The word of a reluctant convert


Recent political events suggest that there is more political, religious, and moral division than many had previously realized. Since people on all sides think they’re in the right, mitigating division is in everyone’s interest. But overcoming division requires changing minds, and changing minds requires advocacy. These considerations raise important questions in the epistemology of advocacy. In particular, who are the best advocates? After making some general remarks about the epistemology of advocacy, I explore the thought, found in Berkeley’s dialogue Alciphron, that an important variable to consider when assessing advocates is whether they are converts. I argue that this is indeed an important variable to consider, as certain kinds of converts can avoid some attempts to dismiss advocates. However, non-converts score better than converts in other respects. I conclude by suggesting that empirical work must be done to assess the role conversion plays in assessing advocates.

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  1. 1.

    This note is for readers familiar with Alciphron. After the quoted passage above, Crito says it cannot be “imagined that the testimony of men, who were not converted themselves, should be the likeliest to convert others” (318). This might seem further reason to attribute to Crito endorsement of the claim that converts are most likely to convert others. However, this isn’t what Berkeley intended. Crito makes this claim as part of his argument that what Alciphron really wants, namely, testimony on behalf of Christianity from “Jews and heathens” (317) is unreasonable. Crito is saying, reasonably, that the testimony of such people on behalf of Christianity is unlikely to convert others to Christianity, since these testifiers reject Christianity themselves.

  2. 2.

    Sometimes we say that a person is an advocate for another person. I’m only interested in this sort of advocacy insofar as it bears on advocacy of ideas, doctrines, etc.

  3. 3.

    Quoted from Anderson (2010: p. 96). What follows is inspired by Anderson’s analysis of democracy as a mode of collective inquiry, but I don’t intend to endorse her commitments concerning democracy here.

  4. 4.

    Baldwin’s (1963: p. 294) brief account of “integration” also highlights its social epistemological role: “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

  5. 5.

    For contemporary evidence of this claim, consider President Trump’s comments on the violence “on many sides” amid the conflict between White Nationalist protesters and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, VA. Or consult the many misguided anti-Black Lives Matter memes on the Internet.

  6. 6.

    I’m not claiming that these are always, or even actually were, the most effective choices to make, or that these choices succeeded as far as they did on their own. A prominent analysis of the success of the Civil Rights Movement counts the threat of violence from militant groups as a significant factor.

  7. 7.

    I draw on Nguyen’s (2018) analysis. See also Jamieson and Capella (2008: pp. 75–90, 140–237).

  8. 8.

    Why is this the epistemology of advocacy? It’s a type of “systems-oriented social epistemology,” in Goldman’s (2010) sense. My project involves making comparative evaluations of alternative ways of arranging systems that aim to secure certain epistemic outcomes. These outcomes include levels of controversy, distribution of knowledge or true belief, uptake of testimony, and so on. There’s no particular system (e.g., law, science, or journalism) at issue. Instead, at this level, the epistemology of advocacy is more general. It asks how any institution or organization that aims at advocacy should be arranged. My specific question concerns variables surrounding converts. Are advocacy efforts, organizations, institutions (or what have you) spearheaded by converts more likely than others to achieve certain epistemic goals? (Perhaps another side of the same coin concerns, rather than the promotion of epistemic goals, the mitigation, reduction, or elimination of certain pernicious social epistemological arrangements, like echo chambers.) But isn’t advocacy just about inculcating belief, rather than about fostering genuine epistemic outcomes? Although advocacy surely can be divorced from epistemic aims, clearly it needn’t be. The “one-sided” nature of advocacy efforts in the Civil Rights movement doesn’t detract from the protests’ social epistemological (truth-related) function to educate (as Young says) or to force whites to face reality (as Baldwin says).

  9. 9.

    For the roles hesitation, attractiveness, and likeability can play in persuasion, see Smith and Shaffer (1995), Chaiken (1979, 1980), Petty et al. (1983), Cialdini (1984), and Chaiken and Eagly (1983).

  10. 10.

    See Brennan (2016: pp. 62–67) for a nice overview of empirical work on problems with the deliberative democracy model. Also, Brennan (2016) and Somin (2013) extensively document and nicely explain the phenomenon of “rational ignorance” in the political sphere. Roughly, thinking carefully about many social and political issues doesn’t pay. The implication for the epistemology of advocacy is that since resistance to advocacy is cheap and will be based on heuristics, those heuristics need to be identified if resistance is to be preempted or mitigated. Thanks to anonymous referee for suggesting this connection.

