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Why Resisting Manipulation Means Learning to Think Critically

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Recently, it occurred to me why critical thinking is a tool to resist manipulation and heal from manipulative forms of abuse. Manipulation is itself a failure in the skills of thinking well (critical thinking). Most people speak about manipulation as if it were enigmatic. But really, it’s like a cheap magician’s trick; once you learn how the trick works, the illusion is gone and you’re no longer fooled. How can this be?

Failing to think critically involves making errors. These errors are known as fallacies. Manipulation itself is a form of thinking and one that contains errors – a particular kind of error, in fact. These errors may be present in what a manipulator does or says. But they also may be present in the manipulated person’s thinking as well. Since fallacies are errors in thinking, and manipulation contains such errors, then learning to think well would be the obvious response. In this article, I will explain why resisting manipulation means learning to think critically.

Resisting Manipulation Means Learning to Think Critically

Manipulation is a term that has grown in interest over the past few years. It’s especially related to questions of:

  • toxic relationships,
  • emotional/spiritual/psychological abuse,
  • narcissism and other personality disorders,
  • but also statistics, scientific reports and peer-reviewed articles, media, and government policy.

One therapist suggests critical thinking is a way to heal from narcissistic abuse. But who wants to go through the mental exercises of critical thinking? Manipulators should just stop or victims should just leave, right? But as many manipulative abuse survivors have learned, neither of these are always options. In fact, victims are such because they can’t leave and have failed to get the manipulator to stop.

Likewise, spotting poor thinking is a matter of becoming disillusioned by erroneous reasoning. However, many have come to understand critical thinking is about spotting others’ failures. Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith demonstrates this in his article disavowing critical thinking as a tool for resolving conflict. This is mistaken.

Critical thinking is about your skills, not the skills of others. It’s about self-reflection and self-improvement, not proving others wrong or improving them. Smith mistakenly laments critical thinking, but he’s critical of a false perception that critical thinking is about fixing others. Manipulation also is about the other person. What can others do for me? How do I change other people? Manipulation is about getting others to change without them thinking.

What is manipulation?

I am operating from the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of manipulation, and the etymology of the word, manipulate. In short, manipulation is the action taken to manage or control others by mental influence, often unfairly or dishonestly.

Manipulation is a lack of regard for relational boundaries. Ie, it breaks the rules for healthy relationships. Fallacies can also be seen as lacking regard for boundaries. These boundaries are the rules for thinking well, or making a good argument.

What is a fallacy? A bad argument

A fallacy violates the criteria for good arguments. What’s an argument? A claim supported by other claims. There are:

  • moral claims,
  • legal claims,
  • philosophical claims,
  • scientific claims,
  • political claims,
  • religious claims
  • relational claims,
  • and more.

While formal arguments in philosophy or science are substantially different from common parlance, they follow the same basic pattern. When one says, such-and-such is true, or you should do or believe such-and-such, here’s why (or how), they’re making an argument or explanation of some kind.

The purpose of offering such reasoning is to influence others; usually to change their mind, take an action, or support a cause. The basic pattern of any argument or explanation looks like this:

  1. Premise
  2. Premise
  3. Conclusion

Premises are claims of truth offered as reasons why/how the conclusion is also true. There can be many reasons (premises) offered. There are good ways to make arguments, and there are bad ways too. A fallacy makes an argument bad. Something about the premises or the conclusion are untrue or invalid.

The similarities between manipulation and fallacies

Manipulators also make arguments, but they don’t try to persuade with good reasoning. Instead, they use bad arguments to manipulate. Persuasion is much more difficult, takes much more time, and requires patience, care, and mutual understanding. Manipulation is much more easy, takes less time, requires considerably less patience, a disregard for others, and lack of mutual understanding.

There are five criteria for a good argument. One specifically relevant to manipulation is the relevance criteria. Only relevant reasons may be used to support a good argument.

Not all things count as relevant reasons. Simply having a true statement is insufficient. True statements might provide interesting context, for example, but may have no bearing on the conclusion. In a different context, those reasons may result in a different conclusion. Before pointing out the connections to manipulation, I will explain the errors (fallacies) of violating the relevance principle.

