How to Be a Responsible Devil's Advocate

Devil’s advocate is a tricky rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it can be extremely useful for exposing the flaws in an argument, helping others clarify and strengthen their positions, and practice your own argumentation. Using devil’s advocate when the topic under discussion is, say, whether or not we should pursue immortality or how best to end our dependence on non-renewable energy sources will probably be productive and enlightening.

On the other hand, when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers or how best to respond to sexual assault, devil’s advocate is a minefield of potential faux pas, triggers, and discussions that end in yelling and/or blocking each other online.

Although some claim that in discussions like these we should be “objective” and not allow emotions to “get in the way,” I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection. For all their flaws, emotions alert us when the stakes are high, tip us off to our biases, and keep us fighting our battles. The important part is knowing what your bias is, and reminding yourself constantly to be on the lookout for information that doesn’t fit into that bias.

The reason this is relevant to the devil’s argument discussion is that people are going to have strong emotional responses to issues like sexual assault prevention. They just are. If you choose to play devil’s advocate during a discussion about an issue as personal and painful as this, you’re probably going to push some people’s buttons, and not in a good way. You’re going to sound exactly like the people who argue against them in earnest, and you’re going to make them defensive and cause them to double down even on parts of their arguments that are not that good. You’re going to jeopardize any chance of having a productive discussion.

Unless you learn how to be a responsible devil’s advocate.

First of all, and most importantly, accept that some people do not want to engage with devil’s advocates on certain issues. They do not want to hear about your thought experiments and hypotheticals. They do not want to argue with people whose positions on the issues are not clear, because it can be painful and even triggering to hear these opinions.

You may feel that these people are not doing their duty as Good Skeptics by not engaging in your Spirited Debate or supporting Free Inquiry or appreciating Diversity of Opinion, but it frankly doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues. If you can’t respect that and accept that not wanting to argue with you does not mean someone is Bad At Arguing or Bad At Skepticism, then you have no business trying to discuss these issues with anyone.

Second, make sure you have examined your own motivations for wanting to play devil’s advocate on an issue that’s personal and painful to many people. I’m not saying that there are no good motivations (insofar as you can discern “good” and “bad” motivations here); I’m just saying that it merits examination. Are you doing it to hash out your own doubts and figure out what you believe? That’s pretty legit. Are you doing it to help the other person argue better? Commendable, but not necessarily recommended; I’ll get to that in a bit. Are you doing it to get a reaction out of someone? If so, consider not doing that ever.

Often people are “rubbed the wrong way” by the discourse on issues like sexual assault, sexism, racism, and so on. They just find the claims made by progressives on these issues to be irritating somehow and they feel compelled to argue against them without really knowing for certain where they themselves stand or why they feel such a need to argue with a random internet person they don’t know.

A lot of the time, these people discover that their irritation and discomfort are stemming from unexamined prejudices, biases, and feelings of guilt. They realize that they’re actually worried that they will be perceived as an “-ist” or that they have undeserved privileges or that they have mistreated others because of bigotry or that they are resentful because they think minority groups are receiving special advantages of some sort. Examining carefully your reasons for wanting to play devil’s advocate can reveal some of these deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and prevent others from using up valuable time and energy trying to get you to recognize them.

Third, if you’re playing devil’s advocate in order to try and help someone else, find out if that person actually wants or needs your help. Unsolicited advice is frankly annoying in almost any case, but especially when it involves a long, drawn-out debate with someone you believe to be in need of convincing, only to find out that they actually think they’re kindly bestowing their argumentative expertise on you.

If you’re not a progressive activist, you might not know how discussions generally work in our communities. We’re always hashing things out with each other, trying out new arguments, and asking for feedback. If we blog on networks or in groups of some sort, we often have private backchannels where we practice our arguments. You may think, running across a random blog or Twitter feed, that we’re desperately in need of someone to help us refine our views, but generally we have plenty of trusted friends and colleagues that we can do that with. So don’t assume.

