On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell

when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

12 thoughts on “On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

  1. 1

    I agree completely. I’ve felt this way since my late teens, and the few times in my adult life I’ve let friends or acquaintances know how I felt about it, their responses ranged from aghast to offended. I also feel the same way as to why: people don’t like to take responsibility for things, full stop.

    1. 1.1

      Interesting, isn’t it? If they were really doing it “for your own good,” there’d be no reason for them to be offended if you asked them to stop.

  2. 2

    Brilliant post. I also completely agree with it.
    I tend to feel a huge need to please people around me so that kind of situation is a hell for me.
    Specially persuasion.
    If someone is openly coercing me I can openly tell them to fuck of. but all that “friendly goodwill” generates very conflictive situations for me, and for lots of other people too. It’s all about the ties, as you said.
    And yeah,- they do get offended if you tell them…

    1. 3.1

      Haha, thanks! I didn’t think of this as an anarchist position at all, but I suppose you could call it social anarchism…I’d love to see a culture in which we’re free from the coercion and pressure of others.

  3. 4

    Very good point. I agree with you completely. I doubt one can ever truly love or appreciate something if one has been forced into it. I certainly can’t recall such an occasion in my own life.
    I even have never been forced to eat vegetables as a child, and now I love them. 🙂 So I am not convinced that one should treat children so differently than adults…..

  4. RC

    Interesting idea to apply consent concepts to everyday situations, but it falls flat for me. Life is full of influence, not just in our culture but probably even more so in collectivist cultures. If individualism were a religion I would label this as extremist. You go as far as to suggest that nothing is worth doing if it isn’t a product of self direction. You might argue against the way I frame this, but the purpose of the culture of consent is clearly to allow people to be even more independent as individuals, to the extent of not even having to be exposed to the opinions or disagreement of others. That’s fine, but do recognize that this is very culture bound. In many cultures you don’t do anything significant without first taking into consideration what others expect of you and how they will feel about it. You don’t get into macro level influence but that might be a better place to start than menial things like the type of food a person is willing to try. The macro influences, like advertising, are the ones that really shape who we are and what we choose. I do think you have something interesting here. Keep working on it.

    1. 6.1

      You make an interesting argument, but actually, in collectivist cultures (I come from one) it would be entirely inappropriate to keep asking a person to do something for you after they’ve said no once. True, in such cultures people are expected to consider others’ needs more than they are in individualist cultures, and this means that you might be thought of as rude if you decline an invitation. However, continually pestering someone to do something would be much more inappropriate than saying no.

      Also, I don’t really think that what I’ve written here equates to extreme individualism at all. There are many ways to maintain ties with people and take their needs into account. For instance, if my mom asks me to babysit my brother and sister so she can go have an evening out, I will probably say yes even though I don’t really want to, because that’s important to me. She’s not coercing me to babysit; she’s asking me, and I’m saying yes because my relationship with her is important to me.

      But if my mom asks me to go to a party “for my own good” and I really don’t want to, I should be able to say no without it being a blow to our relationship. She doesn’t need me at that party, and if I say I don’t want to go, she should leave me alone and let me stay home.

      And regarding macro influences, social psychology suggests that you’re wrong. While advertising is obviously an influence, the behaviors of people we’re close to are a much greater influence. Also, ads generally don’t get people to buy things that they were sure they don’t need; rather, they get people who are on the fence to strongly consider buying something. So if I want a tablet but I’m unsure which one to get, seeing an iPad ad will probably nudge me in that direction. If I don’t give a crap about tablets and don’t want one at all, seeing an iPad ad won’t affect me much. Seeing my friends getting iPads, though, might.

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