coercion and consent

coercion and consent July 14, 2011


consciousness is the first step towards emancipation (Fairclough)

Every institution is concerned with social control. The means of this control is a mixture of these two: coercion and consent. Either the institution exerts its agenda by force or it legitimizes its agenda by getting the consent of the people. This consent is achieved by employing language in a strategic way.

An institution, sometimes unconsciously, exerts power by projecting its beliefs and practices as “common-sense”. This is ideology.

Here is an example I came across in Norman Fairclough’s excellent book, Language and Power:

An example would be how the conventions for a traditional type of consultation between doctors and patients embody ‘common-sense’ assumptions which treat authority and hierarchy as natural– the doctor knows about medicine and the patent doesn’t; the doctor is in a position to determine how a health problem should be dealt with and the patient isn’t; it is right (and ‘natural’) that the doctor should make the decisions and control the course of the consultation and of the treatment, and that the patient should comply and cooperate; and so on.

The parallel between this example and relationships in the church is unmistakable. So, here are a couple of questions that we might apply to our own experience:

1. In what ways have you found language being used in such a way that you felt your independence, dignity and freedom were not respected? Can you remember specific instances?

2. Can you detect in your own language the embodiment of assumptions that legitimize an existing power, such as the church or your religion? Are you on the giving or receiving end of that power?

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  • I would say that the one term that I’ve had to grapple with in my recent past is “spiritual authority”. The concept, as it was described to me, that there are those that can discern more effectively (my authorities) what I am experiencing spiritually and that they have the authority to determine how I go forward with something or even if I accept or reject a concept. That it depends on their decisions not mine. Spiritual authority. It has been something I didn’t really consider too heavily in the past because I had no need to. Then when I started reading the Bible more carefully and starting to decide things for myself, it was flung at me to try to sway my actions and beliefs. I’ve decided that I’m not that keen on that term! At least used in such a manner as to strip any sense of direction from a person and using it as a way of control.

  • Tom

    Interesting thoughts here! I actually see that in the mental health setting, Fairclough’s example actually doesn’t work too well.

    With religion we are talking about ideologies and beliefs. In a sense this is quite separate from the example of power imbalance and physical health above. By this I mean that physical ailments tend not be as central to our sense of self as issues of the mind, i.e. we are not all experts on physical issues, but are GENERALLY experts where our sense of self & the will is involved.

    If the bridge to the desired outcome (are we talking behaviour change?) is mediated by our own unique belief system, then this issue of expert opinion can be a real problem, especially where belief and the ‘self’ is involved, as opposed to expert knowledge on medical/legal/other issues.

    Might we be bale to find a better example of a more belief-relevant power imbalance that exists? As opposed to physical health as implied above? We are each ‘little experts’ on ourselves, in general, but not medical/specialist issues as hinted in Fairclough’s example.

    Surely collaboration and open and honest discourse is the only way forward where issues of power imbalance meet issues of ideology/belief meet? Or else people will always feel obliged to follow the ‘expert’, whether it be vicar, salesman, psychiatrist, or nurse.

    Any thoughts anyone?

  • Patricia Hunt

    I hope this applies to your question, many times, sitting in services in a particular church, the Pastor would give a reprimand to the congregation, saying: “If you feel the urge to raise your hands and do not do it, then you are resisting the Holy Spirit.”

    The underlying assumption is, there must be raising of hands to prove the Spirit of God is evidently working. The trigger words are “resisting the Holy Spirit” — the ideology in this particular Church is based on outward signs of physical evidence of the Spirit of God, instead of the fruits of the Spirit, as proof of the Holy Spirit. Coercion is done using this language, group consents to the ideology of the outward physical show, and promotes idea of reacting to emotional urges as signs of Spirit, instead of reason and discernment.
    When these times happened, I would experience fear, shame and pressure to conform, pressure to please the “man of God”. I no longer attend that church.

  • We are constantyly reminded that we are free…in Christ.

    And that there is NOTHING that we HAVE to DO to be Christians.

    And then the pastor will often say, “Now that you DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING…what do you WANT to do?”

  • When I take my car for diagnosis and repair, I defer out of ignorance to the authorities. I don’t mess with stocks and bonds, but if I did–ignorant, as usual–I’d be doing some deferring. I’ve “taught” for about half a century. My authority in the classroom is coercive. I call it the Grade Gun. Do you think they’d respond otherwise to my so-called knowledge and somewhat charisma? No way. The whole institution is supported by ex-officious “authority”–the grade gun. “Church” – one might expect– would be “something else.” If not, what good is it?