Fallacies of Irrelevant Premise

Irrelevant premises are reasons offered in support of a conclusion that really have no bearing on the conclusion. That they are offered to support a conclusion doesn’t mean they actually do. A good argument will hold true regardless of these irrelevant premises. Examples of irrelevant premise are:

  • Genetic fallacy
  • Rationalization
  • Non Sequitur

Genetic Fallacy

Making an appeal to origin or the history of a thing/idea. This is a reductive fallacy.  That is, it reduces all relevant factors down to one irrelevant factor. It makes origin or historicity the final authority regardless of relevant factors.

Rationalization

Rationalizing gives plausible-sounding, but false, reasons for supporting conclusions. They are reasons held on less respectable grounds such as being untrue or unlikely . This can happen non-consciously (w/o an awareness) or consciously (deliberately deceptive).

Non Sequitur

Non sequitur is Latin for it does not follow. So, non sequitur fallacies are conclusions that do not follow from the premise(s). Two ways to make a non sequitur:

    1. true reasons offered in support of a different conclusion
    2. wrong reasons offered in support of a true conclusion

The conventional abortion debate is rife with examples of non sequiturs. A perfect example is the question of bodily autonomy.

    1. Pro-choicers argue for the woman’s bodily autonomy, but conclude that extends to a right to abortion. (wrong conclusion)
    2. Prolifers argue against a woman’s bodily autonomy because pro-choicers argue for it, and so it must not be true. (wrong reasons)

Fallacies of Irrelevant Appeal

An appeal itself is to call on a higher authority. So, the following appeals are invoking irrelevant or erroneous things or people as more authoritative than the truth. It is essential we understand what authority is and what claims are legitimate or not. Examples of irrelevant appeal are:

  • Appeal to authority
  • Appeal to common opinion
  • Appeal to force or threat
  • Appeal to tradition
  • Appeal to self-interest (or the interest of others)
  • Appeal to emotion

Appeal to authority

Legitimate credentials may offer useful context, but the truth of a claim does not depend on them. A university degree, for example, only demonstrates you met the requirements for graduation from a particular institution. An office or title does not award infallibility. Those with authority are still capable of error.

Appeal to common opinion

Claims such as, “the science is settled,” or “the people have spoken,” are examples. This fallacy calls upon the majority or consensus as the ultimate authority. Just because there is majority, or even unanimous consensus, doesn’t mean a claim is true. After all, there used to be consensus that the earth was the center of the universe.

Appeal to force or threat

Authoritarianism itself is a fallacy of reasoning. This is the monopolization of power under a single person or entity. The principle behind illegitimate use of force to threaten and coerce compliance, or agreement. Authoritarianism can manifest in the family, romantic relationships, friendships, church, the workplace, and civil government.

Appeal to tradition

Calling on cultural or even religious traditions as ultimate authority. For example, the idea that women can (or cannot) have certain roles in society or the church, solely on the basis of tradition is insufficient. If the tradition has good reasons, there is no need to call on the existence of the tradition as proof. But if the tradition has bad reasons, then it’s better to seek the truth on the matter.

Appeal to self-interest (or the interest of others)

Principled self-interest is not inherently fallacious. But, if the argument is: “you must do ‘x’, because  it’s in my self-interest,” it’s fallacious. If the argument is, “you must do ‘x’, because it’s in the group’s interest,” that is fallacious. There might be reasons why something is in someone’s self-interest. But calling on self-interest alone without relevant reasons is fallacious.

Appeal to emotion

This is probably the most confused fallacy. When most people think of appealing to emotion, they think it means setting aside emotion – ie. not feeling your feelings. Instead, this fallacy is about exploiting someone else’s emotions rather than presenting relevant evidence. It’s calling on their pity, flattering them, assigning guilt by association, questioning their group loyalty, and shaming. The experience of emotions or exploring why you’re feeling them is not fallacious. Manipulation of others emotions, is! Facts may not care about feelings, but feelings most definitely care about facts.

