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August 13, 2009


Joyless Moralist

"Ensuring" is only in one of the many listed formulations, and even then I'm pretty sure the Free Online Dictionary hasn't engaged in a serious consideration of epistemic certainty. In the context of a discussion of pedagogy, it wouldn't be strange at all to say, "A good way to ensure your students will use the Writing Center is to make it a part of their grade." The probability of it working is not 100%, but if the strategy is generally effective, that would be perfectly acceptable ordinary usage.

Also look up some legal definitions. This is where I got the idea of legitimacy, but I think it also makes a lot of sense if you consider how we use the word.

I have never before heard the word "coerce" used in reference to a policeman putting a suspect into a car, even forcefully. I've never heard it used of a parent putting a child in a crib to prevent them from running away at bedtime, or of a dog put on a chain. I have, on the other hand, heard it used of the sort of case I mentioned before -- a sexual harassment case. The boss threatens to fire an employee if she refuses to have an affair with him. She can, of course, still refuse, and be fired. He hasn't literally left her a choice between compliance and death, nor has he physically forced her, but it's still perfectly normal to call this "coercion". I've also heard of blackmail referred to as a kind of "coercion." It just doesn't necessarily imply physical force.

I think it's just beyond question that the word can properly be used to refer to things besides physical force or what you call "breaking the will" so completely that the subject is literally incapable of refusing. I really think my idea about "legitimacy" is inherent in when we actually think to use the word, or regard it as appropriate, but that's a more subtle point that might be debated. I also think, though, that the concept of *indirect* application of pressure tends to be inherent in our use of "coerce"; we're more likely to use words like "force" or "compel" when we're literally talking about a direct application of physical pressure. But in any case, your explanation doesn't at all properly address even the Free Online Dictionary's definition of coercion, let alone all the different possible definitions.

Nathan Smith

This is silly. I'm not convinced by JM's semantic arguments, but who cares, anyway? If JM wants to use the word "compel" to describe what I (and I think most people, but whatever) mean by "coerce," that's fine. I object to "compelling" people to stay in the countries they were born in against their will. I object generically to arguments that say: "I do not wish to do X, but A should be 'compelled' to do X for his own good."


Look, Nathan, you have to understand that people's "will" is shaped by many factors. The person whose dearest wish in life is to come to the US will probably find a way to do it. Fine. I have no objection. But laws and borders and understandings about citizenship shape what people envision for themselves and I think that is a good thing. Can't we end this discussion?

Nathan Smith

May justice prevail.


For what it's worth, I agree almost entirely with Nathan (and I bet Nato is inclined towards his position as well).

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