Coercion With a Smile


Within corporate culture and government agency PR, Orwellian “doublespeak” has become a common way of disguising coercion. Can a “benefit” be beneficial if it’s compulsory? Does an “incentive” do any good if it’s actually a threat?

Employees may not be able to refuse the “offer” of overtime, or the “aid” of close monitoring of every small action. The unemployed have mandatory “assistance” and “incentives”, including termination of their payments if they don’t conduct their “jobseeking” in exactly the prescribed way.

Many long-standing compulsory benefits (eg free compulsory education and the TV licence) have a benign appearance, and are largely accepted and unquestioned. This must indicate, to those who use doublespeak, that it’s a highly effective public relations strategy.

“Giving you the opportunity” probably means:
“Do as we say, or suffer disadvantageous consequences”

Marketing and PR people are aware of the western cultural bias towards “self-determination” (ie individualist self-control). They know we’re more likely to yield to their persuasions if we believe we’re personally in control and not being coerced – when we sense coercion we respond with resentment and resistance. Corporations and government thus make frequent use of self-determining words (eg “opportunity”, “incentive” and “challenge”) as tools of resentment management.

The technique is to let you believe you have a free choice – when, in fact, all you have is a dilemma (a “free choice” implies at least one favourable option; a dilemma means each option is unfavourable). The language of the typical workplace is saturated with self-determining words, which hide coercion by disguising dilemmas as choices. In such environments, employees may actually come to believe they are performing repetitive, mindless tasks eight hours a day, out of personal choice, rather than economic dilemma.

“take on the challenge” means, in a work context:
“choose between stress-related illness resulting from overwork, or unemployment”

Resentment management is a subset of “damage limitation”. Damage limitation plays a massive role in advertising – many large organisations use commercials, not for selling products, but for deflecting some of the hostility, suspicion and anxiety the public feels towards them. For example, surveys continually show that people are hostile towards banks and other financial institutions. Nice, friendly “family” adverts are used to counteract this tendency, often with no attempt to sell any specific services or products.