Fourth, if you have now decided that you’re going to play devil’s advocate, tell the person what you’re doing. Be open. Get consent. Constructive debate is not that different from sex in this regard. For instance, here are some things you can say:

  • “I generally agree with you, but I’m having some doubts. Can I argue from the other side to see how you’d respond?”
  • “I’m not sure this argument will stand up to scrutiny. Do you mind if I try some counterarguments?”
  • “Want to practice debating this issue?”
  • “I don’t actually believe this, but just out of curiosity, how would you respond if I argued that ______?”

As Captain Awkward says, use your words. The clearer it is what you’re trying to accomplish and what your actual point is, the likelier it is that you’ll have a productive discussion and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

And, as I mentioned in my first point, don’t forget to accept no for an answer. Do not respond passive-aggressively about how “sad” it is that you can’t even have a good debate about this issue. Do not snark at them about how “some skeptic you are.” Do not bloviate using grand, vague terms like “freedom of expression” and “free inquiry.” Do not pout about how you “just wanted a discussion.” If they say, “Sorry, this is too close to home,” say “Ok, sorry I bothered you!” and move on.

Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

You may feel this is incredibly unfair, and that’s understandable. However, what’s considerably more unfair is how often these people, many of whom have been personally affected by the issues they’re discussing, have to deal with those who blame them and treat them like they’re subhuman and advocate for them to have their rights taken away (or not even given in the first place). Your arguments may sound exactly like the arguments made by those Actual Bigots, and so you get pegged for one.

Remember that being charitable means trying to understand why others often aren’t.

And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates. There are people who tell us every day that bitches be lyin’. There are people who tell us every day that we shouldn’t ruin rapists’ lives by holding them accountable for what they did. There are people who say that Trayvon deserved it. There are people who say that a fetus has more rights than an adult human.

So, I will include the same cautionary note for devil’s advocate as I recently wrote for sarcasm: if you mimic terrible opinions and sound exactly like the people who hold those opinions earnestly, do not be surprised if people don’t take kindly to your arguments. Do not be surprised if we’re tired of responding to the same terrible opinion every day. Maybe you were bored at work and started reading a feminist blog for the first time in your life and wanted to play a fun game of devil’s advocate, but for those of us who write those blogs, that’s what we do every day. And for those of us who live the horrible reality of some of the issues we write about, facing the same terrible opinion for the millionth time can be too painful and stressful to be worth it.

You may be able to turn these issues into an engaging intellectual exercise while we may not. Do not hold yourself up as a paragon of emotional stability and argumentative prowess because of this. Understand that you’ve been lucky.

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

How to Be a Responsible Devil's Advocate

33 thoughts on “How to Be a Responsible Devil's Advocate

  1. 1

    There’s also the situation of “I agree X is a problem, but Y is a bad example” or “Y is an example of X, but your solution will do little for X and probably make problem Z worse” always come across “X is not a real problem” and “nothing should be done be done about X” when I say them.

  2. 2

    For me, the real problem have with people playing Devil’s Advocate is a strong variant on your third point: I’m a scientifically literate skeptic and I fully understand that all empirical claims are subject to error and Bayesian updates, and pointing out to me that it’s possible that my claim could be wrong is uniformly useless and insulting. Playing Devil’s Advocate isn’t about pointing out how someone’s argument is wrong; that’s simple correction of a mistake, not making a good faith, bad faith, or Devil’s Advocate argument for a contrary empirical position. What Devil’s Advocate is all about is at best reminding people of the possibility of error and at worst–and most of the time–about advocating an irrational and selective brand of hyper-skepticism.

    I have no problem with people voicing an honestly held opinion I don’t share or telling me why I’m wrong, but when people whine persistently about how I might be wrong and wonder whether I’ve considered all the possibilities without even describing a possibility of significance that a person would be likely to have missed I write them off as intellectually useless drones who don’t understand what empiricism is all about. It’s never possible to consider all possibilities, I always know that there’s a chance that my empirical claims might be wrong, and I’m upfront about making these points clear; if all you’re going to do is elliptically tell me that I might be wrong then you’re expressing a sense of entitlement to waste my time. The only person with a right to waste my time is me, and anyone else who feels entitled to do so is a person best avoided and best mocked and scorned if avoidance is impossible.

    I really don’t care for people who play Devil’s Advocate with me.

  3. 3

    People accusing people who respond emotionally to emotional issues that affect them every day of their lives of being bad skeptics is so tiresome. It’s like telling someone that they have bad reflexes because, if you tie their hands behind their back, you can beat them in tennis. If you think that, you are fundamentally misunderstanding what is going on.

  4. 4

    Having spent all day yesterday in the comments of PZ’s “Hand Grenade” post, I’ve seen all of those bad behaviors in spades. The worst offenders appear to be folks who have invested so much emotional energy into being “good true skeptics” that they are willing to gnaw and worry at their devils advocate position for hours on end, even after literally dozens of people had informed them how offensive they have been.

  5. 5

    This is one of the best evaluations of “devil’s advocate” that I have read. My problem with DA is that it is almost always approached with a lack of caring for the people who are engaged intimately in the issue. And its usual approach is to tell you that you are not being believed, which is just insulting. It can be used to avoid having a serious thinking-through of the issue, while not caring if the person on the receiving end is hurt by this insensitive approach, or worse, wanting them to be hurt. DA positions are almost never honest searching.

    I am pretty much over responding seriously to DAs. My response is usually to pick something from that person’s life that they might be sensitive about being challenged on that is parallel to their DA argument and do a DA back to them. The best one I ever heard was from Gloria Steinem, who, when heckled by a man who called her a lesbian, said: “Are YOU the alternative?” It’s the same thing atheists do when we ask believers what it would take for them to believe in Thor or Zeus, in response to their question of what it would take for us to believe in their god. Let them do their own thinking, and figure it out on their own.

  6. 6

    It’s also a falsehood to think that anyone is ever truly objective. We’ve been well-conditioned to accept the privileged, normative/normalized view as being “objective”, only because the normativity of a given issue is rarely examined, especially by those who like to play Devil’s Advocate.

    That is to say, it’s not a “more objective” position to say that a given person didn’t rape or harass someone; it’s the normative position, but there’s nothing about it that makes it objective in nature. We are emotional primates, who use experience-derived heuristics to examine incoming data; it’s absurd to think that “View A” of a thing is subjective and dismissable, while “Normal View” is objective and high-value. All this does is reinforce the privileged status quo, which helps no one but the privileged.

    And frankly, I think we already do enough for the privileged.

    Good post, Miri.

  7. 7

    Yeah: Those people over there who claim they’re just being “devil’s advocates” are, in fact, giant assholes who actually believe the contrarian position.

    One guy kept trying to parse just how drunk a woman has to be before she can’t consent. As if the discussion were some sort of manual on how to not go to jail for roofying someone.

    Others were mainly dismissive of someone’s direct and personal account of sexual abuse as being “evidence” of abuse. As if there needed to be four witnesses to said abuse before it counted as “evidence.”

    And still others were “if she didn’t call the police, it didn’t happen.” Really? Is there an actual thought process going on in there? Cuz I can’t see one.

    And the rest were “what about the menz.” Yeah. Warning women to stay away from someone who is most likely a serial abuser is all about the menz.

    So, no. In these settings, those aren’t devil’s advocates. Those are people who actually believe that position, but maybe, just maybe might understand that it’s not going to be a popular opinion in that setting. They’re trying to deflect criticism from themselves.

    I don’t play that game. You advocate for a position, you own that position. Especially when it comes to something like sexual abuse.

  8. 8

    I can’t keep up with the thread, but a lot of the people playing devil’s advocate need a devil’s advocate. I’m betting most of them would have believed a less credible claim (one with less responsibility being taken, for instance), if the accused were a major figure in the Catholic Church. Also, they make the distinction between “worthy of airing” and “definitely true” in many other situation.

  9. 9

    As far as Devil’s Advocate and sarcasm both go, a person who uses either without being blatant about it should not take it personally when the person receiving the message takes it literally. You sent out an ambiguous message. Don’t be surprised if it gets misinterpreted. Especially if you’re speaking with someone you don’t know all that well.

    The above is why I’m fond of sarcasm tags and wish we had a real-life equivalent. I’m baaad at reading sarcasm, so I’m often the person who in real life will go off, “That’s horrible! How can you say [bigoted thing]? This is 2013, not 1713!”

    … and then the other person says, “I know. I was being sarcastic.”

    “… Oh. Whoops. I misread you.”

  10. 10

    Good advice, to be sure, but I am unconvinced that there are any ears for it to fall on. I mean, personally, I am coming to doubt the existence of devil’s advocates. I can’t recall any time recently in which someone came in with a “just asking questions” position who didn’t turn out to be a flaming jerk. “Can we say with certainty that blah blah blah?” always ends up at “bitchez be lyin'”. Maybe I’ve forgotten some who ended up with “yeah, you’re right, thanks”, but since I started paying specific attention to this question about a year ago, I have seen none.

    1. 10.1

      I can think of a few. (I lurk more than I post.) But not many, to be sure. My first thought was maybe the “yeah, you’re right, thanks” responses are more easily forgotten precisely because they’re less confrontational. But honestly you’d think they would stand out more just because they’re so rare.
      I do think it’s possible to change peoples’ minds on this. I just think it generally happens slowly. Just like most of us didn’t suddenly flip from believer to atheist because of one good argument, but rather were gradually persuaded over time. So yeah, maybe your reply didn’t instantly change someone’s mind. But maybe you gave them something to think about, and the cumulative effect adds up.
      I’m not saying you should be more patient! I’m just saying, don’t give up.

      1. Well now that I think about it, there have been people who were actually unaware when they came in asking questions. So I guess “asking questions” can be a true position and I should not conflate that with people claiming to be a “devil’s advocate”. I haven’t seen anyone starting out with that approach who then (within the space of a discussion, even if that discussion spans several posts) turns around and says “Yes, you’re right; my objections are not reasonable.”

        So I slightly retract what I said, and clarify it: “Honestly, why is X bad, I’ve never seen it” does (too occasionally) end up at “oh, goodness, I had no idea!” But “It’s totally unfair that you’re ignoring the effect on my group!!” never does. Or anyway, does so rarely that I haven’t encountered it.

        And I heartily and specifically agree with the “don’t give up” part.

        1. For what it’s worth, I first got involved in these contentious threads during the Elevator Incident, and in all this time (two years and counting) I’ve seen perhaps ten individuals who started off as really obstinate, hammer-away harassment unbelievers and then changed their minds. One finally changed their mind after reading a series of research articles I presented; one changed their mind due to someone’s first-hand account (and my research-presenting in that case accomplished nothing); and one changed over weeks of gradually processing all the personal narratives put forward during the Dear Richard Dawkins debacle. In all that time, hundreds of lurkers or quieter regulars have come forward to say they now understand more than they did, and by my count about 150 survivors of rape and sexual assault have also come forward.

          I have never seen an obstinate rape denier change their mind.

  11. 11

    “And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates.”
    I love that line. I think in some cases “devil’s advocate” is a cop out-people want to argue for the privileged position without be accused of being a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc.

  12. Pen

    I have three thoughts on this:

    1) With respect to people like Zimmerman, sexual assaulters, etc, it can be useful to try to figure out what is going on in their minds and that can come across like a devil’s advocate argument or an undue display of empathy for an attacker. In my opinion, it’s still the one of the most important things that can be done by way of future prevention.

    2) About some people not wanting to discuss certain topics or being potentially harmed by them: I think restraint is always best in informal social situations but on the Internet some onus should fall on the site’s host (individual or organisation) to make it clear whether they are there for general chitchat, victim support or public debate. In the real world, you don’t walk into a public meeting on crime prevention and say you’re too traumatised to discuss the subject just as you don’t walk into a victim support group and start babbling about what aspect of the perpetrator’s experience might have led to their crimes. Barring other cues, I assume the FtB blogs are sites of public debate – ideally, people would avoid being deliberately cruel or callous but when I find a topic too hard to discuss I withdraw from it and leave it to people who do not. I would find it strange to demand other people’s silence so that I can stay present on an Internet thread. I think this is the best policy, exception made for any post that implicitly or preferably explicitly describes itself as being there for support or safe space.

    3) People who sincerely use devil’s advocate as a thought experiment or means of inquiry without saying what they’re doing are wasting other people’s time.

  13. 13

    I want to say something about the two options you presented…. where you say

    Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

    In my view this should be met with some qualifications…

    We all think we are right most of the time – confirmation bias and all this stuff. As such, it will be our natural reaction to think when someone accuses us of a vile view that option 2 is more likely than 1. Therefore, we need to be suspicious of ourselves and our biases – because people tend to have an image of themselves being in the right most of the time. Therefore, most of the time our inclination will tilt our biases to say that what is really going on is point 2, not 1. This should make us rightly suspicious of ourselves.

    I have seen plenty of data and have had plenty of experiences in real life to boot that backs up that data that says.. People with privilege tend to have biases more than the oppressed do. Meaning men are more likely to have hidden gender biases than women, and whites more than likely have more hidden racial biases than the black and brown folk. Therefore, if the devils advocate is a member of the privileged group, they need to add another layer of suspicion for their disagreement, if arguing against an oppressed persons position. This does not nullify or serve as a counter argument to any actual stance.. but it puts stances into a larger picture that is sorely needed.

    For example, if you questions peoples support of affirmative actions, you will get a asymmetrical divergence of opinion down a racial line – whites tend to be against it, and blacks tend to be for it. This is a reflection of privileges and racism. This bias however does not undermine any position on the matter – affirmative actions may be a bad program, arguments decide that, not what biases people have. What it does do, is put things in perspective and we have to point out suspicious divisions like this, and we have to say that race is a part of the issue to why groups of people gravitate to certain positions on this racial issue. For many social issues it is the same… you will get divisions among the privileged and the oppressed.

    Now I have seen a few studies, which I should post I know – but damn I am lazy, and I guess I will if forced to – that show that most of the time it is the privileged that are lead by their biases the most… so I would say to DA’s… if you are a person of privilege, do us all a favor, and be extra suspicious of your position. This does not negate an opinion, arguments and logic do that, but it helps tremendously when a privileged person can put their opinions in a larger perspective and be just as suspicious of their opinions as the ones they are calling into question.

    Lastly… I think history serves us well here…. if we look at the history of any social justice campaign in an social justice arena. What usually happens is that this split between the privileged and the oppressed is not on fair ground. In that usually, the oppressed have a better picture of the abuse than the privileged, and they have better ideas on how to guard from it. If you poll whites today – and I know I am hammering the racism angle a lot here, I am sorry for that, but that is the only way I can argue for this issues generally because that is where my expertise are the most – to what degree they think race is a problem……. What you will get is that most white will say racism is “not that big of a problem.” If you asked blacks the same, most of them will say “racism is a big problem.”

    To put this is a historical perspective – and I am stealing this point from Tim Wise a white anti-racist activist who I love – there exists these types of polls back in the day of the march on Washington. If you go back all the way to 1963.. where racism was rampant and disgusting in america…. and you ask white people if race was a problem… what you will get is the same exact asymmetry. You will get a majority of whites saying “no racism here folks!” and a majority of blacks saying “help us the racism is killing us!”.. Now think about that… back in the day when every one knows that racism was at a heated level.. a Marjory of whites said it was not problem. Now, further, think about this… they do these types of polls regularly throughout present day. If you follow the trend what you will find is that all the way back from 1963, to the present, most whites when polled about race.. said racism is not a problem. The percentage of whites who say this has been pretty steady for the past 50 years. Equally so, most blacks will say it is a problem, and that percentage has remained very steady as well. So ask yourself this… if white people could not admit racism was a problem when black people had to sit in the back of the bus, and they have continuously said racism is not a problem in the past 50 years – not to mention that each and every year they have been drastically wrong – then whos position are you going to bet as the right one when polled today? The white privileged majority who have denied racism for 50 years, of the black who have been right every time about racism the past 50 years?

    I know who.. and there is a very big lesson to be generally extracted from this.

    I am betting that this sort of trend is EXACTLY the same for any social justice issue. I am betting that any privileged group is going to continuously undermine things the oppressed groups are shouting about.. and in fact, and correct me if I am wrong here, the sociological literature supports such a position. In that, in social justice issues, the ones who are motivated by their biases are usually the ones who benefit from the unfair system, not the ones who suffer from it.

    Now this perspective, which I believe is well evidenced, can not and should not be used to nullify any privileged persons point of view… again, I must say, arguments do that, and most minorities have plenty of them. What it does do is put it in a proper perspective and it allows us to know, sort of, where to hedge our bets.

    As such, in regards to the part you quoted… I think the tendancy for people traumatized of a society who discriminates against them to “overestimate” when they see a vile of bigoted opinion is not on even footing to the vile and bigoted opinion actually being present. In other words, all things being equal, it is not a 50/50 split… it is more like… number 1 is more likely than number 2. Meaning, the vile opinion is more likely to be there, than for a minority to overreact to it. (This should not even be an unusual point when talking about social justice issues anyhow. If a great majority of people did not have vile opinions based on bigoted biased notions, than there would not be a big social justice issue to begin with.)

    So I want to throw a word of caution to those that want to play DA…. lots of times, you are probably going to be wrong.. especially if you do not live in the experience you are talking about, have not studied it, and do not talk about it. Most minorities not only live it, they talk about it, and they study it… so play DA all you want, but be god damn humble about it, and be suspicious of your motivations, this self check of bias.. does wonders. As a male, I use this as much as I can to not step on peoples toes when talking about women issues, and it also helps that when I do step on someone… to pull myself together and correct it instead of doubling down and making it infinity worse. It also makes it easier for the minority to express their concern about the persons biases instead of biting their tongue in fear of not being heard and being accused of being over sensitive.

    (Also, I just started reading your blog and god damn I am loving it. Hope I am not a bother to anyone here with these long winded posts.)

    1. 13.1

      Excellent comment; thanks for adding these qualifiers. I’d love to see the studies you mentioned because it’d be really awesome to write up analyses of them as blog posts, but if you don’t want to go through the trouble of finding them again I totally understand.

    2. 13.2

      People with privilege tend to have biases more than the oppressed do. Meaning men are more likely to have hidden gender biases than women, and whites more than likely have more hidden racial biases than the black and brown folk.

      I think hidden is the key word here. I’m not sure that People Of Privilege have more biases per se; we just tend to be far less aware of them, and more likely to consider them the default position. But hey, that could be my own privilege talking…

      Now think about that… back in the day when every one knows that racism was at a heated level.. a Marjory of whites said it was not problem.

      That is an absolutely brilliant way of making that point! I too would love to see those studies (and/or Miri’s analysis of them) if you have time.

  14. 14

    I get a bit tired of ‘thought experiments’ as well, since it tends to be ‘let’s assume X is the case’ (when it’s not) which is often just a derailing tactic to avoid answering the question of “we KNOW that NOT X is the case, what do we DO about it?’

