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Pills of logic: "Mind manipulation cannot be objectified!" A reply while waiting for the green light

Luigi Corvaglia

A red traffic light is a good opportunity to reflect. The following was one of my recent musings:

The argument is that manipulation cannot be objectified. This is because there is no identifiable boundary above or below which we can be sure whether or not undue persuasion has taken place. All of social life - they say - is about persuasion. Choosing a partner, a political vote, buying a jacket, an outing among friends, etc., every shared action and exchange between individuals involves persuasion. These observations are irrefutable. What is refutable are the conclusions that cult apologists draw from them. They conclude that there is no manipulation ("No criteria for manipulation? No manipulation"," "All influenced? No one influenced"). The argumentation is rather naive. In fact, it is obvious that things and phenomena exist or do not exist regardless of our ability to objectify them. Let us consider two examples: The first is that of economic exploitation. Is a worker who is willing to work for a low wage exploited or not? The lower the work alternatives and the remuneration offered, the more certain one is that the employer is exploiting the worker's plight. Nevertheless, there is no objective distinction between exploitation and non-exploitation, given also that the worker willingly accepts or even explicitly demands that the employer benefits from his situation. This lack of objectification does not mean that there is no exploitation; in other words, the blurring of the boundary does not render the term "exploitation" meaningless, regardless of the moral evaluation we may make. Exploitation, understood as taking advantage by preventing a non-hostile person from gaining a potentially possible benefit, is an undeniable fact. The majority of people regard exploitation as something negative, something abhorrent. Not averyone. Walter Block (1995), who is an "anarcho-capitalist", for example, provides an interesting defence of the "dirty capitalist exploiter of labour" in his book "Defending the Indefensible". However one views the phenomenon, positively (as the anarcho-capitalists do) or negatively (according to many others), it exists, regardless of the fact that it cannot be objectified. The second example of a phenomenon that cannot be objectified but exists is psychiatric disorders. It is hard to deny that schizophrenia is a disease that is severe and painful and causes suffering to the whole environment of the person affected. Yet there is no biological test or objective examination to prove it. There is the clinic. There are the symptoms. But again, the line between pathology and non-pathology is blurred. Psychiatrist Allen Frances (2013), who is very critical of diagnostic excesses, writes:

Some radical critics of psychiatry have exploited the ambiguities in its definitions to argue that the profession should not exist at all. They argue that the difficulty of finding an unambiguous definition of a mental disorder proves that the concept is without utility or meaning: if mental disorders are not anatomically defined diseases, then they are "myths" and it is better not to bother diagnosing them.

This is exactly the same claim made by apologists in relation to mental manipulation. If it cannot be clearly defined, then it is a "myth" and it is "better not to bother" to diagnose it. So Frances continues:

This position is particularly attractive to libertarians who want to protect patients' freedom of choice from the shackles of psychiatric slavery.

Again, the overlap with the discourse of undue persuasion is complete. The "libertarians" invoke the "free choice". Again Frances:

This paradox can only be believed by stubborn theorists who have no experience of mental illness and have never treated it.

Similarly can be said of those who go to the paradox of denying undue persuasion. What should be the approach to a phenomenon with indistinct boundaries is clearly explained by Frances:

The best way to understand the nature of a mental disorder - what it is and what it is not - is to compare the approach of three linesmen to offside and regular positions. Epistemology largely boils down to a dispute of opinion about our ability to understand reality.
Linesman 1: "There are regular positions and offside, and I whistle them for what they are."
Linesman 2: "There are regular positions and offsides, and I whistle them when I see them."
Guard 3: "There are no regular positions or offsides until I whistle them."
Linesman 1 thinks mental disorders are "diseases"; Linesman 3 thinks they are imaginary myths; Linesman 2 thinks they are middle ground: constructs that provide nothing more (and nothing less) than the best available hypothesis to solve psychiatric problems. Linesman 1 has great faith in our ability to grasp the true nature of things [...]. Linesaman 3 offers us the opposite perspective: the scepticism and solipsistic doubt of those who believe that man will never be able to grab protean reality by the tail or recognise it for what it really is. (...) Linesman 2 "whistles offside when he sees it"

Transferred to the field of undue persuasion, the apologists' position is that of Linesman 3: "scepticism and solipsistic doubt"," commonplaces of a "salon" libertarianism. For these authors, manipulation is a "myth". Some anti-cult activists, on the other hand, appear to us as Linesman 1, who believes he can objectify and understand the phenomenon. Common sense requires us to be Linesman 2 who follows "a very concrete version of utilitarian pragmatism." Indeed, despite the indeterminacy of a "grey area" between belief where no doubts about legitimacy arise and belief where doubts about legitimacy arise, there are cases where many presumptive clues make the malignity of induction obvious. These are offsides that can be seen and should be whistled.

That there is no difference between hot and cold water does not mean that the two conditions cannot be distinguished. However, the reasoning of some is comparable to that of someone who puts ten men in a row under ten showers of increasing heat and lashes out at the burnt man in the last cubicle, shouting that there is no objective criterion for defining when water is too hot. The classic ideological style: if the facts do not fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts.

Then the green light came.


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