According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to persuade is “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action;” to manipulate is “to control or play upon by artful, unfair or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage;” and to seduce is “to persuade to disobedience or disloyalty, or to lead astray usually by persuasion or false promises.” (Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2010) Persuasion is neither good nor bad. It is made good or bad by the intentions of the persuader. Manipulation and seduction are both forms of persuasion that are often considered dishonest or unethical.
It is almost impossible for people to avoid persuasion throughout the course of their day. If they listen to the radio or watch television, they encounter advertisements, news media and the opinions and values expressed by announcers, actors, show hosts and advertisers. If they go to work, they are likely to encounter persuasion from their boss, co-workers, or clients. If they share a home with other people, they are likely to engage is persuasion over what to eat, which television shows to watch or where to go for fun. Persuasion comes in many forms.
Persuasion itself cannot be good or bad. By nature, it is neutral, until the intention of the persuader and the response of the persuadee are incorporated into the equation. It is only when put into practice and responded to that a particular persuasion can be considered positive or negative. For example, persuading a person to eat healthier foods is a good persuasion if you are genuinely concerned for their health, but doing so in order to evoke feelings of guilt or shame would be bad. Likewise, persuading someone to ride a roller coaster may seem harmless unless the persuadee is convinced to ignore medical complications or go against their will.
There are some types of persuasion that, while they may not always be negative, usually carry a negative connotation. Two of these forms of persuasion are manipulation and seduction.
Manipulation is often considered to be a negative form of persuasion because it involves the use of “artful, unfair or insidious means.” (Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2010) This means that the persuader may use tactics that may not be fair to the persuadee or attempt to trick them. One of the most common areas in which manipulation is used is in the media.
April Eisman, in her article regarding the news coverage immediately following the events on September 11, 2001, provides an outstanding display of how the media uses manipulation in reporting news. While comparing news broadcasts she noted that, “Both also quoted from George W. Bush’s response to the attacks, selecting phrases that further emphasized retaliation. Brokaw chose to quote, ‘Freedom has been attacked by a faceless coward. Freedom will be defended’, while Rather quoted Bush as saying that we ‘will find and punish those responsible for these cowardly events’.” (Eisman, 2003) These particular quotes were chosen out of a speech that lasted longer than either of the particular broadcasts, and yet, the quotes chosen were not facts or neutral statements, but statements made to persuade the American people to demand and expect retribution.
Ms. Eisman then goes on to point out the lack of history, omission of relevant facts and distinct word choice used by American media for the next two weeks. These are some classic forms of manipulation that are used every day by news media.
Using words to evoke emotion from an audience has occurred since there was an audience, and while it may be considered “artful”, it is not always underhanded. In fact, there are times when, if thought about unconventionally, humor can be found. A common example used in my family is the concept of advertising a product as “new and improved.” Something cannot be both new and improved; it can only be one or the other. If something is new, it did exist previously, but if it is improved there must have been something to improve upon. Advertisers use both words to create a sense of excitement and change.
Omitting facts or history is not “artful”, it is unfair and deceitful. This practice has a definitively negative connotation and is underhanded. Persuasion by omission is asking someone to think or believe something based on incomplete information and therefore removes their right and ability to make an informed decision. This method of manipulation is almost always negative.
In spite of Merriam-Webster’s definition of seduction, seduction does not always involve persuasion to do something negative. Most people consider seduction to be any form of persuasion in which the subject is made to appear better than it actually is or too good to be true. An area where seductive persuasion is often used is in various religions.
St. Augustine wrote a series of books regarding persuasion to Christianity titled, de Doctrina. Alan Brinton analyzed these writings and wrote a detailed article concerning St. Augustine’s opinions regarding deception and seduction in eliciting belief. St. Augustine wrote that “at least while they are in the process of persuading, many religious persuaders are in fact moved to compromise the truth, and occasionally to tell lies, by the importance of the end which they have in view, the eternal (or even the temporal) well-being of the persons they aim to persuade” and later that there are obligations which have to do with the speaker’s character, the importance of the subject-matter, and to the person being persuaded. (Brinton, 1983)
St. Augustine believed that, while persuaders may be tempted to deceive or seduce people to believe in Christianity, that it was wrong to do so. He felt that, as a messenger of God’s word, the persuader had obligations to tell the message in such a way that their audience was able to make an informed decision based on the merits of the religious doctrine alone. Basically, he understood that it was tempting to rely heavily on eternal life, heaven and a merciful God, but he felt that it was wrong to do so without also providing information on Hell, damnation, and God’s wrath.
Advertising companies also use seduction when they show people as miraculously stronger, happier, healthier or otherwise gifted after using their product. Most people know that these advertisements are exaggerations and false, but the technique can still be considered seduction.
Persuasion is neither good nor evil. It is the purpose and technique of the persuasion that determines whether the persuasion is positive or negative. Using manipulation or seduction as a means of persuasion is usually considered unethical and carries a strong negative connotation.
Brinton, A. (1983). St. Augustine and the Problem of Deception in Religious Persuasion. Religious Studies , 437-450 .
Eisman, A. (2003). The media of manipulation: patriotism and propaganda – mainstream news in the United States in the weeks following September 11. Critical Quarterly , 55-73.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2010). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from Merriam-Webster Dictionary: www.merriam-webster.com