Transcript for Colin McGinn on Mental Manipulation

Anne Strainchamps: Do you ever have the feeling that someone is messing with your mind? Playing games with you or deliberately confusing you? Well there's a name for that but we cant say it on the air. Philosopher Colin McGinn wrote an entire book about it but we cant say the title on the air either. I can tell you it rhymes with 'mind trucking' and that the subtitle is 'A Critique of Mental Manipulation.' So Colin, how do we talk about this? Is there a radio-friendly euphemism you like to use?

Colin McGinn: I used to call it MF. MFing.

Strainchamps: Ok, that works. We'll try that. What exactly is an MF?

McGinn: MF is a type of action that somebody performs on another person where they try to interfere with that person's mind, make them do things against their own best interest or against their own best reason in such a way to cause emotional upheaval.

Strainchamps: There are a bunch of different variations on this, though. That makes it sound very negative but you begin the book by describing at least a few ways in which MFing can be sort of pleasurable. Classic movies like "The Matrix" or "Fight Club" have a kind of mind-blowing twist ending.

McGinn: Exactly, yes, so there's a positive and negative species of the MF. I think that the negative kinds are the more dominant ones and the more interesting ones. But at the same time there do seem to be cases where people speak of being MFd by a film that they liked very much. It means one in which their expectations were led in a certain direction and they firmly believed that certain things were going on in a film and then suddenly, it's like "The Usual Suspects," something happens that upsets those expectations. And they find it thrilling as a kind of frison of surprise. Sometimes it can be quite extreme where a person suddenly reverses everything that they thought before. So, there are the positive kinds of MF. I talk about them in the course of the book. Even philosophy I describe as a little bit of MF going on in that because it can lead to these, in this case, pleasurable or intellectually stimulating upheavals of thought. Most people enjoy that but its possible, of course, to find those things distressing. At the same time many people find skepticism distressing but many don't.

Strainchamps: So is this why you got interested in this subject, from a philosophical standpoint?

McGinn: Yes, very much from a philosophical standpoint. In fact, the specific reason was I gave a lecture in New York many years ago now about the mind-body problem that i was proposing, a certain kind of view which was found by many people to be rather revolutionary and surprising. Somebody afterwords said to me, "That was a real MF." And i never actually heard the phrase before and I instantly knew what they meant.

Strainchamps: That's a dubious compliment

McGinn: I knew what was in the lecture. I could see what they had in mind and I thought, "what a strange phrase," and it lingered around, knocked around in my mind for a while and then for some reason one day I thought, "it may be good to look at this phrase and spell out whats behind it." That's how i got interested in it Strainchamps: it is a strange and kind of interesting phrase but I'm curious why you find it philosophically interesting. McGinn: Well its philosophically interesting in somewhat the same way that BS is interesting. you're trying to say whats involved in say- Harry Frankfurt was interested in what was involved in the difference between lying and BSing. Lying is a case where a person intentionally get another person to believe a falsehood by making that person think that you, the speaker, believes the thing that you're lying about. BSing, if you had just looked at it without much analysis you would think its much the same thing. But actually its different. So Frankfurt pointed out that really BS is having somebody who is indifferent to the truth, just uses the truth or uses the false either way in order to get whatever they want to do, which is usually to create a good impression. So the idea of the MF is similar in that respect, it involves the use of falsity. So I use the example of Shakespeare's
"Othello" where Iago was convincing Othello many false things about his wife, Desdemona. So you might think "Is MFing then just a type of lying," but no, its a little more interesting than that because it involves particularly the idea of disturbing somebody's emotions and then maybe even driving them into a kind of breakdown, which happens with Othello.

Strainchamps: When I think of MF, the term, I tend to think its somebody playing mind games with you. Somebody's messing with your head in a way that is deliberately manipulative or deliberately deceptive. There's something a little sinister about it.

McGinn: Exactly, these are synonyms, aren't they, of the MF. Playing with one's head, messing with somebody's mind and so on. The MF is a much more emphatic phrase, a sort of pungent phrase that captures, I think, some of the sort of immorality of the negative MF. playing with somebody's head sounds like kind of a nice thing to do but if you're thinking about very despicable propaganda, trying to stereotype a race or something of that sort, Nazi propaganda. Then of course to say that you're playing with peoples heads seems very much and understatement.

