©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

RIGHT AND WRONG WAYS TO INFLUENCE PEOPLE

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

This Rock

2002

Influence is an important dimension of communion between persons. The fact that one person can exert an influence on another is an essential type of contact between human beings. It surpasses the mere knowledge people have of each other as well as the dialogue that takes place between them. There are many ways and methods of influencing others and being influenced by them. Which are compatible with the dignity of the human being, dealing with man as a person and not as an object, a pawn?

 

The Wrong Ways

 

Terror

Those animated by an evil zeal can gain power by intimidating people into submission through fear. Communism and Nazism developed this method into a diabolical art and thereby succeeded in dominating millions of people reduced to puppets by paralyzing fear. The abomination of this method of influencing people—to make them behave in certain ways or render them passive in the face of evils—is described masterfully by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, in which he claims that to conquer fear is the only way of successfully opposing this brutal way of controlling others.

To treat other human beings like animals that can be tamed is to trample on the dignity of the human person—an inevitable consequence of a materialist philosophy.

 

Brainwashing

More subtle but also more insidious are attempts to influence people through brainwashing. Those who stoop to using it cannot possibly have the aim of helping others but rather aim to dominate them and exercise control over them.

Brainwashing is immoral even if the person using it is animated by good intentions aimed at implanting sound ideas into another person's mind. Should the goal be to, say, convert a criminal, it is never licit to do so by mechanically pounding certain ideas into his head, because that is a violation of his human dignity. Moreover, this method could never lead to real conversion. It is not an accident that neither Socrates nor Augustine, nor other persuaders like them, ever used this method.

Mass Manipulation

A similar indictment must be voiced against another method that is, unfortunately, also used in the free world. The method aims less at influencing people to accept certain ideas than at getting them to act in a specific way or create cravings and needs in them. This is done in such a way that they are treated like marionettes, and they do not realize that they are being victimized. This method uses psychological insights to treat people as things, to bypass their reason and free will. The manipulator does not appeal to people's reason by presenting them with ideas that could convince them; rather, he appeals to emotion and passion to get the result he desires.

This kind of manipulation is practiced by dictators whose people are subjected to ubiquitous statues and posters that glorify their oppressors. It is also practiced by the advertising industry, which makes millions convincing people that the unnecessary is necessary.

The more the spiritual center in man is bypassed, along with clear knowledge and free will, the more illicit it will be. This is true regardless of whether the aims are good or evil, whether the result is simply profitable or is something valuable in itself. This kind of influence can never lead to good actions or moral improvement. Rather, it thwarts a fully personal approach and destroys man's freedom. In this regard, C. S. Lewis went so far as to write, "Man's conquest of nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions and billions of men.'"

 

Drugs

Another form of illegitimate influence involves altering a person's spiritual sphere through drugs. The use of drugs, of course, can be legitimate and valuable. They serve people well when they relieve bodily pain, help them to fall asleep, or lower blood pressure. But drugs become illicit when they are used to influence man's spiritual realm. Feelings of joy, calm, or enthusiasm by their very nature should be conscious, meaningful responses to a good and motivated by knowledge of this good. To create these feelings artificially, without their having any genuine good as their object, is to manipulate a person, even oneself. The club drug ecstasy, for example, is a caricature of authentic joy. It promises people a shortcut to delight, bypassing their spiritual self. The result is a mere immanent feeling, a meaningless pleasant state stripped of content.

 

Sensitivity Training

Sensitivity training is a depersonalizing, mechanical exploitation. It tries the only legitimate channels of human growth: knowledge and free will. It combines intrusion with radical materialism, circumventing man’s dignity as an image of God. It is absurd to imagine that holding the hand of a stranger for a long time, embracing him, and kissing him can achieve communion with him, let alone authentic love. All types of love, whether spousal, parental, filial, brotherly, or friendship, can blossom only when motivated by the ''lovableness'' of the other persons. Friendship with another develops because of the  lovableness of his personality, convictions, talents, and character — not by repeated physical contact. Valid responses presuppose knowledge of other persons, arising from their internal beauty. Not only is it nonsense that touching another body can evoke love; for normal persons it is repulsive.

