Some thoughts on writing, speaking, manipulation and influence

A few thoughts off the top of my head.

William S. Burroughs had interesting things to say on the idea of language being a virus from outer space.

It would be naive to take him at face value. Actually, it would verge on insanity.
It would be equally naive to simply assume he was being cute, provocative, or “symbolic” – he was trying to make a point, an interesting point I leave to you to distill (his writings are as fascinating as they are obscenely.. weird)

We can observe something, in every discourse and every human transaction, there is a front door and a back door.

If we do a literature review on the topics of influence and persuasion, from marketing, public relations, propaganda, we can go beyond conventional treatments of the matter and look for deeper insights from disciplines like social and mass psychology, behavioral psychology and conditioning, linguistics and neurology.

My impression, and yours may differ, is that this becomes clear – from the end of the 19th century to the dawn of the 21st century, a veritable explosion of technique has occurred, concerning mass manipulation and influence of opinion, and the regimenting of tastes and opinions in both free democratic societies and totalitarian ones.

We are, perhaps, a long way away from Aldus Huxley’s speculations on the necessity of making people love their servitude.. but it is clear that there has been a coup of sorts in the ability to order and mold mass opinion, and that modern techniques easily allow the co-opting and redirection of even fringe views.

Of course we have that cliché – that everything old is new again. There is a very difficult to obtain, mid 20th century, review of hypnotic techniques observed in old poetry. (Whitman as good at this) The author seems to express some surprise that certain things, seemingly only recently discovered, were performed by certain poets (either consciously or unconsciously as a byproduct of craft and art) for centuries. Specifically trance inducing techniques.

Certain “tricks” of Erikson can be observed in disparate sources as far removed as Shakespeare and Hafez.

Is there anything wrong with this? No, language is a tool, a wonderful tool, much fun can be had shaping and using language.

Language is the vehicle of expressing meaning.

Something spiffy was once said by Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Imam of the Zaytuna Institute, and much derided by certain right wing, so-called “anti-jihadists” as being a crypto-evil Muslim fundamentalist terrorist agitator in drag

“Poetry is a breeze from one heart blown into another by the force of its meanings”

It sounds artsy, but there is a secret hidden in this, for those with perception.

(ironically, real so-called “jihadists” also condemn Shaykh Hamza as a manufactured, peacenik, Rand Institute produced, pseudo-Imam designed to lull the Muslims into enslaved conformity to the new world order.. it really does seem like you can’t please everyone !)

You can observe the following; naming things influences how we perceive them.

Once you put a name on something, this allows you to dismiss it, for you have simplified it’s complex reality into a byte, or bite, sized plaything to throw in the scrap heap. Ideologues do this a lot.

Observe anyone reducing someone’s thoughts and ideas by calling that one by an emotive label. Read a bunch of HBD, radical feminist, leftist, or right wing blogs, and you can observe creative use of such rhetorical techniques…

Another neat trick in naming a thing, is that you can, instead of dismissing it, elevate it to a sacred cow.

Much formal rhetoric (both classical Greek, neo-Classical Western, and Classical Islamic Balagha) has strong resonance with techniques of modern persuasive speaking and communication.

It is possible to stumble on something that William Blake, for example, happened to do and say “Ah, he’s trying to hypnotize us and perform a Ericksonian re-frame” – but by doing so you have partially cloaked the reality of William Blake.

Techniques are independent of intent, the excessive use of a technique by an individual displaying one intent does not disqualify the possible alternative usages of that technique.

There is a matter of not seeing a tree, but instead counting every pine needle. True art requires craft, craft is composed of technique, technique is independent of worldview or intent though bodies of technique, imposed into the framework of a discipline, reflect often, in subtle ways, the biases and worldviews of the founders of that discipline.

An example, speaking is a component of “Neuro-linguistic programming” [which as an interdisciplinary body of technique may possibly have some real and useful insights into how language affects human psychology – in spite of having a bad reputation among cheap used car salesmen and dubious Ross Jefferies inspired “pick up artists”]

From this should we conclude that speaking is evil, because cheap salesmen use it to sell clunkers and manipulative emotionally damaged creeps try to pick up waffle house waitresses?

Something that you might want to pay attention to, however, is this –
Inherent in studying a body of technique, is exposure to the expectations and assumptions of those who codified that body.

For how things are articulated affects how we conceive of them – how a body of theory and technique are articulated can color our worldview, depending on – of course – how conscious we are at reading sub-texts “between the lines”. and on how vigilant we are in our reading.

Modern techniques of manipulation are the equivalent of the sorcery of old. This isn’t a metaphor, it is more true to the fact than you might want to imagine.

Something that you may want to do, is to make a careful study of the propaganda techniques of every single totalitarian regime in the 20th century (some techniques were actually more crude and less effective versions of techniques employed in peacetime in Democratic free regimes)

In society, we are constantly trying to persuade others, inform others, articulate our views, and generate support for them. At work you have a project or a proposal, you have a view you want others to adopt, you suggest, to state, you demand, or you insinuate.

You want to influence your child not to touch a hot stove, if you do not then may well be a fool. You want to influence your child into not running into traffic to chase a ball. The reasons are obvious.

In some sense influence, or seeking to influence, is timeless and as old as human speech.

However there are two ways that one may persuade, two approaches, and one is through the Front Door, and the second is through the Back Door.

