I said, it can be played in numerous situations. Mostly, leaders use it to control people under them. For instance, a leader in the church may be promoting odd doctrines or behaviors that you know are not exactly right. Or a leader in the workplace is doing something that’s a bit off. You know, deep down, that something is not quite proper... But he is so confident that he is right! He is just bursting with self-assurance. Something about this complete and utter faith in his own words lends a manipulator stunning credence. I think it’s partly because most of us are extremely cautious about sharing our convictions with others. This being America, there are so many different beliefs and so many varying ideas about truth, one is hesitant to pick which is the right one. Some even say that there is no “right one,” that all opinions are equally valid and how dare you think your beliefs are more true than another man’s. Of course we know this is nonsense, but living so long in such a culture, it definitely permeates your mind a little. And so, unless we are rock-solidly convinced that our beliefs are completely, one hundred percent accurate, we shrink from publicizing them. And even then it’s sometimes a bit iffy. That’s why the audacity card works so well. It’s a show of force. We say to ourselves, “My goodness. This man has certainly done his research.” We are overawed. And so we don’t usually think of questioning his words. Now, the thing about the audacity card is that I’m not sure how often it works. When it does work, it works with a vengeance! But I think it takes a certain kind of person to fall for it; someone who lacks confidence in his own ability to see clearly. And do you know what? I believe that, unless a person is enormously strong-willed and has complete, unshakable faith that what he believes is true, he can be maneuvered until he reaches the aforesaid stage of un-confidence. That’s what I think.

     But this is so darn hard! See, the thing about this is that you have to be sure you’re right, but there’s always the what-if. What if I’m wrong? I’m definitely not perfect. I’m certainly not a genius. I make mistakes every day of the week. I am not God! I can’t be just going around assuming that I’m the smartest person in the world and that no one else has anything valuable to contribute. That would be terribly, terribly prideful. And pride is what opens the door to other forms of manipulation. So you have to be sure you’re right... but you have to remember that you might not be... Oh, blast!

     Maybe the key is deciding what really matters. I guess that the best way to handle this tool of manipulation is realizing which are the pivotal issues — the hills to die on— and deciding where you stand. And then I suppose you just cling to your convictions like a bulldog. That’s what I plan on doing. It’s not just a choice between being a wimp or being pigheaded. There is truth, and God is not going to just make us blunder around in the dark without the ability to see it. I think attitude is hugely important here. Prideful assurance is certain to go wrong, but humble assurance doesn’t have that kind of danger. We can’t know everything, of course, but I’m pretty sure we can know enough. And that’s comforting. Just because we can’t be omniscient doesn’t mean we have to be stupid. We can have convictions without the fear of being wrong or pigheaded. And we can fight for these convictions with the certainty that God is backing us up! Because that’s all that really matters, isn’t it? That what you believe is in accordance with God’s truth. So you know what? I’m going to fight for what I believe in. I’m going to try to be right, and I will try my utmost to avoid being manipulated into throwing away my convictions. Of course, being, as I am, human, there’s a very large chance that I will fail in some areas. But I will try. There are hills to die on, and I hope I have the faith die on them like there’s no tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear! Very well put. I'm sure I've told you how people at work have done that to me. "Oh no, no, you do it this way, see? They changed it a few weeks ago." And I say, surprised, "Oh! I was so sure it was done the other way. The memo I read yesterday said that... maybe it was dated wrong." And I've realized- why do I always assume that the other person knows what they're talking about? I'm kind of proud of myself because I'm getting more and more confident. Not exactly in myself, but in the truth! I love that you said that we don't have to belittle ourselves in order to be humble. All knowing? No way! But to swing to the other end of the spectrum and say that we're completely ignorant is nonsense.

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