A case against playing devil’s advocate
I am tired of the devil’s advocate.
Though the idea of the “devil’s advocate” is supposed to foster deeper and more extensive conversation, a new connotation for the term has emerged. The term “devil’s advocate” now disguises people’s real intentions. Instead of creating better arguments and discussions, this term is used by people wanting to say problematic things and see where the arguments lead as entertainment.
Imagine this: A student raises his hand in a history class and says something problematic like, “Wait, let me be the devil’s advocate here. Maybe that country wanted to be colonized because Europe had more advanced technology?”
Now, this opinion could foster a conversation in which all parties learn something and perhaps someone augments their previous belief. But when the devil’s advocate doesn’t believe the statements said, they aren’t really learning anything, and often the students who respond are the most affected and have to discuss something that could be harmful to them. This doesn’t help anyone. I’m tired of this situation constantly happening to me in social and academic settings.
Often, through discussion-based courses like in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and even most history classes, sensitive topics come up and the devil’s advocate is arguing controversial and aggravating opinions. Though disagreeing is valid and people should never be silenced, they create unsafe and uncomfortable spaces for underrepresented communities, and, at their worst, make learning and thinking more difficult. For myself and many others, there’s a fight-or-flight response when these tense and uncomfortable conversations escalate, and the only options are to fight or to leave. Both of these options aren’t as viable in the classroom, and they hinder learning for both parties.
In social settings, these situations can be even worse. Without the formality of the classroom and the professor as a guide, the devil’s advocate flourishes and, in some ways, becomes even more harmful. Discussion can be a great bonding and learning experience in social spaces, but when interjections of counter-opinions on race, gender and politics are brought into these dialogues, the damage of playing “devil’s advocate” is more personal.
Asking things like, “Aren’t women technically weaker than men?” or “Wasn’t the colonial education system beneficial to the native people because they became more successful in the end?” aren’t helpful to heated and sensitive discussions. These ideas are also harmful to people who are very close to the issues. Most black women do not enjoy arguing with you about the “upside” of the Trump presidency, in the same way most LGBTQIA* people don’t like to explain to you why they should be allowed to get married or buy a wedding cake from any baker.
Discussions can be fun, riveting and deeply educational, but they become pointless once people begin drawing out arguments for entertainment purposes. Potentially jeopardizing the mental and emotional safety of our peers—especially in class—is unnecessary, and only adds to the struggles these students already face.
This is not all to say that we should not discuss anything controversial. Discussions between people with opposing views are vital but arguing with someone who does not even believe what they are saying—especially if it may cause mental and emotional harm—is not helpful or healthy for the defending party. It is often damaging. Members of oppressed communities continuously fight for and validate their identities each day—and adding to that struggle just makes each day that much harder.