What is Coercion?

Note: I am using an improved definition of the word 'coercion'. There's no dictionary word for exactly the concept I have in mind.

Sometimes unsolved problems hurt or distress people, and other times they don't. Ambiguity between these states of affairs is common. But it's an important distinction; some problems cause suffering, and some don't. By 'coercion' I refer only to problems that hurt, and to all problems that hurt. The purpose of the word is to avoid the ambiguity.

Suffering is always mental. When people have physical pain, sometimes they mind it, and sometimes they don't. If they don't mind it they aren't suffering, and if they do mind they are. The issue to focus on is whether the person's mind is hurting.

When a person suffers, what's going on inside his mind? What kind of process is it? It's an unpleasant one which often manifests itself with noticeable outward actions. But how exactly does it work? What causes it or not? What sort of interventions would prevent or alleviate it? What sort of lifestyles could avoid or reduce it?

When people's minds are hurt it's coercion. It's psychological pain. These three equivalent statements make it more precise:

Coercion is the psychological state of enacting one idea or impulse while a conflicting impulse is still active in one's mind.
Coercion is the state of two or more personality strands being expressed in different options of a single choice such that one cannot see a way to choose without forsaking some part of his personality.
A state of coercion is one in which a person has two active theories that conflict, and is being forced to enact one prior to resolving the conflict.

To understand these, one has to know what an "idea" or "theory" or "personality strand" is. They are all the same thing — approximately autonomous pieces of one's mind — which is explained here.

The idea being described here could be stated as "acting against your own will". It has a contradictory element to it. And it's not a matter of abstract contradictions, but involves some kind of immediate, practical component. I may be unsure about some philosophical issue, but that's not going to hurt me unless my life, right now, depends on the issue. Coercion also involves time constraints; if there's no hurry, I'm not going to be hurt because I can just think about what to do more, and even do other things in the meantime. Imaginary time constraints would suffice, though, as long as I believed they were real and felt pressure.

In the first statement, the word 'active' is crucial. We have conflicting ideas and impulses in our minds all the time. But often we set them aside, temporarily. When I'm running, I set aside my impulse to bike: it's inactive. Thus, people who like biking are not in constant coercion when running. But occasionally, I may really want to bike, but run anyway, and suffer. That's coercion. Why don't I just stop running and bike? Because I also actively want to run, so I'd suffer either way. The running theory and the biking theory are both active, at the same time, and there is no trivial way to resolve the conflict. I actively want to do both, now, but I can't.

The second statement focusses on the idea that we value many different things, but can only choose to do one thing right now. I need to find something to do which doesn't violate my values. I can run happily if I adopt a theory like, "I will run now, and I can bike another time." That doesn't forsake biking. But if I can't see any way to make peace between my theories, and propose something to do which they are all compatible with, then coercion will result. In general, this isn't too hard. My valuing biking doesn't involve wanting to do it all the time. My theory about biking is more reasonable than that, and only makes me want to bike part of the time. But sometimes we are in a tough situation, or sometimes we have theories which are more demanding, and then coercion is harder to avoid.

The third statement is a mix of the first two. The point is that there is a conflict, and to avoid coercion I need to wholeheartedly endorse one single way to proceed, and if I can't do that fast enough, and just go ahead with something that part of me hates, then I will suffer.

Each of these statements presents coercion as an issue within one mind. However, there can also be a conflict between ideas in two different people. If they try to do something together without at least one of the ideas being changed, that will cause coercion for at least one of the people. That's because he has an active idea contrary to what they are doing, while they do it.

Understanding the nature of suffering is a good first step in reducing or eliminating it from yourself, from your family, or from the world.

By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 |

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