    Another problem is that if a person is honesty expressing their own views, no matter how vile, you can at least know what their agenda is. I’m unsure what some people are attempting to accomplish by doing a DA and I think that being explicit and direct is usually the best policy. Perhaps some of these people are just trying to get everybody lost on tangents that aren’t important, or they want to feel clever and have nothing to contribute. There’s also only so much use to throwing out mountains of hypothetical cases.

    On consent – there might be a productive discussion to be had about things like how alcohol consumption or drug use or other factors affect ability to consent, but as you said, going ‘so, how drunk does can a woman be and still consent’ (coming from a male person I know nothing about) just seems to be an attempt at justification.

    And on being ‘objective and rational’ versus ’emotional’ – privileged people aren’t unemotional about certain issues, it’s just that the issue doesn’t affect them directly so it’s easy to stay calm and appear distant and Vulcan while the issue is on the table whereas it isn’t easy for people who have to live with the damage. If I’m bleeding all over, I’m going to have a hard time being calm and my attempts at getting help may not appear articulate and rational, but it’s pretty easy to stay calm when it’s someone *else’s emergency.* The other thing is that privileged people remain privileged by marginalizing issues affecting other groups. The privileged person can calmly and ‘rationally’ advocate for their own interests since they tend to get what they want anyway and don’t have to fight for it.

  15. 16

    A great post–helpful, but I think rather more generous than it needs to be: isn’t “playing devil’s advocate” fundamentally disrespectful? To “play devils advocate,” you put forward arguments you don’t actually believe. If you are really “playing,” you already see something wrong with arguments you present–if you didn’t, you would simply agree with them. Still, you waste other people’s time by not presenting those flaws upfront.

    In playing devils advocate, you lack the courage to subject your actual views to scrutiny. People use this as cover when they see merit in an argument with offensive implications, but are not fully convinced by that argument. They do it when they don’t wish to face the social consequences of their actual position.

    Discourse is better served by presenting your actual position, and advocating for a social standard where conversation involves rigor, kindness, and a safe atmosphere for exploration which is respectful and entered into in good faith.

  16. 17

    I have three simple rules for playing devil’s advocate:

    1. Remember that your metaphorical “devil” already has plenty of advocates.

    2. Remember that they are not playing, but are dead fucking serious.

    3. DON’T DO IT!

    1. 17.1

      Right, but those advocates are making bad arguments. More importantly, they are trying to advance a bad agenda, not make sure a good agenda is being advanced in a good way that won’t cause other problems. If I care about a position, I care about it being advanced well. What you are saying sounds dangerously close to the idea that you shouldn’t challenge a bad argument if you agree with its conclusion. I know you don’t believe that.

      I’d say the important advice about playing devil’s advocate is to make it clear you aren’t just JAQing off.

  17. 18

    Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues.

    While this is certainly true, I think that for many people the problem is not that they don’t feel, it is that they do and they don’t want to. Because with awful topics like rape what other feelings are there to be had than feeling awful? A way to not have these feelings, to not feel, is to think, to engage in rational thinking, thought experiments, devils advocacy, or whatever, anything that keeps one from feeling.

  18. 20

    I stopped reading with “when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers.” What the fuck. Has that ever been the topic anywhere?

    1. 20.1

      Uh, yes. Of course it has. Stand Your Ground laws have defenders, even though those laws do not seem to apply when people of color are the ones defending themselves.

      Also, try reading the whole post before you comment. That tends to work better.

  19. 21

    Excellent post. And most of your points apply equally well to arguing in general. Linking to your post on sarcasm is particularly relevant: both can be useful tools, but particularly when chiming in on emotional topics, both should be clearly announced and used cautiously.

  20. 23

    I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection.

    3. “Objective” is often deployed as a coded way of saying “abstract” – tying in with your remarks about hypotheticals – and many issues are not made better by treating them as abstracts.

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