Factors of Manipulation and Fallacious Reasoning

Manipulators manipulate because manipulation works! It doesn’t work because it’s some kind of enigmatic mystery though. Manipulation works because most people aren’t aware when they’re being manipulated. So for manipulation to work, there is the side of the manipulator and that of the manipulated.

Below I describe in brief a few common factors of manipulation and which fallacies those factors entail.

Blame-shifting

When confronting someone about a problem that needs attention they deflect responsibility by blaming something or someone else. Shifting blame is an appeal to something else as the real cause of the problem. People who do this want to render their part in the matter, irrelevant. To do this, they draw attention to something actually irrelevant.

    • Genetic fallacy, appeal to history, “you always do this!” The pattern of behavior is irrelevant to the present moment.
    • Genetic fallacy, appeal to origins, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” OR, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Adam and Eve blaming the serpent as the origin, is irrelevant to their disobedience to God.
    • appeal to tradition, “this religious doctrine says I’m not mistreating you.” Religious doctrine is only an idea and irrelevant to your discernment as a) true in itself, b) interpreting it correctly, or c) applying it correctly.
    • rationalization, “if the kitchen wasn’t a mess, I would have treated you better.” Not having particular preferences met is irrelevant to your mistreatment of someone.

These are just a few examples. There are plenty more. Blame-shifting also entails non sequitur. Blame-shifting draws on wrong reasons to support a true conclusion.

Emotophobia: Fear of conflict, fear of negative emotions

Emotophobia is an excessive fear of negative emotions and conflict. Part of this is the fear of being wrong, especially if you’ve been punished by another’s anger for being wrong in the past. The irony is that the emotophobic person becomes more negatively emotional themselves. If they’re trying to avoid angry people, they will become an angry person. Negative emotions are not necessarily bad or unhealthy things. How we deal (or not deal) with them can be unhealthy. 

    • Genetic fallacy, believing that things can’t be dealt with because they originate in negative emotions.
    • Appeal to force or threat, a manipulator exploiting your emotophobia will use intimidation or violence to get you to do or believe what they want.
    • rationalization, non-sequitur, “if I don’t make them mad, then our relationship will be good.”

People-pleasing

Also known as the “disease to please.” This entails mind-sets and habits which are not good. They believe their actions are good, but they’re actually controlled by their own need to please others. People-pleasing isn’t merely an inability to say, ‘no’. It’s a compulsive, addictive pattern that results in emotional/spiritual/psychological self-harm. 

    • rationalization, people-pleasers rationalize these bad habits and mind-sets as being “in service” to others.
    • Non sequitur, this drive to please others may be for wrong reasons or for wrong conclusions. It may be true that a person needs help, but it doesn’t follow that you’re the one who should help. It may be true that you’re an empathetic person, not because you have some special power, but because you’ve been traumatized. (Listen to my episode with Antony Sammeroff where we discuss this).

Manipulators will exploit your tendency toward people-pleasing. They will invoke irrelevant appeals to do this. Whatever motivates your people-pleasing; your sense of shame, group loyalty, traditions or perceptions of authority, these are all ways a manipulator will use your people-pleasing against you and for their benefit. 

Critical Thinking as an Important and Healthy Resistance to Manipulation

Dr. Harriet Braiker offers an in depth analysis of how to respond to manipulation in her book, Who’s Pulling Your Strings? But the common thread in all of it is fundamentally the skills of critical thinking. Developing self-awareness allows us to be aware of our own emotional/spiritual/psychological well-being. Evaluating our beliefs, what those beliefs actually are and why we believe they’re true gives a solid foundation from which to understand what is happening around us. 

This isn’t just about knowing facts about our faith or the world around us. We can know many facts, but not understand their import. Critical thinking is about understanding the importance of true things, how they are true, why they are true, and what effect they have in our lives. Not only this, but critical thinking emboldens us to integrity and perseverance. 

Critical thinking certainly isn’t the only way to respond to manipulation and manipulative forms of abuse. It is one primary tool, though. And I invite you to learn more about my courses that teach you how to build the skills of critical thinking and a healthy and non-antagonistic sort of way.

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B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)
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