Monday, 17 October 2022 13:16


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Henry Alley

Henry Alley is a recent graduate of Beechwood High School, Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky. He is the grandson of Col. Ronald Everett, a long-time subscriber of The St. Croix Review. Henry Alley composed this speech for his “Forensic Team,” in which members write and deliver 10-minute speeches in front of judges who grade their presentation.

“Hi, I’m Sarah McLachlan. Will you be an angel for a helpless animal? Every day, innocent animals are abused, beaten, and neglected. And they’re crying out for help. Your call says, ‘I’m here to help’.”

Most Americans, especially those of us who watch T.V. at 3 a.m., have been subjected to the melodramatic guilt trip of this American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advertisement. According to psychologists, all of us have a similar reaction to it. The reason that this type of advertising annoys us, even when we truly care about helping animals and don’t want poor Fluffy the cat to be mistreated, is because we recognize the blatantly unapologetic attempt to manipulate us through our emotions. When one image after another appears on the screen of malnourished and injured animals, staring up at us with a desolate look in their eyes, we are allowing our emotions to rule us as we tearfully reach for our wallets. And that’s what we will discuss today. First, we will define manipulation and examine the most common tactics. Next, we will look at specific case studies and determine which tools of manipulation are being used to control others. And finally, we will consider the impact of all of this on both a societal level and a personal one.

Let’s begin examining the definition of manipulation. According to Webster’s Dictionary, manipulation means to control or play upon emotions by artful, unfair, or insidious means. There are certain red flags we should keep in mind to identify a manipulator. The first is narcissism. A narcissist is someone who is self-centered and is likely to have an easier time using others to benefit themselves. Manipulators seek power over others, so any time there is dependence on someone or something, there is danger of manipulation. According to psychologists, social isolation is one strategy where a manipulator keeps a victim separated from anyone who might be able to help them. One of the most subtle and dangerous tools of manipulation is derived from a 1938 play called “Gas Light,” where a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. Psychologists use the term “gaslighting” to refer to a specific behavior where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory, perceptions, or sanity. Another similar manipulation strategy is called blame-shifting. This particular form of manipulation depends on the abuser really knowing the victim’s weaknesses and tendencies, particularly if the victim has the desire to please others, and has insecurities and self-doubts. Yet another technique of manipulation is called love-bombing. Despite it sounding like it could be the title of grandma’s favorite NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) episode, it doesn’t involve real love or real bombs (Thank God). Unfortunately, it still causes psychological pain. Love-bombing is where a dependence is formed by the manipulator by showering or “bombing” the victim with excessive praise. Our final manipulation strategy is called a double-bind. According to psychological studies, a double-bind is when a victim is given conflicting cues, such that to obey one is to disobey the other. While more warning signs of manipulation certainly exist, these are some of the tactics most commonly studied by psychologists. Now that we have a working understanding of the terms, let’s apply them to situations so we can gain a better understanding of manipulation overall.

For our first concrete example, let’s examine a scenario that could be found in a psychology textbook about manipulation. This story is about a young boy named Jacob who suffered from manipulation at the hands of his mother. As we go through the example, think about where some of the above terms might apply:

“As a child, Jacob’s mother always told him over and over how good a child he is, and how much she loves him. She regularly showered him with praise for his behavior and his performance in school. Recently, however, his mom is constantly angry toward him. Jacob tries his best to make her happy, and he spends all of his time doing his chores and homework, but still feels like he is a bad son. One day, when Jacob comes home from school, his mother is sitting at the table eating cake. Jacob’s mother has told him many times that she is on a diet, but the last time he brought it up, she yelled at him for being rude and nosy. Still feeling guilty about having been “rude,” Jacob says nothing about the cake and tries to walk past her. She then scolds him for not caring about her health, saying that he doesn’t care about her as much as she does about him.”

This is a sad story of emotional abuse, and we can see a number of these manipulation strategies used by Jacob’s mother. First, we know Jacob’s mother used to “bombard” Jacob with how much she loves him, which is an example of love-bombing. This constant praise causes Jacob to get all of his feelings of worth externally from his mother, making him dependent on her, another of our warning signs. This means when Jacob’s mother takes the praise away, she takes his sense of worth as well, leaving him vulnerable. This is why Jacob is unable to convince himself he is a good son and wants to please his mother. When he walks into the room where his mother is eating cake, he is being put in a double-bind. Jacob has two options, either to mention the cake or to ignore it. Either way, his narcissistic mother, desperate for evidence of Jacob’s disobedience, will frame it as him being nosy or not caring enough. There is no way for Jacob to please his mother here, and his failure to do so only strengthens the control she has over him. Along with giving examples of some of the warnings we listed, this example makes it easier to understand why it is so difficult for someone being manipulated to escape or even identify it. It’s not just the situation the victim is in, but the mindset through which they have been conditioned to view the situation.

So far, we’ve thought of these warnings at a personal level, but they can also be used on large groups of people, even a whole country. Here’s an example of what a much broader application can look like. This one is more challenging, but let’s do our best to keep an eye out for our warning signs again. Perhaps you remember the media reporting on a 2019 Hong Kong police report on an incident where a group of pro-democracy protesters had been violently attacked in a train station while returning home. Reporters and bystanders recorded the incident but were subsequently attacked as well. The police arrived 40 minutes later and did little to pursue or stop the attackers. The police originally acknowledged this in their report; however, they changed their stance the following year, announcing that the attack was a “clash between two evenly matched rivals,” and that the police had actually shown up within 18 minutes. They denounced the reporters on the scene as being biased, because they had been attacked as well. There’s a lot here to unpack, but we can easily identify many of our warning signs of manipulation in this example. The first and most obvious problem is gaslighting. By telling people that all the previously available information on the attack is wrong and trying to get them to question their memory of it, the government is gaslighting the people of Hong Kong. When it comes to the pro-democracy demonstrators, we see a shifting of blame. Here the government tries to paint them as equally responsible for being attacked as the aggressors. With regard to the reporters, we see a clear example of a double bind. If the reporters record the incident, then they are attacked and described as unreliable agitators. If they don’t record the incident, then they are not attacked but don’t have evidence to prove the government wrong. In all of this, the government is socially isolating their victim, the Hong Kong populace, by alienating them from both the protesters and alternative news sources by writing them off as biased or evil. All of this is a clear example of manipulation being used on a massive scale.

Now that we’ve seen how manipulation works, let’s examine the impacts that manipulation can have on both an individual and a society. When manipulation is toxic and goes unrecognized, it has the potential to do permanent damage to those affected by it. We’ve seen this in how someone’s need for validation can lead to them being used, like in the example of Jacob, and in how a whole nation of people can be easily tricked into blindly trusting a regime through clever wordplay. Manipulation can be used by everyone. If we do not consider a person or group to be able to be manipulative, we are likely to miss the warning signs that otherwise would have been clear to us. For that reason, realizing that manipulation can be used in many aspects of both our personal lives and society is just as important as understanding key terms or situations. When we strive to develop an awareness of manipulation, we protect not just our control over our thoughts and feelings, but the control of those around us.

In conclusion, we have explored the topic of manipulation by defining the key strategies used by those who manipulate. Then, we applied the terms to real-world situations. And finally, we discussed the impact that all of this has on our lives. I encourage you to carry with you the awareness we practiced with these examples. Perhaps through being mindful of such dangers we may better protect ourselves, and those close to us, becoming an angel, not for a helpless animal, but for those we care about.     *

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