“Devil’s Advocate?”

by Lydia Stephens | May 28, 2018

It’s 2016 and I’m in a History class. The end of the year is fast approaching, making most students drunk with apathy. I’m busy trying to answer the teacher’s question but she’s since lost interest and seems more preoccupied with picking her nail. Then I noticed a boy, Jack, shifting in his chair across the room.

He made an almost undetectable but distinctive lip twitch. Then an almost hand-raise. Whilst I was between syllables, he interjected with all the smugness of a bank robber sliding undetected into a getaway car: “But,” a pause, “what if you’re wrong?”

I was confused. I’d mostly been recalling facts about American presidents, Truman and Eisenhower in particular, that I was pretty sure were correct and I hadn’t said anything controversial. “Ummm, okay… but even then, what I was saying was…”

“But — .” Again. What was this compulsion he had?

“Carry on” said the teacher, waving Jack into silence and returning to her nail.

But as soon as I’d started there was another “but—.” The ‘discussion’ continued in the same vein. I’d get five words into a sentence before he’d offer a “but” from the back of the room. “But,” “but,” “but, — .” Then again, “but”; and then the final straw: “But— .”

“But, shut the fuck up Jack!—”

And with that the end of my participation in the class. It was only afterwards, when he offered a pathetic justification along the lines of “I was just trying to help you learn how to argue,” that I realised why I was so pissed off. How delightful! Another man taking it upon himself to educate and ‘challenge’ me. But I didn’t feel particularly challenged, and I didn’t feel like I’d learnt anything. And I wish I could say that History lesson was a one off. The Devil’s Advocate always performs the same conversational ballet. The interjection, the silence, then the inevitable ‘challenge’. There is no nuance or thought to the act, simply an air of superiority and the ballet so often becomes a sort of verbal boxing match.

Defence of the Devil’s Advocate tends to start with that argument, something along the lines of ‘it’s a great tool for debate’. How else, after all, does one learn?  Ideas are subjective and disputable, things should be debated and questioned, and so it seems only normal to use the tools at our disposal. The Devil’s Advocate can be a scalpel for shaping arguments or even a screwdriver for tightening points of view. It can bring conversations to life and elucidate debates.

But then there are those other conversations, where the scalpel becomes a sledgehammer and the purpose of the Devil’s Advocate is not so much to debate as it is to intellectually peacock. Alex Nichols, in an article which alludes to this rhetorical ‘tool’, describes those “with a penchant for explaining things” as wanting to feel that “burst of dopamine that comes from feeling smarter than other people.” Of course, this isn’t inherently problematic. Conversations that feature the Jacks of this world, where one is left feeling dejected and trapped in a dead end, rather than illuminated and inspired for more debate, are certainly exasperating, but not necessarily ‘bad’. However, they are also microcosmic of global incidents where these “bursts” so easily become far less benign. In particular, Nichols voices his concerns about the tangible success of politicians who have lost the ability to debate in the conventional sense of the word, and rather come out on top simply by speaking loudest and using the most aggressive faux-confidence words .

Instances like these, in which argumentative engagement seem hopeless, are described by the writer Rebecca Solnit as “a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult,” and it’s no surprise that Solnit uses the same political examples as Nichols to advance her point. Yet Solnit goes further and stresses, in her aptly named 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things To Me’, that the Devil’s Advocate has become a very gendered being, and not just on a macrocosmic level. I was talking to a friend about women in STEM subjects, when he told me that he couldn’t believe anything I’d said until I had some concrete data to back myself up with. I told him that I didn’t have a pie chart to hand, but I did know that in the last five minutes he’d cut me off twice to disagree with a sentence I hadn’t even finished and that when I tried to do the same he’d raised his voice and drowned me out. And this is precisely where the problem lies: where the insistence on playing Devil’s Advocate becomes power and gender based.

It should come as no surprise then that we now crave ‘safe spaces’ in which to talk. A place of confidentiality of course, but equally a place of refuge from the Devil’s Advocate. And perhaps we need these spaces because some things are simply not up for debating for debate’s sake. Conversations about the culture of victim blaming or sexual harassment, for instance, are undoubtedly such examples. To discuss these things is great, they ought to be talked about. Yet while to play Devil’s Advocate is most damaging here, this is precisely where it seems to happen most, and these important discussions are relegated into places where they can’t be heard.

I feel the intellectuals in us all getting uncomfortable when I say, “some things aren’t up for debate.” It sounds totalitarian, close-minded and a threat to learning, and I agree. If we aren’t allowed to debate we would be at risk of limiting ourselves. But playing Devil’s Advocate isn’t really a debate, it’s a gun with a silencer on it. Whilst the Devil’s Advocate claims to spark debate, in reality the opposite is so often achieved as sensitive and constructive conversations become sparring matches for intellectual superiority, or rather a pretence at it.

What initially made me think back to that class in 2016 was a conversation with a friend who suggested that History is a perfect exemplar of why we need Devil’s Advocates: it gets told from one side and so we need a Devil’s Advocate to give us the other. They explained how in legal courts, sometimes it takes a Devil’s Advocate to fully illuminate the trial and to arrive at the correct verdict. And I agree with them. But these historians and lawyers aren’t playing Devil’s Advocate. If the devil were to turn in up a court and use his own voice, he’d have very little interest in debate or social justice. The lawyers and historians to whom my friend referred are not shouting over someone for the sake of authority, and their challenges have substance. In fact, they aren’t even playing anything as such.

So, I wondered what truly motivates us to play Devil’s Advocate and play this version of ourselves. By all means, take the unpopular opinion to argue a point, but consider why you’re doing it. It can of course be used productively to shape arguments and discussions. It can even be used for some self-gratifying pretence at intellectuality and fair enough, we all do it. But is it really necessary when the debate becomes a monologue or when sensitive issues are callously challenged? When an individual doesn’t consider whether some things are not there merely to be agreed or disagreed on, but first to be listened to and understood first. The world is full of TV personalities and politicians doing just that, arguing at people rather than with them. And often it’s Mr arrogant doing so.  The poet Lily Myers argues that in these instances, when you’re fighting for space in conversation with someone’s unformed and uninformed ego, you end up with a situation where “She wanes while he waxes” – and what, after all, can be achieved from that?

Someone kindly suggested I ought to not be so sensitive. If I couldn’t handle the Devil’s Advocate, I shouldn’t raise my views. And I thanked them graciously for reminding me to keep quiet, because silence is apparently the best way to have those debates that they care so much about – but what can I say, the Devil is an ass.