  11. 11.

    For a nice overview, see Saul (2003).

  12. 12.

    It is obviously an empirical question who is likely to get more uptake in any situation. However, the conceptual point about these two questions would hold even if the suggestion in the example is mistaken.

  13. 13.

    See Fricker (2007) for a seminal discussion, and McKinnon (2016) for a recent overview.

  14. 14.

    See Petty et al. (2003) for a broad overview of research on attitude change and persuasion in general, as well as discussion of variables related elaboration likelihood. It’s worth noting that an alternative explanation of Cooper et al.’s data is that when the jury members understood the message they found it less convincing because they were able to evaluate. In any event this case is merely illustrative. The general point that the ELM predicts that people sometimes prefer peripheral route processing holds regardless of how these data are interpreted.

  15. 15.

    One might challenge the idea that advocacy can change beliefs. Don’t we know from work on belief polarization [e.g., Lord et al. (1979)] that people only become more confident in their strongly held beliefs when they encounter (non-conclusive) challenges to those beliefs? I think we don’t know that. People do often resist challenges to their beliefs. But there is evidence that the strength of people’s deeply held beliefs does in certain circumstances at least temporarily reduce when challenged. See Kaplan et al. (2016). Tormala et al. (2006) are also relevant. As long as polarization evidence is sufficiently mixed and as long we lack better options, advocacy needs to be taken seriously.

  16. 16.

    These are the sorts of conversions that occupy James (1902). Arguing that they are of secular interest, he (1902: p. 188) writes: “Were we writing the story of the mind from the purely natural history point of view, with no religious interest whatever, we should still have to write down man’s liability to sudden and complete conversion as one of his most curious peculiarities.”

  17. 17.

    See DiPaolo and Simpson (2016) for a sketch of what those indoctrinating practices might look like.

  18. 18.

    There are plenty of reasons people might have for wanting to avoid adopting certain beliefs. At least part of the explanation of Lewis’s case seems to be that believing in God felt incredibly burdensome in his youth. If this is right, this is an instance of a more general, and I’d wager fairly widespread, cause of resistance to belief, namely, that adopting the belief would undermine important life plans. Another might be an instance of the desire to accurately believe that the world isn’t less just than it already seems to be. This might describe Michelle Alexander’s case, which I discuss below.

  19. 19.

    To be clear: the reluctant convert isn’t someone who, once converted, still has her doubts about her new worldview. The reluctance refers to her stance toward her worldview before adopting it. She wanted not to adopt it. This manifested itself in critical resistance. For this reason, it might be preferable to refer to this kind of convert as a “resistant convert.” I opt for the “reluctant convert” label mainly to stick with Lewis’s (and Michelle Alexander’s) language. Nothing substantive would be lost if the reader substituted ‘resistant’ for ‘reluctant’ throughout. Thanks to anonymous referee.

  20. 20.

    Contrast the reluctant convert with a totally impartial convert who is driven only by an interest in believing the truth. Isn’t the latter much more respectable from an epistemic standpoint? Why should the reluctant convert enjoy any exalted epistemic status? As I’m envisioning the reluctant convert, she engages in roughly the same intellectual practices that the impartial, solely truth-driven convert does. They both carefully and critically survey a wide variety of considerations for and against their new worldview. Moreover, although I can only briefly discuss this here, I don’t see a necessary link between the epistemic status of an agent or her beliefs and the desires or interests that guide her inquiry. There are epistemic benefits to being driven by resistance. The resistant inquirer may avoid gullibility. She may also survey a wider range of hypotheses than the truth-driven inquirer. And there can be epistemic costs to being driven solely by a desire to believe the truth. Someone who’s very confident she’s discovered the truth and who wants nothing more than to believe the truth may develop closed-minded tendencies, refusing to expose herself to what she considers misleading sources of information. What matters epistemically is how one conducts inquiry. For my purposes, the reluctant convert uses similar methods of inquiry to those an impartial truth-driven convert would use. So, as I’ve described the reluctant convert, I don’t consider there to be much of an epistemic difference between these two characters.

  21. 21.

    This section catalogues a number of strategies related to intellectual background that may be involved in source derogation. Thus, it may be of interest independently of the conversion issue.

  22. 22.

    For discussion of how this evidence fits into the larger theoretical landscape surrounding attribution theory and attitude change, see Petty et al. (2003).

  23. 23.

    This declaration, first mentioned in Rousseau’s Confessions, was supposed to have taken place when a “great princess” was alerted to famine among peasants. It was meant to reflect the princess’s severe ignorance of the peasants’ circumstances. The interested reader might read the brief Wikipedia article: Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this note.

  24. 24.

    Cialdini (1984) also emphasizes the role “liking” can play in persuasion. As we tend to like people like ourselves, any sort of mutual identification may benefit the advocate. But audiences are even sometimes more willing to receive persuasion attempts from people who know people the audiences like even if the audience doesn’t know the advocate herself. Thus, the “liking-effect” needn’t be based in proximate liking. Thus, to the extent that advocates are more likely to know (and mention) people their audiences like they may be more effective.

  25. 25.

    Is it a stretch to call this a conversion? Maybe. This issue may not be as central to her overall perspective as other issues (e.g., metaphysical or religious issues). Still, if we believe her, we should take this to be a major shift in her perspective. She thought the “new Jim Crow” idea was crazy, and now she’s one of its most prominent defenders. As a substantial cognitive reorientation, that’s enough for my purposes.

  26. 26.

    Of course, the voluntaristic convert may be susceptible to some version of this charge, since the fact that she wanted to abandon her former worldview—that of her potential converts – may signal lack of understanding to the potential converts.

  27. 27.

    Often, converts emphasize the newness of what is seen and felt after their conversion. As James (1902: p. 202) writes, a “sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without is one of the commonest entries in [religious] conversion records.” For my purposes, what’s crucial is newness implies difference.

  28. 28.

    Another relevant example is the Allegory of the Cave. When the freed prisoner returns to the cave, his inability to identify the shadows causes the prisoners to ridicule him and think his eyes ruined.

  29. 29.

    In reference to the point about the Allegory of the Cave in fn. 28, imagine someone entering the cave for the first time. She’d be just as bad at identifying the shadows as the freed prisoner who returned to the cave. Correspondingly, she’d draw just as much distrust. On the other hand, the reluctant convert may be slightly better off here still, as an anonymous referee suggested. For as someone who likely once endorsed the charge of incompetence she may understand or sympathize with this charge better than a non-convert and perhaps better than the voluntaristic convert. (In the cave, she would have ridiculed someone entering the cave after having been outside, just as those who never left the cave do.) So, again, she might be better positioned to express her understanding of and mutual identification with her potential converts.

  30. 30.

    DiPaolo (MS).

  31. 31.

    There is empirical evidence that suggests that if you view your efforts at resisting attempts to change your attitudes as legitimate and/or easy, you are likely to persist in holding those attitudes even more firmly than before the persuasion attempt. Taken too far, this can lead you to adopt the sort of “embattled and enlightened nonconformist” which in turn can sustain dogmatism. See Tormala and Petty (2002) and Tormala et al. (2006). I return to these ideas in the conclusion.

  32. 32.

    See Douthat (2007) for the quote and a link to the source article for that quote.

  33. 33.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for this way of putting the point. For what it’s worth, if the social psychological evidence is any indication of how advocates will be perceived, dogmatism is the more likely criticism than pliability. Petty et al. (2003) note that the more thought that goes into forming a new attitude, the more it will persist over time, resist attempts at changing it, and guide further thought and behavior. Some converts are more likely than others to have put much thought into the issue, so as a matter of fact some converts may be more likely than others to persist in their acceptance of their new worldview. Continuing to believe something isn’t necessarily a sign of dogmatism, but whether such persistence will be viewed as a sign of dogmatism is, again, hard to tell from the armchair.

  34. 34.

    Anderson (2010) espouses this method of investigating practical prescriptions: “We test value judgments by living in accordance with them and seeing whether doing so is satisfactory. … If we find life in accordance with the value judgment satisfactory, we stick with it; if not, we seek new judgments that can better guide our lives.”


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Thanks to Jon Herington and Robert Simpson for helpful discussion and to several anonymous referees for comments that helped improve the paper. Thanks also to Katia Vavova, Pete Graham, Luis Pinto de Sa, John Schwenkler, Daniel Fogal, Rosa Terlazzo, Lisa Cassell, and Mike Titelbaum.

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DiPaolo, J. The word of a reluctant convert. Synthese 198, 557–582 (2021).

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  • Advocacy
  • Conversion
  • Social epistemology
  • Authority
  • Trust
  • Bias
  • Resistance