Persuasion versus Coercion

There is a difference between trying to influence another’s behavior by simply persuading him, and forcing him to do your will by threatening to harm his interests if he doesn’t comply. It’s an important difference, but there’s a gray area in between. That in-between zone can get pretty important sometimes, especially when the persuader is richer and the target is poorer. People can honestly disagree about where to draw the line.

Two recent news events illustrate the problem. The Komen philanthropic organization cancelled its funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer research because of disapproval of other PP activities supporting abortion. Public disapproval forced Komen to retract. The underlying question was whether Komen was justified by its ethical aversion to abortion in using the power of its purse indirectly to restrict PP activities in that field. Was this a back-door form of coercion, forcing a certain number of pregnant females to forego the abortion option, or a legitimate expression of Komen’s ethical stance on abortion? Understandably, pro-choice advocates argued one way and pro-lifers the other, and the moral issue of abortion took over and drowned out the more interesting (for me) ethical issue of coercion.

More recently, the new government in Cairo has cracked down on a couple of our more politically oriented aid programs in Egypt, specifically those aimed at helping nascent democracy take roots in that ancient land. Were those programs coercive or not? We saw them as part of a larger effort to help Egypt get through a period of political instability and economic troubles, objectives we thought we shared with the great bulk of the Egyptian people. We saw no coercion here, only persuasion. However, one Egyptian view, the one that prevailed for the moment, was that those particular programs intruded on sensitive aspects of local culture and would have been rejected out of hand if not tied to important economic largesse, something Egypt could ill afford to forego. For them, national pride trumped economic need. How this impasse will be resolved remains undecided.

My own views have evolved out of many experiences, most notably those with American Christian missionary activities in countries where I have served, particularly Syria, Iran, and Nepal. I found that those activities fell into two main groups, the coercive and the persuasive. The coercive ones emphasized proselytising while the good ones emphasised good works. The coercive ones held the Bible high and used high pressure sales tactics to “sell” their particular brand of Christianity. Their aim was conversion, all else was secondary. The others used good works, mainly hospitals and schools, as their preferred approach to gain access. The best of them only proselytised when individuals who had become impressed with their good works came and asked about their faith.

It seems to me that blatant use of the power of the purse, as in the Comen case, to affect behavior on sensitive issues, will inevitably leave the bad aftertaste of coercion in the minds of those whose behavior has of necessity been altered. There ought to be ways, however, to use the power of the purse more delicately and skillfully, in ways that do not leave such an aftertaste. The problem is that all too often, what seems like persuasion to the donor is perceived as coercion by the recipient. That appears to be the case in our current fuss with Egypt.

The problem is particularly acute when two quite different cultures are involved. Our own experience throughout the post-WWII years has been full of misunderstandings of this nature, leading to a plethora of unintended consequences, most of them unfortunate. This is not to say that we should forego bilateral aid entirely. But we certainly should approach the whole issue of doing good abroad with greater humility and circumspection. If we can bring ourselves to see ourselves as others see us, that would help.

That principle applies to all those benevolent individuals and organizations who wish to do good by persuading others to change their behavior. All too often, what looks like persuasion from one angle smacks of coercion when seen from the other side.


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3 Responses to Persuasion versus Coercion

  1. lola says:

    I enjoy reading your thoughts and came to your site to read your thoughts on the recent murder of J Christopher Stephens, Ambassador to Libya, when I stumbled upon this…and while I agree, the concept you are discussing: persuasion vs. coercion IS an “interesting” topic, I think you get it wrong re: the Komen foundation.

    The facts are:
    The Komen foundation was not political for many years. They tested the political waters only recently, when Handel enhanced the founder’s political bent.

    The Komen foundation wasn’t seeking to persuade PP to stop abortions, but it sought to CUT OUT funding to PP and they tested the waters.

    Breast cancer isn’t political. Komen sought funds from a broad populace (no pun intended).

    In doing so, they established early neutrality which was very smart and desirable to the pool of women and men who supported the Komen Foundation, then, suddenly, leaders within began to change under the Bush admin, taking sides, culminating with the bold act of testing their actual donor pool’s allegiance to women’s rights.

    Well, they got the answer they sought – it just wasn’t the one they wanted.

    Their donor pool was predominantly moderate to liberal and not so political that they wanted reputed anti-choice women asserting their putrid political agendas in the realm of breast cancer — one of the few areas women surely needed to be less political and more united.

    The one point that became so apparent during this whole poorly executed debacle was that Komen is really not the best org. to donate to in terms of “helping” women who cannot afford breast cancer treatment. Many of us who donated regularly and faithfully to ease our sister’s pain, finally did our due diligence and looked where funding went. This slap in the face in concordance with the neo political Komen Foundation was enough.

    I involuntarily bristle when I read your comments on whether supporters who protested and ceased funding of the huge self promoting conglomerate that Komen became had anything to do with “coercion”, for frankly, I think the reality was that it became a mass exodus from an org. that must seriously reconsider its goals and agendas…as well as how they will distribute their donations in the future.
    People who donate to “nonprofit” orgs are the backbone, if that org no longer represents the neutral charity that it originally was promoted as being, these donors have not only a right, but an obligation to send a message and remove their funding from the offending org.
    That is what happened to Komen. Women who want to fight breast cancer should do it with other organizations.
    Every woman who donates to Komen should look at the distribution of money chain to see where the bulk of funding goes and then, follow their conscience.

    Most of the disgruntled donors had no part in coercion. If you tap into the lingering thoughts on Komen, from longtime, loyal donors, there is a deep disgust, 1) that Komen dared to pull the political card for such a paltry sum as they gave to PP, 2) that so many of us, and yes, the blame is probably ultimately solely ours, did not know how little of the massive amounts of money went to actually helping women who could not afford care, with cancer treatments and how little went to mammograms for the poor.

    In a way, Komen did many of us a favor. I will never give to an org before doing serious homework…and I shall do that homework each time I give.
    For now, I give directly to cancer research…but make no bones, I do actually feel a sense of loss and betrayal that it had to come to this.
    I wonder why “conservative” women and men feel they have to push the limits.

    They feel if ANY money went to PP, their values were compromised, and yet, it appears that the bulk of the base was more liberal and supported far reaching women’s rights, so why couldn’t they do what so many of us do, reconcile that some of the money that went to orgs. like PP could be easily redacted from the funds from liberals?
    Because they don’t seem to understand where their boundaries end.

    IF Komen reorganizes wisely, and they’ve been doing quite a job trying (good riddance Ms. Handel! One down, one to go), IF they manage to keep their politics in the personal realm, IF they hone down admin costs, IF they beef up some of the areas where women with breast cancer receive more equitable (donation % wise) funding, I may donate again….and this is not coercion of any kind, it’s good common business sense and following MY conscience.
    It’s what I thought I was doing all along.
    Not only is the whole affair interesting to me, but it’s a matter that’s close to my heart, in fact, literally attached to my chest…..
    Be well.

  2. Pingback: Psychology of coercion | Annotary

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