On the manipulation thesis Ruthless Criticism

On the manipulation thesis

[Translated from Contradictio]

Today the warning of manipulation belongs to the standard repertoire of the “responsible” citizen who of course lets nothing fool him and knows which way the wind blows. And psychologists, sociologists, communication scientists, media experts and politicians also want to discover, in the most diverse areas, phenomena that can only be explained, in their opinion, as the effect of mechanisms which exhibit a manipulative character.

The popularity of certain psycho-sects (Scientology), the electoral success of right-wing extremist parties, the indisputable increase in sales which can be achieved by advertising, the newspaper readers who probably only accept pre-formed opinions, acts of aggression in school, fashion trends and much more – all result from and are products of manipulation, it is asserted:

“Such controls often remain unconscious to the persons affected. Their effects on ideas and actions even appear in many cases as a result of the persons’ own thinking. The fact that control by others is at work, that one’s own alleged thinking is externally-determined, is not seen.” (F. Winterling, Communication/Language)

Nevertheless – manipulation remains an impossibility, even if it is so often attempted and diagnosed. Namely, because it aims to fix specific contents on the will by circumventing the will!

Clearly, advertising executives and politicians use every conceivable trick when they extol their latest brand or their party as the non plus ultra. But: the Pied Pipers do not succeed unless the addressees appropriate for themselves the more or (usually) less good “arguments” of the hustlers for sales or votes, making sense of the mental contents.[1]

It is revealing what the experts generally detect manipulation in. For example, “artificial needs” are readily denounced as a product of manipulation. Someone prefers muesli, detergents free of perfume and phosphates, and gets around on a bicycle, someone else prefers caviar, fabric softeners, and drives a Porsche; in the real sense, none of the mentioned products are natural; so where is the purported manipulation? Precisely – this depends on the viewpoint of the observer. A yuppie will explain luxury to be the most natural human urge [2] and look down contemptuously on those who, in his opinion, are ideologically manipulated disciples of ecology. Vice versa – vice versa. The existence of manipulation is not determined by the objective content of a view or a behavior, but rather by the arbitrary definitions of those who raise this reproach.

The dishonesty of the technique consists in that one does not criticize the disapproved of or identified as harmful will, but rejects it as non-existent because it is not supposedly their own or real. This elitist arrogance inescapably entails a contradiction: on the one hand, the sophistication of manipulation is said to lie in the will remaining unconscious of it, and on the other hand, the critic perceives himself to be his own master and wants to have, unlike everybody else, consciousness of external forces! In other words: if control of the will is concealed to consciousness, it could not be discovered by anybody, because everyone is subject to manipulation!

Now, this contradiction has not escaped the manipulation theorist. But he does not take this as a reason to reject his theory, but sticks to it by slightly modifying it: now manipulation does not happen universally, but only “often.” So Mr. Scientist escapes any burden of proof by henceforth covering everything with the mere suspicion of manipulation.

One should not mistake this viewpoint for a criticism of ideas and actions, even if he believes it to be; because the content of a thought is not even looked at, examined and perhaps rejected. The whole suspicion is that an action might not be carried out as one’s own decision, but is “externally determined.” It is, in several respects, an irrational and annoying idea, because first of all “own”, “self” or “autonomous” signify quality just as little as “external” must signify nothing but a negative. Clinton’s decision to allow the killing of Somalis was “self-determined,” whereas it is good that children are stopped from crossing a street by an “externally determined” red light. Secondly, however, this viewpoint disarms every reasonable criticism: confronted with such a reproach, the discussion is finished before it has even started.

In accordance with the universalistic logic of the suspicion, manipulation logically becomes suspected precisely in attitudes, convictions, behaviors, etc. which reject social norms, which represent exceptions to the ruling ideas, which are currently “in” or also “out.” A Scientology disciple, for example, is always confronted as if the poor soul must have been seduced, must have undergone at least a brainwashing and cannot know what he is really doing. It is never conceded that such a person could not be a follower be a result of their own reflection. This is amusing. Because now the manipulation thesis states two things: the diagnosed conformity of the masses must be a result of manipulation and also their divergence from it as well!?!

The basic mistake of the manipulation thesis is the denial of the abstract free will [3], or in other words, the incorrect doubling of the will into a real internal one and an unreal external one which supposedly acts on the internal one; and this odd effect which is posited here is purported to ultimately remain still unconscious to consciousness.


[1] Imagine the following scene: a devout milk drinker sees an attractive Coca Cola advertisement in the cinema. And as a result, against his (“real”) desire, he is supposed to bother the audience sitting around him, head for the concession stand, exchange cash with the proprietor, so as to finally suck down a beverage that doesn’t taste good to him at all? Absurd!

[2] Incidentally, so do the apologists of capitalism in the form of their economic “expert knowledge” – keyword “scarcity theory”!

[3] One could think that the concept of the abstract free will is contradictory; either it is free or free in the abstract (thus outside of something). However, here it must be said that a desire does not exclude a must: he who wants to put on ironed pants, must iron them (or have them ironed ...). At the level of the contradiction between a must and a desire, i.e. between a duty and an interest, the concept of free will is admittedly the pleonasm which Hegel appropriately held it to be.