 

Equally nonsensical is the idea that these physical contacts can establish a community, or even a community consciousness. Both can be built only through an objective realm of goods that have a unifying power and bring individuals together in a genuine and organic fashion and directed in common. The Toronto Vineyard, for example, begins with using psychological means to create an artificial enthusiasm: "holy laughter," shouting, and screaming followed by barking, neighing, and mewing, and ending by throwing oneself on the  floor, embracing one another, and thus believing that genuine love and communion have been achieved because of the intensity of feelings that have been triggered virtually automatically. Some people fall prey to it because they are incapable of distinguishing between fake and real. With this comes the illusion that such contact can lead to a bona fide interest in the welfare of others, engendering a sympathy and love for them.

 

Slogans

Slogans — especially those designed to mask or distort the reality of what they convey — are rampant. "Death with Dignity," "pro-choice," "homophobia,"  "elitism," and "sexism" are examples. Once largely the province of politics, today they are epidemic in all domains of human life and win. Sent from people who fail to recognize that they are being manipulated and are reacting to irrational feelings, unfounded sympathies, or antipathies. They replace arguments and proofs, skirting man's reason. In colleges and universities they foster academic deterioration, degrade learning, and anesthetize logic—all enemies of wisdom and truth. By acting on man's emotions, they promote intellectual inertia.

Some Catholics employ slogans to win assent to their agendas. Cleverly chosen words—Dark Ages, ghetto mentality, triumphalism, and paternalism, for example—can trigger a wild though unfounded enthusiasm or vicious hatred.

 

Braggadocio

Naive, innocent, or insecure people are easily convinced that tall-talk characters are real leaders who deserve their allegiance. The plethora of gurus that have sprouted over the past four decades may differ in what they purvey, but they have in common boundless self-assurance that leads the gullible to swallow whatever they proclaim, however outrageous and ill-founded, from predictions and visions to prophecies. The tricks vary, but all of them aim at impressing.

Hot-air merchants have always been around, but as our society is more and more losing its authentic religious footing and common sense, sects are proliferating at a fearful pace.

 

Ridicule

No great talent is required in order to destroy others by ridicule.  Almost everyone has some visible flaw, some quirk: perhaps clumsiness, lack of eloquence, a slight speech defect, a habit of repeating certain words, a physical feature easy to caricature, or a slip of the tongue or grammatical accuracy. Those intent on influencing public opinion by discrediting someone often employ derision. It was, for example, the poisonous tool used against Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, making him the butt of cruel jokes. His noble message was doomed.

 

Fashionable Ideas

For people who allow novelty to take precedence over fact, the word new has for them a fascination that dethrones the word true. When that happens, the question of truth no longer is raised, and intellectual sensationalism bars the door to valid knowledge. When new ideas are better ideas only because they are new, people have a feeling of superiority, of fresh vitality. They can look down with pity on the poor people still bound by the fetters of old, obsolete ideas, believing themselves to be free and independent. Swimming with the spirit of the time gives testimony to that.

Fashionable ideas are as contagious as infectious diseases, spreading over a society and winning the assent of millions who no longer even consider examining their validity. The phenomenon keeps repeating itself throughout history. In the fourth century, the whole world woke up Arian.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics clamored for radical changes and the abandonment of traditional doctrines and values. This general intoxication explains why many good people opposed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The word went out that artificial birth control (endorsed by Protestants in 1930) was going to become acceptable, priestly celibacy would be abolished, women would be ordained priests, and the Church’s "old fashioned" teachings on sexuality was to be rejected.

Not only are some people looking for moral relaxation of "severe" doctrines, but the feeling of being modern, up-to-date, and "alive" makes some people susceptible to these intellectual hurricanes. This sinking to a merely instinctive level is also an expression of a certain cowardice, as some people dread the thought of being looked down upon as foolish, locked in the Dark Ages while the crowd moves gloriously toward a better future. Men easily become slaves of their social image.

 

Ways of Doing It Right

 

Reason

The first legitimate way to influence others is by appealing to their reason (the approach of Socrates in fifth century Athens). This is how truth usually is transmitted from one generation to another, from one person to another. Truth can be communicated through information, by means of arguments, and especially by guiding another to have insights into self evident truths that everyone is capable of perceiving, though many—whether because of sloth or prejudice—never grasp.

