>> Monday, April 27, 2009

Yesterday, I talked about the need for power and how it was tied to self esteem. Today, I want to talk about manipulation. As a general rule, no one is so strong by themselves that they can control a great deal without some sort of manipulation. Genghis Khan might have been a might warrior, but he had to lead and control others or he would have been on his butt in a heartbeat.

As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, Adolf Hitler must have had skills in manipulation or he would not have "accomplished" what he did. Unless we are willing to believe that Germany was people largely with soulless sadistic monsters, we must acknowledge the fact that decent people were manipulated to both do and condone monstrous things.

We like to think the ignorant masses are really the most easily manipulated and that's probably true. But, we'd be fooling ourselves if we think that everyone isn't susceptible to some manipulation. We might even know we're being manipulated and be powerless to stop it.

What do they use? The easiest forms of manipulation (and most common) are hatred and fear. In fact, in my opinion, I've reached the conclusion that someone trotting out hatred and fear regarding some other group of people is almost undoubtedly up to no good and is manipulating. In my opinion, good people with right on their side don't need to find targets. You are, of course, welcome to your own opinion.

Hatred and fear work best on the masses, though, the ones who aren't necessarily thinkers, who are most comfortable being led. And, as the masses become better educated or are exposed to more and different forms of information, it becomes less useful. For those that can and do think, it is rarely effective, at least not with broad strokes.

So what do you do if you crave power and you need the support of capable people? You find what will work on them. For some, it's offering them the opportunity to pursue their dream...right after they complete yours. Or you twist what you want to sound like it's part of that dream. I suspect that - and likely a measure of fear - were what convinced Von Braun to help Hitler. Nor was he the only scientist, respected before and often after, who was convinced to work on Hitler's behalf.

And sometimes you use a specific fear, not a broad faceless fear like death or society as you know it coming down, but threatening a specific loved one, or the individual himself with death or worse.

Many of us believe there are things we'd never do. I want to believe it. But I know, if my daughter were threatened, my husband, even an innocent stranger, I would be struggling not to do almost anything someone asked me.

Just thinkin'.


  • Roy

    Steph, many intellectuals joined the Nazi party because they believed Hitler would end the economic crisis, restore German pride that the Versailles Treaty had destroyed, and push back the communist threat from the East. They honestly believed, because a certain segment of the Nazi party "inner circle" led by Hermann Göring convinced them that it was so, that the party's Jewish policy was a temporary measure solely designed to appeal to the lower strata of German society. When they discovered that it wasn't temporary at all, it was too late.

    But people like von Braun and orchestra conductor Herbert van Karajan were so absorbed in their own work and the agendas attached to that work that they didn't care who was in power as long as those powers let their work continue. Of course, that those powers might actually sponsor their work was even better. Being single-minded about one's particular endeavor blinds one to moral nuances very effectively.

  • Stephanie B

    I don't disagree, Roy. Von Braun has never pretended that he had any other goal than space exploration and I have no doubt he needed no gun to his head to pursue rocketry work that, despite their use for destruction, he could mentally rationalize as steps on the path he dreamed of.

    It's not an excuse, per se, but I can see it happen. Intellectuals and scientists, decent people who wanted to have an answer for their troubles without looking to closely at the results of going along with it. Many were caught unawares and many more did things that I suspect weighed on their consciences for the rest of their lives. Or, if it did, perhaps it should have.

  • Boris Legradic

    There is an even more sinister reason people like Hitler, Stalin or Mao succed in getting their followers to commit atrocities: Humans are hardwired to follow authority figures. This seems to give us an evolutionary advantage (and it's not hard to see why), but can naturally be exploited. There is, for instance, the famous Milgram experiment where "ordinary" people would torture another (who was actually an actor) on the say-so of an authority figure.
    If you have an hour to spare, here (youtube) is a very interesting talk of a neuro-scientist - it's topic is "Religion as byproduct of useful cognitive processes", but many of the mechanisms in our brain Prof. Thomson points out as underlying the human tendency to believe in a higher power also explain why we like to follow our leaders, and sometimes blindly.

  • Shakespeare

    I'm glad Boris uses the word "we." It's lovely to think, as an individual, that I am too smart to be reeled into a manipulative context, convinced to do things I would otherwise detest, or deny someone else power over me. But the whole idea is ludicrous. As much as I shiver when thinking about the times I have been manipulated--and manipulated quite effectively--I'm sure such moments are only a fraction of the times I haven't realized such a relationship has been created, even decades after it happened.

    Very scary, if you ask me.

  • Stephanie B

    I agree, Boris, and appreciate the other resources. I think there is a need in most (if not all) for direction, some plausible resource so that we don't have to decide everything ourselves. The more despondent and helpless we feel, the more likely we are to respond to that authority figure, especially if he or she offers a path (no matter how dangerous or destructive it might be). Again, I think that's why hatred and fear are wielded so frequently to draw an emotional response so that a prospective leader/expert can add the "so we do this," portion.

