In this essay, I want to share a perspective I have been applying to evaluate movement-building efforts that have helped me understand a feeling that there is “something off”. This is not supposed to be a normative judgement about people building social movements, just a lens that has changed the way I evaluate my own behaviour.
Examples of optimisation in social movements
Suppose you are running a retreat (a sort of themed 3-ish day group residential work trip) aimed at getting more people interested in a social movement. You mean well: the social movement seems like an important one and having more people interested in it should help more people down the line. You want to do a good job, to get as many people as interested in the movement as possible, so you try to work out how to optimise for this goal. Here are some things you might say:
- “In our experience, young people are more open-minded, so we should focus on reaching out to them”.
- “We should host the retreat in a remote location that’s fun and free from distraction”.
- “Let’s try to build a sense of community around this social movement: this will make people feel more supported, motivated and inspired”.
- “We will host presentations and discussions for people at the retreat. People will learn better surrounded by people also interested in the ideas”.
Framed in this way, these suggestions sound fairly innocuous and are probably an effective way to get people to be more interested in the social movement. However, there seems to be something fishy about them. Here is each thing framed in another way.
- “Younger people are more susceptible to our influence, so we should focus on reaching out to them”.1
- “Let's host the event in a remote location that separates people from other social pressures, and the things that ground them in their everyday lives”.
- “Let’s build strong-social bonds, dependent on believing in the ideas of this movement, increasing the cost of changing their values down the road”.
- “We can present the ideas of the movement in this unusual social context, in which knowledge of the ideas corresponds directly to social status: we, the presenters, are the most knowledgable and authoritative and the attendees who are most ‘in-crowd’ will know most about the ideas”.2
Either set of framings can describe why the actions are effective. In truth, I think the first set is overly naive, and the second is probably too cynical. Further, I understand that there are plenty of settings in which the cynical framings could apply, and they could be hard to avoid. That said, I think they point to useful concepts that can be useful “flags” to check one’s behaviour against…
How I understand autonomy and manipulation
I want to put forward conceptions of “autonomy” and “manipulation”. Although I don’t claim these capture exactly how every person uses the words, or that they refer to any natural kind, I do think having these concepts available to you is useful. Since these concepts were clarified to me, I have frequently used them as a perspective to look at my behaviour, and frequently they have changed my actions.
As I understand it, a person’s choice or action is more autonomous when they are able to make it via a considered decision process in accordance with their values.3 The most autonomous decisions are made with time for consideration, accurate, sufficient and balanced information, and free from social or emotional pressure. Here is an example of an action that is less autonomous:
- I don’t act very autonomously when I scroll to watch my 142nd TikTok of the day. Had I distanced myself and reflected, I would have chosen to go for a walk instead, but the act of scrolling is so fast that I never engaged my decision process.
Similarly, as I understand it, a person/behaviour/mechanism is manipulative when they influence a person’s action in a way that reduces their autonomy: i.e. when they subvert or hijack the decision-making process. It is worth saying upfront that I am using a descriptive, rather than normative conception of manipulation: I am not claiming that manipulation is always impermissible, or even that there is always at least some wrong in manipulation that must be outweighed. I do, however, think that whether some act is manipulative strongly correlates with whether that act causes some external harm.4
Here are some examples of the different ways one can be manipulative:
- TikTok could be said to be manipulative because it (intentionally) impedes me from engaging my decision-making process.5
- Lying can be manipulative because one influences the outcome of the decision-making process in my favour by providing false information.
- Picking and choosing certain truths can also be manipulative: for example, if I don’t want someone to take a flight, I could tell them about how many people have died in plane crashes (without telling them how small that number is relative to how many people have flown).
Note that I don’t think people have to be aware their behaviour is manipulative for it to be so: if one responds sulkily every time their flatmate asks them to help with the washing up, this might influence that person to stop asking. However, I do think more manipulative behaviour is usually more intentional.
I also want to note that not all forms of influence are manipulative:
- Governments can influence citizens to not buy cigarettes by presenting statistics about how bad smoking is for life expectancy.
This is a form of influence, but does not, to me, feel manipulative. That could be because the information provided is true, and not some cherry-picked portion of the truth. It may also be because it helps people make choices that they would endorse on reflection. To me, this is an example of an influential but not manipulative intervention.
Similarly, not all forms of manipulation are obviously harmful:
- Governments can influence citizens to not buy cigarettes by putting visceral images of tumours on cigarette packets.
This form of influence is arguably manipulative, it is not just providing new information to smokers (that smoking can cause tumours) but is intended to create a feeling of disgust that prevents the person from buying the cigarette. This seems to bypass the person’s decision-making process, but in a way that is arguably in their best interest. This could be seen as a form of manipulation that is permissible.
The conception of “manipulation” I’m using is not, therefore, normative: manipulation isn’t inherently bad. However, noticing that your behaviour could be described as manipulative should make you extremely suspicious that you are doing something wrong (perhaps you think this act of manipulation is permissible, but you wouldn’t endorse a rule that allows manipulation). I want to suggest that a lot of movement-building practices could be seen as manipulative and that this should give us pause for reflection.
Movement building and manipulation
I think that a lot of the things that are fishy about retreats are that they (unintentionally) use means other than reason to convince people of a worldview. The biggest thing is social pressure: the whole environment is designed such that internalising/understanding orthodox ideas are socially rewarded. Other aspects of the retreat are designed in a way that makes people more susceptible to this social pressure: a focus on young people, and placing people in a detached environment away from things that might otherwise ground them. I don’t think anyone has decided to be manipulative, but by optimising for people internalising certain beliefs, an arguably manipulative structure has been decided on.
Let’s assume that, from this particular perspective, certain movement-building practices really are manipulative. Does that mean they should never be used? Or do the ends of certain social movements justify the means of manipulation? Over application of this perspective can be paralysing, once you start to look, most actions have myriad influences over others and many of these can feel at least a tiny bit manipulative. Perhaps sometimes there is no way to achieve our goals without being manipulative and I don’t want to make any hard prescriptions about what is or is not permissible here since the context of an action is so important. For example, I probably would endorse putting graphic images on cigarette packets, even if I think that is manipulative. Although sometimes direct trade-offs may present themselves, I suggest that in many cases, an intervention that is manipulative can be switched out for something that promotes people’s autonomy.
Towards movement building that promotes autonomy: advocacy and access
Movement building necessarily seeks to influence people towards putting their energy towards the movement. However, we should seek to do this in ways that empower people: by promoting their autonomy rather than by manipulating them. Further, if the ideas of your social movement really are compelling, then (hopefully) appealing to reason will be successful!
One such method of pro-autonomy movement building is what I want to refer to as “advocacy”. If a person has never heard of some social movement, they cannot decide to help it. By presenting them with the idea, you are increasing their options without forcing them to do anything. This can be taken further by making balanced and nuanced information available to people: resources and spaces to discuss ideas should be available to those seeking them out. Here, again, autonomy might help point us towards some difference between advocacy and propaganda as forms of education: propaganda forces information onto people that is misleading and biased. The line between these two cases is often nuanced and depends on how cynically or naively you frame the question. For example, I think giving out free books can fall either way, depending on the specific implementation and framing. However, there do seem to be some interventions that are broadly useful, such as making balanced statistics or rigorous arguments publicly available.
Another method of movement building that promotes autonomy is increasing “access”. One way to do this is to ensure the space you create is welcoming and comfortable to everyone. For example, you could empower people who are less confident/dominant in group discussions by ensuring everyone is given a chance to be heard. Similarly, one could decrease the underrepresentation of certain groups or aim to mitigate the consequences of underrepresentation (for example, by reducing the homogeneity of the authors of readings). Finally, one could help people who are less confident to explore and publish their ideas. In some movements, there is an overrepresentation of the ideas of people who have the confidence or audacity to believe they are right where everyone else is wrong. Each of these interventions will help out the social movement, but by removing barriers and promoting autonomy.
Even if you don’t care about autonomy, I think both advocacy and access could also help to improve group epistemics. Making balanced information available to people, rather than pushing some convincing arguments written by a small group of experts onto them, could reduce an implicit feeling that there are some “right answers”. It forces people to engage with questions themselves, rather than deferring to an orthodox set of beliefs, and encourages them to make more suggestions. Similarly, making the movement more accessible and discussions more equal, should increase the presence of cognitive diversity and the inclusivity of deliberation, helping the group as a whole to generate and evaluate a wider range of beliefs (see Landemore (2013) for more discussion).
In this essay, I have introduced (but not defended) conceptions of autonomy and manipulation that I believe are useful for understanding movement building. I applied these concepts to look at “retreats” and argued that they could be seen as manipulative. I then used these concepts to motivate forms of movement building that promote autonomy.
Appendix: assumptions implicit in this essay
- This essay may assume that there are more manipulative and more neutral ways to present information. This sounds suspiciously like claiming information can be presented in a less political or biased way.
- That there are some true “values” a person would have if they had “all of the information” and which they would “endorse on reflection”. Although a significant assumption, I think much of ethics seems to crumble if we deny people as the legitimate source of moral facts about themselves.
Landemore, H. (2013). Democratic reason: Politics, collective intelligence, and the rule of the many. Princeton University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1r2gf0
Noggle, R. (2022). The ethics of manipulation. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Summer 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/ethics-manipulation/
Véliz, C. (2020). Privacy is power. London, UK: Penguin (Bantam Press).
1. One reason this perspective might be particularly uncharitable is that young people are more also “open-minded” in terms of changing career direction because they have (on average) fewer financial responsibilities.
2. Note that presentations and discussions can be set up to avoid this effect for example, by contextualising things as highly uncertain or by encouraging people to question sources.
3. There is some ambiguity with what “values” refers to. I roughly mean something “higher-order” than momentary preferences. For example, the values I refer to wouldn’t change if I learnt to like a new genre of music. Similarly, if I read a practical ethics paper that made me evaluate eating meat differently, this wouldn’t be changing my values, but helping me understand them better. The existence of these values is a significant and ungrounded assumption of this essay (as stated in the appendix).
4. Again, I am not claiming that this concept is what everyone means by “manipulation”, nor that everyone takes “manipulation” to be a descriptive term. I am just providing some useful concept. If you are interested in a thorough, analytic account, see Noggle (2022).
5. On the other hand, giving someone the time and space they need to make a decision can help them do so freely. One example of this is given by a French law, that requires a person to spend five minutes alone in a room before deciding to request political sanctuary (Véliz, 2020, p. 36).
Broadly agree with these points. I too think ive joined events whos purpose was to convince rather than add value.
This is part of the reason I am proud to have hosted a controversal ea critic in an online event, as I think the ethos of listening to people who disagree with me is very compelling. Related to this, if truth seeking is as radical as I expect it to be, it would probably require radically different behaviours and formats (I.e. a truth seeker's event would look different to a non-truth seeker's event).
However, one problem not addressed here, often providing factual information is not enough to initiate action. This is the unfortunate reason behind the birth of marketing in general - products don't compete on their merit - but rather their desirability.
One idea from a lay person perspective: Just be open with participants on the reason for a remote location for the retreat (or any other "manipulative" tactic).
In Buddhism there is especially for newcomers a practice of strengthening one's dedication to Buddhist practice. It is usually taught with a clear message that "performing these practices will alter your motivations and what you value most in life." It should be pointed out that you want to have these disclosures before people sign up so they do not learn about it when they are "trapped" on a retreat in a remote location.
I think we already do well on this front regarding value-drift - we are consciously trying to mold ourselves into the person we wish to become.