Strainchamps: So there's something aggressive about it

McGinn: Aggressive about it, exactly. It's aggressiveness directed to the mind. It's like raping the mind almost. It's manipulation but even that is a relatively weak word. Assaulting the mind in some way. That's really i think what the word MF tries to bring out. The strong character of this kind of manipulation.

Strainchamps: Whats the first historical case you can think of involving MFing?

McGinn: Well as I said, in my book you can take it back to Plato and the sophists where really the idea of Sophistry is very like the idea of the MF. In the case of Plato and the Sophists, the Sophists were people who rented out their skills in convincing people of various things if you're on trial for something or something of that sort. You'd hire one of these sophists and they would come in to defend you and they could use any means, whatever. They would manipulate the jury, they would appeal to prejudices, they would use fallacies, they would use any trick in the book in order to win the case. It's much the same now with law. the idea of going by the truth and not manipulating the jury, no lawyer does that. they do whatever they can. So Plato found that rather deplorable and he wanted to advocate strict reason. In other words you only persuade people of things by appealing to logic, evidence and so forth. So he was opposed to the Sophists and I think ever since Plato there's been that division within western civilization between the Platonists who believe in reason and the sophists who are more like politicians or lawyers who use any emotional means, push any buttons, play with any minds, whatever phrase we use in order to achieve a certain end. In other words they don't really care about the truth and success for them is a matter just of winning.

Strainchamps: It's the concept of spin.

McGinn: The concept of spin is very similar. I think that's a good analogy. We use a strange word to try to capture it. Spin is what a ball does when it goes through the air. So we have this idea of political spin where you're trying to create an impression. The idea is not to present objectively the evidence to the audience. The idea is to sort of trick them into something, manipulate them, that kind of idea.

Strainchamps: In "Othello," one of the things that was so sinister and mind boggling about what Iago does to Othello is he could have just killed him. If he didn't like him, they were out on battlefields together, he could have arranged an accident any old time but instead he kind of destroys him from within by making him question everything about his life and his wife.

McGinn: That's right, that's one of the puzzles and interpretations of that play, the question, "Why does he hate Othello to begin with," and nobody can really answer that question. It's not really clear in the play, why hate Othello. But if he does hate him he could kill him but that's not what Iago is interested in. I think the reason Iago is not interested in it, Iago has a kind of pride in his intellectual and to assert his intellectual power and to assert his intellectual power over Othello is more important to him than just to stab him in the back. That's not his style. he enjoys the sense of having this control over Othello's mind and that means he's a superior person to Othello mentally. i think that is the main reason for it. I think a lot of people who are systematic liars have the same motivation. They realize it takes a certain amount of skill to do it and they just enjoy outwitting other people and deceiving other people. And sometimes I think that they do it for its own sake, they may not particularly value the aim of the lie, but the very act and process of it, the get a kick out of that.

Strainchamps: At the milder end of the spectrum there are professions now in which people get paid large amounts of money to create more and more MFs in advertising. Do you think that there is more MFing than there was in the past?

McGinn: I think there is more and the reason really has to do with the growth of media, there's just more means for manipulating people. I think television has been one of the great MF inventions of all time. Advertising, of course, is as you say another case of it. Although advertising gets a bad rap. There's nothing wrong with telling people what products you have and selling it to them. It's just the means you use to do that. I think there's quite a bit more. I think the internet has really intensified it because people now are reading many hours a day and looking at their screens. They're much more easily manipulated because there's no quality control in the kind of rhetoric that they're being fed. I think there's a lot of it going on. But on the other hand the point I make in my book because there's a multiplicity of voices, one voice can try to question another. So somebody comes up with something on the internet, some conspiracy theory lets say, another person can some along trying to puncture that. Whereas I think in the old days there was more of a monopoly of the means of persuasion. Of course all totalitarian states want a monopoly of the media. Then you don't have the opportunity for competition between different sources of information. So on the other hand there's more because there's more media but on the other hand it dilutes the effect because there's this competition.

Strainchamps: Colin McGinn is a philosopher and the author of a book with a title we cannot say on air but rhymes with 'mind trucking.' If you have questions or comments about anything you heard you can find us on Facebook or Twitter you can post a message at our website at It's always nice to know what you think.

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