    Understanding this, as Shakespeare noted, does not make me immune though I think revealing this manipulation and mechanisms reduce their effectiveness.

    I think it's appropriate to note the links between organized religion and this process. No matter how fervent or far-thinking a devout individual one is, one should be cognizant of the many past instances where people did terrible things in the name of remarkably benign beliefs.

  • David

    I think the scariest people are “true believers” in an ideology. Money is not the root of all evil, ideology is. Dictators who are in it for the money are bad, but they can be dealt with in some logical fashion. They are easy to understand. The people who follow some creed or philosophy to its extreme are the really dangerous people. Was Hitler in it for the money? No, he was in it for his ego combined with his racist beliefs. I don’t understand why some people treat their philosophy as being more important then their fellow mankind. Is ego the enemy? I think doubt is actually a virtue. If only extremists doubted themselves…then they wouldn’t be extremists.

  • Anonymous

    I love your blog and would like to add you to my blog roll.


  • flit

    ideology is a very scary thing; I agree

  • Boris Legradic

    @David: While I am always very leery of ideologists, I thin you are over-generalising. While dictators that think they are doing the "right" thing are bad (and maybe worst), raw naked greed works as well - see for example Mobutu, Joseph Kony or Augusto Pinoche, to name but a few.

  • Bob Johnson

    Hey we are all being manipulated, we allow it because alot of the times what choice do we have,speaking of the government, plus we aren't killing anybody in the process.

    I often wondered about Von Braun and others like him working for Hitler, how much they knew and when they knew it, if an intelligent person like him can be manipulated into doing what he was doing what hope is there for the average person today.

  • Relax Max

    I think you would have a hard time demonstrating that Hitler did what he did for ego. Germany was humiliated and their economy in ruins. The people were looking for a savior and wanted desperately to see their fortunes rise again. Following WWI a German, the story goes, had to take a wheelbarrow to carry the amount of German money needed to go food shopping, it was so worthless.

    Hitler wanted to see Germany become great again. His manipulation took the form of simply telling people what they wanted to hear, of holding great pep rallies until the people went into near-hysterics. They believed in what he was saying. But the point David is missing is that Hitler believed in what he was saying too. He wasn't there for his ego. He was there because he wanted Germany to recover. Admittedly, this reached fanatical heights and he began to try to prove Germany was great again, in the image of Frederick the Great, by being big and tough, military-wise. I think the USA might learn from history from Germany: once you are big and tough, you must resist the temptation to start invading weak countries just because they don't do as you want them to do. In the end, Hitler's demise and Germany's demise was not due to their wanting to be great again and because they wanted to wipe out their humiliation and poverty, but that they were unable to control the urge to conquer and spread their "religion" to other countries. The will to Empire must always be resisted.

    If I may say.

  • Stephanie B

    David, I don't disagree that ideology doesn't have to be evil; however, when you believe something so much that you will not listen to a different point of view, accept facts that counter that belief, when you are willing to lie, hurt or even kill for a belief, you have gone too my opinion.

    The problem with belief, as opposed to a position reached through reason and observation of facts, is that it is often intolerant of reason and facts. And, if you believe it absolutely and are unwilling to give it up when confronted with data otherwise, when you are willing to inflict your belief on others against their will, it can drive you to do things you'd never consider moral. You start using the "ends justify the means" nonsense.

    Religion and patriotism can be this kind of ideology, but so can beliefs that might originally have been based on what appeared to be logic or fact, like the presumption that lower taxes is the cure for all ills.

    Ideas are only dangerous when you stop listening to anything else.

    In my opinion.

  • Stephanie B

    Boris, while I don't think ideology is the only reason, it's one of the worst because those fighting for an "ideology" believe in what they're doing and fight to the death (think South in the Civil War or Japan in WWII).

    People rarely fight like that for greed alone.

  • Stephanie B

    Thanks, Marilyn.

    Hi, flit.

  • Stephanie B

    Bob, from what I've read of Von Braun, he was actively involved in the design and use of the rockets for destruction. What's not so set in stone is (a) what he knew about the concentration camp labor used to build the rockets and (b) whether he was ideologically in sync with the Nazi's rather than having joined the party because he "had no choice."

    People who want something terribly badly or have something substantial to lose can be manipulated with surprising ease a considerable portion of the time.

  • Stephanie B

    Relax Max, I hear what you're saying, but I don't agree. Thinking Germany was inherently better than other countries, that everything was the fault of some group and racial mixing - yeah, he probably believed that.

    Believing that HE was the answer and had the right to destroy all dissentors using any means necessary? Pure megalomania.

    Believing something screwed up absolutely and being an egomaniac don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations