Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Convert or Con Victim?

Can we say that people who switch their allegiance to anything we find objectionable must have been deceived/brainwashed/radicalised?

Take these cases:
• People change from one religion (or no belief) to one we have nothing to do with.
• People drop a widely trusted brand to a product we are not keen on ourselves.
• People switch their political support to a party we dislike.

Compare it with these cases:
• People join what is described as a cult.
• People refuse standard medication and pay large sums to buy from someone with the notoriety of a snake-oil merchant.
• People dedicate themselves to a political group with an extremist/violent agenda.

In the first set of cases, the general assumption is that people have been converted to back something else, and while we may not agree with it, there are no grounds to block people changing their minds in these matters.

In the second set of cases, a common view is that something unacceptable has been perpetrated to deceive or distort the thinking of the people concerned, and the latter need to be saved from their predicament.

But this distinction rests on the supposition that the intensity with which we recoil from something or how widely a position is treated with disdain would be sufficient to justify the claim that anyone switching to it must have had their minds unduly messed with. And this is fallacious on two counts.

First, how much we detest an idea, and how many other people share that revulsion, does not mean that the idea can only be believed by a deceived/twisted mind. Throughout history, feminism, pacifism, heliocentricism, inoculation, democracy, and many other notions, have all at one time struck the majority of people as outrageous. In those times, those who came to believe in these ideas might be demonstrating more of having an enlightened intellect than a deceived mind.

Secondly, just because an idea may not appear to be repugnant to many people, it is nonetheless possible that people can be deceived/manipulated into embracing it. From mass advertising to fuel the consumption of harmful substance, to the practice of some divorced couples to turn their children against the other parent, brainwashing may not be far off the mark in denoting what goes on.

So how can we separate the conning of people from fair persuasion? The answer is to be found in how the ‘conversion’ process is conducted. There are three tests that need to be passed:
1. Do the ‘persuaders’ treat the subject of the process with the same degree of respect and concern as they would expect in reverse? Or do they weigh the gains to themselves from a successful conversion more heavily against the losses the converted would have to endure as a result?
2. Are the ‘persuaders’ prepared to engage in an open and cooperative exchange with their subject and others to ascertain the reliability of what they are claiming to be the truth? Or do they want to close off as much as possible relevant arguments and evidence that may cast doubt on their position?
3. Will the ‘persuaders’ check back with their subject about how they would like to proceed? Or is one of their key aims to get the subject to surrender decision-making about specific matters (e.g., money to spend, readiness to use weapons, ganging up on certain people) to them?

Where all three tests are passed positively, it is most likely that legitimate persuasion is taking place. Where only one or two are passed, the process is dubious. And where all three are failed, then it is highly probable that the subject is being unfairly conned/manipulated into accepting something he/she would under more transparent conditions reject.

The three tests mentioned above are based on the three communitarian principles for guiding interpersonal behaviour. You can find out more about them in the post, ‘Communitarians: an introduction’, or in the book, Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship.

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