If at times, in life, it is necessary to convince others, to present our opinions and views to them, we should do so with facts. But people are not primarily rational, often. It is well known that emotive appeals trump well reasoned arguments.

Misogynists are fond of pointing out that this is the case with women, well know this – so too is this the case with the vast majority of men. Look into the lives of most men that you know, their decisions and why they made certain decisions, and you will see more often than not an emotive motivation underneath the seemingly rational.

My primary motive triggers are emotive, and I bet yours are too.

I do not think that people are primarily rational, in the narrow sense, we have reason, we use it, but a lot of what motivates us is emotional, and concerns our hearts.

When we try to motivate others or convince others, we should do this by going in through the front door, and not the back door. This means using facts, and reasoning with people. If you have to make an emotive appeal do not subtly coerce them, but back up your appeals with facts.

The trouble with learning about back doors is that it can actually become a mortal danger to your soul. Some types of knowledge can transform you and your perceptions, and in doing so leave a treacle like tar over your heart. If you are not careful, you can gradually be influenced yourself, along lines of the framers of the methods of opening backdoors.

If a guy looks at Gonzo porn all day long, he will eventually start to see women in a certain way, even his own sisters and mother. This is important to understand. If a man sits around several hours a week, looking at young looking girls with bukkake on their face, this may subtly influence his sexual tastes.

What we consume conditions us. what we take into our bodies, and into our minds, conditions our bodies, and our minds.

You are free to doubt this, but I recommend considering the point and thinking it over well, before you throw it in the scrap heap.

None of this is difficult to understand. F. Nietzsche once said something pithy.

“..when you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you..”

Consider yourself warned.

Again, it is unwise to dismiss some quotes as simply figurative language. But it is wiser for us to consider them, think them over, mull them in our mind, as we observe people around us.

There is a word in Arabic and Persian – Adab, it expresses a concept of etiquette, however one that goes beyond social niceties and encompasses active ethics. In many matters it just is not a good thing to go around skulking through back doors, no matter how noble your intent.

Or as the Quran puts it:
“It is no virtue if ye enter your houses from the back…. Enter houses through the proper doors” (Surah Baqara : The Heifer, 2:189)

This verse has never been interpreted just in its outward sense. Except by children, and those lacking imagination.

I contend that it is always “better” to go through the front door. Now better does not mean more effective, but I’m not a utilitarian. I think there are many things important in life beyond just “getting ‘er done”

Going through the back door is a sign of being a coward and a thief. It exposes you to getting your eye poked out or getting shot.

Adopting rhetorical techniques in presenting facts, or opinions honestly presented as opinion or interpretation, is one thing.

Because rhetoric and the craft of meter, metaphor, analogy, adopting specific structures of argumentation, are intent neutral. They are technique, part of craft, and one of the most naive things that occurs in writers heads nowadays is that technique is artificial. Well so is text, a fact concerning which they seem blindingly unaware. Artificiality is not, in itself, a bad thing. Anyone reading this on a computer who has a bone to shake against the artificial is not exercising her discernment.

Certain techniques in the crafts of speech and writing are mostly lost arts (except for PR and marketing folks, speech writers, professional speakers, or propagandists well steeped in their tradecraft) – partially because, by and large, our education system today displays certain deficiencies, and partially because of an engrained fear of technique and the artificial among the writing classes today. Poets and prose writers alike should reflect on the fact that artificial technique has underlain poetry and prose alike for about 3000 years, and even our objections to this are artificial.

A different matter is adopting techniques to manipulate, coerce, or control others. Now, covert verbal coercion cannot be placed on the same level as overt physical coercion, because the later is backed by the threat of force. I think it’s stupid to place them on the same level.

Each, however, can be very “bad” as I see it. Sometimes physical coercion is needed. I lean towards a libertarian view on society but it seems clear to me that physically coercing violent criminals is a good thing.

Rapists and murderers, or those intent on committing rape or murder, should be physically resisted and coerced by whatever means necessary into abandoning their course of action, where such coercion does not create greater harm than it would avert.

But you and I are not criminals, and if our thoughts and beliefs are criminalized by society or the state, then society, or the state respectively, itself has gone rogue and criminal. And this means that it need not enjoy our allegiance any longer.

That is a dangerous thought, but consider it. Some coercion must be regarded by as as simply unjust and tyrannical. And injustice perpetuated on us removes from us the ethical necessity to abide by the sources of our injustice.

If others around us seek to coerce us for their own advantage, then they have overstepped their boundaries and should be resisted and told to shove off. You have one life on this mortal coil, it is stupidity to abide by those actively trying to destroy us when we were not at fault. If we overstep boundaries and oppress others, then we have earned coercion to push us out of the way of those we seek to hurt, but if others oppress us then all bets are off.

Retribution for our own crimes and evils is just, oppression when we are blameless is unjust, our support of injustice or the unjust places us in their category by proxy, our rejection of the unjust and those coercing others spares us from what they deserve..

Which is a swift kick in the arse.


4 Comment

  1. For the record – notice well that in a previous post I said I’m a utilitarian, and in this one I said that I am not.

    Things are context dependent, in life, often enough.

  2. […] Kamal S. – “Some Thoughts on Writing, Speaking, Manipulation, and Influence” […]

  3. I appreciate what you have done here. I love the section where you state what you are doing this for you to give back but I would guess by all the commentary that this process is definitely on your side as well.

  4. Thanks Marilou

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