Many heresies have been defeated by rational arguments. Think, for example, of the extraordinary success of St. Dominic in fighting the Albigensian heresy. Thousands were converted by the truth of his arguments coupled with the power of his eloquence. Again and again in the Church's history, God sends us men he has endowed with remarkable minds, a love for truth, and an eloquence that brought innumerable sheep into the fold.

 

Moral Education

The same applies to moral education. Every man is given the capacity to understand moral values—for example, that abortion is morally illicit. Educators and evangelists should avoid imposing acceptance on their pupils but rather try to persuade them, either by guiding their spiritual sight to perceive what is self-evident or by arguments, so that in the end they will recognize on their own the truth of what they are being taught.

Truth is always ours, but each one of us bears responsibility for our own errors and aberrations. Prejudices (and rare are those who are prejudice-free) should be overcome by means of rational arguments. This is achieved by helping people realize that their intellects are burdened by all sorts of ideas that are neither self-evident nor proven and may be simply false.

Many are unwilling to examine their prejudices because they are used to them, living as they do in a society where those prejudices are prevalent. The most dangerous prejudices are those people are not aware of, because they take for granted that their position is justified. Yet it should be evident that to "pre-judge"—that is, to judge before one has taken the opportunity of examining the validity of a fact—is bound to lead to error.

 

Disclosing Authentic Values

Another legitimate means of influence is disclosing to others authentic values such as truth, beauty, and moral goodness— by encouraging them to read great books and get acquainted with great music and works of art. Those of us who have been blessed to be raised in a Catholic country and have been exposed from our very youth to the beauty of churches, the greatness of religious paintings and sculptures, and the sublime beauty of great music, have been influenced in the most beneficial way. Those who have tasted true beauty will, later in life (as prophesied by Plato) instinctively reject what is ugly or vulgar.

How many people have found their way to the Church by reading great books that opened their minds and hearts to truth? Ask a person what he reads, and you gain a fairly adequate idea of who he is. He who refuses to read John Henry Cardinal Newman and devours Friedrich Nietzsche aheady has made a choice that will influence him in the wrong direction.  

The educator is called upon to help those confined to his care to discover great and noble literature, listen to classical music, and get acquainted with noble works of art. These are important facets of the great task called education. More than one obstacle stands in the way of perceiving values (especially moral values and morally relevant values), the obvious reason being that these values always imply a call to live up to their demand.

 

Introducing Noble Personalities

Along with great and noble ideas, people should be acquainted with great and noble personalities (a Socrates in the pagan world; saints in the Catholic world). This kind of acquaintance is likely to move people's hearts and challenge them to imitate these men and women. How many have found their way into the Church by "meeting" Catholic saints through books?

Hand in hand with this affective response to great and noble personalities is an awareness of how far we are from these moral heroes — and the desire and courage to remove the obstacles in us preventing us from walking on the same path. The desire to imitate those who are worth imitating is a powerful incentive toward virtue.

 

Love and Understanding

The way in which influence is to be exercised is not through pompous dogmatism but through love and understanding. By this we do not mean softness and compromise—so fashionable today—but firm gentleness and gentle firmness. The challenge for educators, teachers, parents, and evangelists is great: They must combine an ardent love for truth and authentic values and a loving interest in the welfare of those confided to their care.

Those worthy of these roles should not aim at dominating and imposing their will on others (this is what takes place when training animals), but guiding people to do what they should do. Those who are to be educated should feel the loving and personal concern of those educating them; the educator should combine a personal interest in those in their charge with a total devotion to truth. The personality of the educator is all important.

 

Rightful Authority

Inherent in the exercise of legitimate authority is the influence it exerts. There are two types of authority: theoretical authority and practical authority. The first refers to what a person thinks, the second to how he acts. Human beings can exercise only the latter. There is only one absolute theoretical authority: that possessed by God, which he has delegated to his bride, the Catholic Church. Leaders exercising legitimate authority can command what their subjects should do but never what they should think. This is precisely the horror of totalitarian regimes that seek to dominate the minds of their subjects and use every possible illegitimate means to achieve that aim. It is the most brutal intrusion into the souls of men.

Parents have authority over their children as long as they are minors. They can command and prohibit. Children owe their parents obedience. This type of authority is rooted in the nature of an office. G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book What Is Wrong with the World that "the colonel is not obeyed because he is the best man but because he is the colonel." All legitimate authority is a partial representation of God. One day, those exercising this authority will have to give an account to God, whether this authority is of a secular or a religious nature.

