Coercion by direct physical abuse or threat is a crime and a terrible experience. But psychological coercive persuasion is also seriously harmful. Building on what we know of coercive control found in domestic abuse and in cults, momentum is gathering in the fight against harmful coercion in all its forms. Alienation is always a key feature: taking you in and cutting you off. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to define this common enemy? Then we can all join forces to spot it and not get taken in by it. Read this, then do the survey yourself (revised version from 6 Jun 2016). Here’s that good idea in a nutshell:
A simple idea
Last time we boldly launched a big idea, a pattern that is always an alienating experience. Here it is again with added detail:
- The pattern of harmful psychological coercive persuasion has various names and guises but
- it has much the same features across a wide variety of family and non-family situations
- from cults and extremist terrorism, to bullying and gangs, to domestic and child abuse and parental alienation.
- Constructive or ‘ethical influence’ can be distinguished from harmful or ‘undue influence’.
- Undue coercive influence has these key features
- Highly controlling people with overwhelmingly strong authoritarian and charismatic personalities,
- as individuals or in small or larger groups,
- with fairly obvious aims and intentions
- or just because that’s the way they are,
- recruit other human beings explicitly or along the way,
- righteously dominate them and
- persuade them it’s for their own good when it’s not,
- expect unquestioning loyalty to their own set of absolute ideas,
- may (but don’t need to) use physical violence or threats of it,
- use outside powers or inside lieutenants to impose their regime,
- target ordinary human openness, attachment needs and vulnerabilities,
- isolate the followers from other safe normal relationships with their family and friends and outside world,
- make followers feel bad about themselves, and
- undermine their ability to think critically.
- Outer obedience may go with privately knowing you’ve been taken in
- or you may become a convert, a keenly active supporter of the cause.
- A hidden or gut feeling may be the only sign that something is wrong
- but that unease is easily silenced without more knowledge or support (e.g. this description).
- Contrary to all appearances this exclusive system is no good for the followers or the controllers
- but the followers are needed to serve the self-centred needs and purposes of the leader/s.
- Using this checklist as our tool, everyone can learn about this harmful pattern
- so we can all spot it and walk away from it rather than be taken in and cut off … aka alienated.
Use the idea right away
That summary is a melding of the features of coercive control in couples and families, and of cult-based approaches. Real stories like this (gas lighting) and this (grooming) – without pundits giving their angle on it – can be the best way to see coercion in action. Steve Hassan’s broad and inclusive Freedom of Mind and BITE model as presented in this video of a talk, and like Alexandra Stein’s warning signs, or Lifton‘s, list the similar features in cults. The melded checklist above aims to accommodate all the different guises in which coercive persuasion appears.
Although it is harder to get to grips with, it is the coercive persuasion of emotional abuse that is the key factor in all kinds of harmful abuse. In this true story, the survivor says: “… the grooming is almost worse than the abuse itself. You can get over the physical stuff but mentally grooming affects everything. It will affect me for the rest of my life …”
Emotional abuse needs to be sustained over a period of time for lasting harm to result. But many features of the list above apply to something as simple as a phone call scammer. Read about or have a look at this 2 minute video to see some of the simple techniques used to coerce anyone at all into being a victim.
When the list has been tested out, the simple idea behind it should stand on its own without any extra packing or unpacking. So, the invitation can be, right away, to do something of your own with this simple picture of coercive persuasion. Options might include:
- Think about whether it makes sense to you?
- Does it fit any experience of your own in your family, friends or your work?
- Try sharing the summary with a friend or family member or a work colleague.
- Try out the list by doing the “Tick-box those who box you in” survey.
- If you have special knowledge of the contexts it is found in, does this general summary match that well enough?
- Which items in this list are more important features, which less so? Are there any missing?
- If you’re a parent or a teacher, try bringing it in to teach it e.g. in PSHE classes.
- At least, on your own, think about it, research more about it, use the links given,
- Comment or ask questions here in the box below, and
- Share this blogpost widely in your social media and networks.
How I used the idea right away
Here’s my own attempt to do something right away with this idea – as well as writing this blogpost about it. I have applied and shared this checklist afresh around my own life experiences. New light has been thrown like this:
- I’ve seen how many boxes on the list I tick (or not) when applied to difficult characters I have known in my family, in my community, at work, and in family cases I’ve worked with. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to live more closely with them.
- Clients I’ve shared the list with have seen it as instructive and helpful in making sense of what they’ve been through.
- When at boarding school, I now see how my social isolation and low esteem was the soft spot in my recruitment to be an unhappy by-standing member of a trio of bullies. The leader also somehow got me to invite him as a ‘friend’ to stay with my family during a holiday. Throughout I was privately miserable and only persuaded on the surface. But I felt trapped and unable to tell anyone the truth. The coercive ‘friend’ can’t have been happy or loved either.
- Discussing these ideas, showed some cult-like features in a non-mainstream religious group that two of my siblings had been members of for years. The story has become more public recently. And a 1998 account of what happened shows clearly the phase it went through of being a local cult before the parent body intervened to ethical functioning. The group has changed since, but then my siblings experienced its denigrating attitude to family life – having babies was ‘lower evolutionary’ – which led to the break up of relationships. Many women and men deprived themselves of having the children they had wanted. On the outside, I often complained that my siblings were unavailable – a loss to me and my family too.
- Sharing the checklist idea with my wife we saw how a harmless elderly relative, a widower, foolishly married a woman who physically abused him … she once broke his arm with a pan. We saw how that domestic violence was also a coercively controlling relationship, ticking all the boxes. (Note that domestic violence and abuse is not always gendered in the way that some insist it is.)
- And I’ve realised how, in a chosen un-coerced career, the mainstream church to which my father dedicated his roving life of ministry, meant that our parents’ priority could not really be with us, their children. My father’s ultimate boss-to-be-obeyed was the church and God. As a result, we, the now ageing children – like our late parents themselves, I think – have all had more limited and challenging roads to travel through our lives than we might have hoped for.
These personal examples may not all tick all the boxes of coercive persuasion above, but they were all significant experiences and harmful to a degree. This simple framework has been helpful and enlightening to me, a basis for new constructive discussions.
Questions the idea raises
There are indeed some less simple issues to tackle in running with this simple idea. There will be improvements to make. Future posts will work through the following things. Your comments are welcome too:
- We will underline the obvious attractions of prior prevention being better than cure after the event.
- We will put more flesh on the bones of the summary picture and see if it still fits across the board.
- We will look at a couple of closely related public and statutory recent developments – the law against coercive control, and the website to educate against extremism and hate.
- We will compare our general checklist of coercive persuasion with other more particular descriptions, checking how far it fits with them all.
- We will explore common coercive experiences – like falling madly in love, or like healthily authoritative parenting or teaching – and natural membership of coercive groups – like being a child in a family, or in a job where obedience is required – to see if we can tell the difference between the recruitment or start of what are going to be healthy and ‘happy ever after’ relationships and what are going to be ‘harmfully coercive ever after’ relationships.
- In teaching about this pattern, we want to avoid making everyone even more scared than they already are of other people – familiars or strangers.
- We don’t want this idea to undermine in situations where there are good reasons, for example, to NOT see certain ex-family members or ex-friends.
- This simple idea has powerful generalised uses. But proper understanding and help in any particular case requires us to look in deeper detail at how each individual situation, each leader and follower, works in unique and complex ways.
- Finally we will look at important related versions of coercive persuasion such as groupthink and overly-coercive ideologies.
Meanwhile, don’t wait! Please do something with this idea yourself. And please share your ideas here, so you help develop the idea and improve it.
Maybe use a tag or hashtag like: WAnti to stand for: Walk Away not taken in.
Nick Child, Edinburgh
PS Please tell us in the comments below – or here with a one click vote – what you thought of the checklist above.
PPS Here’s another quick 5-minute BBC news story and video – about a highly lucrative Skype sex-scam that Arab men in Morocco have been using on Arab men elsewhere – that shows the key features of Undue Influence. (Undue Influence is the general name for all harmful coercive patterns – see OpenMindsFoundation.org for much more on that.) The point here is PREVENTION. If you can learn about this specific damaging and criminal pattern – or about Undue Influence in general – in 5 minutes, you can prevent a life time of misery by spotting it and walking away.