Have you ever wondered why someone playing the Devil’s Advocate can be so frustrating?
You’re definitely not alone.
I think we all have phrases that tend to provoke a reaction in us – oftentimes a defensive one – even before someone is done uttering them:
“I know this might sound bad at first but…”
“I’m not a racist but…” (ah, a classic one)
“But is it really bad for….?”
And, of course, there’s the “Let me play the devil’s advocate here.”
I want to focus on the latter one because after multiple inner monologues and redrafting this blog post, I think I might have a fine replacement for it.
Yet let me start with this: an engaging discussion is a treat. If all the people involved are willing to listen, are keen to understand, if they put effort into responding instead of reacting, and if you add an element of kindness to all of this – my goodness, what a lovely mix! What productive results! What open and vulnerable talks! Refreshing, to say the least.
(How often do we have such a mix? I think we have to work hard to have it.)
But so if we’re in a discussion on a topic that’s rather sensitive (and oh man, there are plenty of them to go over these days), and, suddenly, someone has the idea of putting on the Devil’s Advocate hat, I think the best – and kindest – thing to do is to let the person know right away that hat should be put to rest. There’s no need for it. There are way way more interesting (prettier/cooler/more stylish, if you will) hats to wear.
The devil doesn’t need an advocate for a very good reason.
Because the devil is the current paradigm.
The devil is the system.
The devil has been very well protected, thank you.
The devil has lawyers, people in power, corporate money, police force and no impunity, mainstream media, national textbooks, and, often, unpaid people (a.k.a. society) who are constantly telling you how you should or shouldn’t behave and what’s allowed to feel.
In short, playing the devil’s advocate is simply speaking up for the system (now that sounds uncool). It’s not a challenging intellectual exercise, and I can’t see any meaningful purpose this exercise might serve.
I’ve noticed that for some engaging in this “exercise”, there’s an element of fun: I’m gonna throw these “arguments” at you to see how you can defend yourself. Defend my stance as a minority? My stance on why my rights matter? My argument on why we should care for others?
Yet for some, it is only an intellectual exercise whose regressive stance – with an element of gaslighting – people might not realise. Not because someone’s a bad person, or inherently ignorant, but because someone hasn’t taken the time to think about what purpose that hat serves, and how others see it. And I do honestly think that if that person listens, he or she will get it, and they will not resort to that hat anymore, in any conversation. Just give that hat to charity! Upcycle it! Maybe there’s a scarecrow nearby?
So, yes, I thought I would dust off my own hat – the one of a struggling blogger, it’s an old one – to write about this.
Instead of this weak, boring, and unproductive exercise, I’d like to suggest something else. A disclaimer: it’s really freakin’ hard.
Someone I have discovered recently, Sonya Renee Taylor, talks about radical self love as something way more profound and more political than occasionally putting on a face mask. She talks about the radical (as in the actual meaning of the word, from the root) acceptance of the value of each body – including your own – regardless of its shape, size, ability, or colour. What a different society would that be, she says, if we truly saw value in each body instead of living out of the state of fear, lack, unworthiness, and shame. (You can listen to Sonya putting it way more eloquently, filled with her generous laughter, here.)
In a different interview, she makes it clear that she doesn’t blame anyone for holding views that don’t align with radical self love. She says it would be extremely difficult to escape a certain thinking – for example, sexist, racist, or homophobic thinking, which devalues certain bodies – when we grow up and are surrounded by it, constantly. Sonya likens it to a native language: we can’t choose it, we grow up surrounded by it so we inevitably speak it. She uses French in her example:
“If I wanted to speak a different language, I would have to study: I would have to meet other people who spoke that language, I would have to practice that language myself. I would have to take active efforts to speak a new language. And sometimes I would still totally default to French cause it’s the language that I grew up in. That is the function of learning how to de-indoctrinate ourselves from body terrorism and start speaking a radical self love language in the areas of our lives. And we’re not bad because we used to speak French – we just grew up with that language.”
“For me, the biggest judge of character is knowing that we speak a language that harms people and choosing never to learn a new language.”
I think if we’re looking for a real intellectual challenge, it’s learning those different languages: by listening to the stories of others, by accepting different experiences than the ones of our own, by staying curious, kind, and engaged. To use a more political terminology, it’s asking, what systems of oppression am I missing [as a white straight body-abled woman from X country]?
When someone says the system’s not serving them, the challenge is not to defend the system, but to say “I haven’t thought about it, tell me more.”
Now that’s one huge learning – and unlearning – project for you, way more meaningful than any petty devil’s advocate exercise can be.