Partial authority is given to men not to dominate but to serve the good of those confined to their care. By its very nature, it is restricted to certain domains. As soon as a person having authority trespasses the God Given limits of the reign of his competence, it becomes, ipso facto, illegitimate. Legitimate authority is binding; illegitimate authority is not.

Authority also can be used in a different sense, for example, when we say that a man is an authority in a particular field of knowledge. In such cases, the persons who have authority have no power, yet it would be unwise to reject the information that they share with us. Common sense tells us to accept the diagnosis of a medical doctor, even though we cannot verify its validity. In such cases, it is wise to have some guarantee that the authority of this person is based on valid scholarship backed up by objective accomplishments. But to go to a specialist and upon hearing his diagnosis say to him, "I totally reject your views" would be contrary to common sense. Authority, in this context, clearly has a different meaning.

For Catholics there is one absolute theoretical authority in matters of faith and morals: Peter has been given the keys. This fact alone can explain why the Catholic Church has kept free from errors in the doctrines handed down from Christ and the apostles. Through the centuries, innumerable attacks have been launched against the teaching of the Church, but each time, the bark of Peter has kept on course, thanks to papal authority. The tragedy of Protestantism is· precisely that there is no ultimate theoretical authority governing its doctrine. For this reason, it was inevitable that since the sixteenth century it has split into thousands of denominations and sects.

For a Catholic, it is obligatory to accept the authority of the papacy and resist the temptation to think that we know better. Intellectual humility makes people more intelligent. To be Catholic means to believe that in spite of the frailty and weakness of some leaders, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, who guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This belief is the rock upon which Catholic faith is based. Therefore the theoretical influence that the Church exercises upon the faithful should be not only accepted but welcomed gratefully. What a blessing to have a Shepherd who can prevent his sheep from wandering into poisonous pastures. To reject the beneficial influence of the Church's teaching is not only unwise; it is morally wrong and clearly endangers the souls of rebellious sheep.

 

Conclusion

 

Being a creature, man is essentially a receptive being. Receptive, though, should not be confused with passive. The two are radically different. Passivity means to be acted upon. Receptivity implies a collaborational willingness to learn, to be enriched, to let another break the bonds of the narrow prison in which subjectivism imprisons us. It implies a willingness to learn. The terrible mistake made by Immanuel Kant is his claim that in acquiring knowledge man is a doer. Not true. With authentic knowledge, man opens himself to fruitfulness by letting an object reveal itself to him. Artistic inspirations also have this character, a gift that a genuine artist gratefully accepts. The grasping of moral obligations is also receptive in character. Man must receive in order to give. It belongs to man's very nature to be influenced, to be elevated and molded by legitimate influences. Inevitably the one who declares his moral, intellectual, and affective independence will fall prey to toxic influences and will not even be aware of this slavery. To refuse to submit to a legitimate authority actually means to bow to illegitimate authorities. The choice is not whether to be influenced or not; the question is whether we choose to be influenced by legitimate or illegitimate sources.

Today this question acquires particular importance, because never in the history of the world have people been so unremittingly exposed to illegitimate influences. The mind-boggling development of mass media in the last half century has changed the spiritual climate of the world. Wrong theories have always been propagated, but never before could they be aired to millions of human beings who await, often eagerly, to swallow their messages. Never before have such attacks been made against common sense. Today, totally incompetent people—because they control the news media—can put in doubt the most self-evident truths, such as the murder of a child being morally evil. Confused reasoning, inaccurate facts, slogans, and exclusive concern for what is immediately more advantageous blind people's minds. If the world ever again embraces sanity, as Chesterton hoped, it is likely that history would view the twentieth century as what Chesterton called the "century of uncommon nonsense." In order to wage war on illegitimate forms of influence, it is more important than ever to use only arms of light-that is, legitimate ways of influencing others. It is tempting to try to check the flood of errors by using the same methods adopted by the enemy. But every Christian living his faith knows that prayer and personal sanctification are the most powerful Weapons that God has given us. God alone can conquer, but believers should humbly put their talents at his disposal. As St. Ignatius put it: "We should act as if victory depended upon our own efforts, but we should never forget that to him alone is the victory due."