Margaret Mead on manipulation

Later, when I seriously turned by attention to the whole question of manipulation, I began to understand that one should not use either a person’s strength or his weakness against him. As I see it now, the only course that is ethically justified is an appeal to strength — not in order to throw one’s opponent by means of his own strength, but on the grounds that reliance on strength will only work for the good….
I do not advocate a philosophy of blind and naive trust. Occasionally it is clear that a person in a position of power will, if he can, block or destroy something of great value. In such circumstances it is necessary to be politic; this means, essentially, using the strengths and weaknesses of other persons or groups for one’s own ends. In the same way, in wartime, a nation plays on the weaknesses — and even on the strengths — of the enemy. But there is always a price to pay later, an erosion of the capacity for trust, a kind of damage that persists after the war and makes the reestablishment of working relationships much more difficult. –Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter pp. 130-131

This quotation jumped out at me as I was reading tonight because it resonated with something I’ve been thinking about in general, which is how people work together in groups, and also with something I was thinking about today. For various reasons I don’t want to identify the particular situation, but I found myself in this situation behaving ‘politically’, using the influence of someone higher up than I because I knew from past experience, I could get that person on ‘my side’, and it struck me how far that was from straightforward and communication. I wasn’t being dishonest, but I was using my honesty in a calculated — manipulative — way.

I had a discussion with a friend recently about subtle types of dishonest communication, including ‘faux surprise’, when you act as if it has only just occurred to you that a person isn’t doing something you think they should be, when in fact you have been thinking about mentioning it to them for some time and your approach is deliberate rather than spontaneous. It occurs to me that that’s also a type of manipulation — your goal is to get them to do what you want, but you aren’t straightforwardly admitting that. You pretend to be innocent when you’re really being politic.

I particularly appreciate the way she talks about the “erosion of the capacity for trust” that results from this kind of interaction. My actions today were effective, but trying to imagine being on the receiving end of them, I find that I am annoyed with myself, and assign to myself — as I did at the time to some the others in the interaction — a motive other than finding the most effective way to solve what is clearly, based on its recurring nature, a genuine problem. Doing what I did wasn’t my first action, but I really wish that my second action had been to think of something different to do, instead of following the pattern that over time has been established over this issue.

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