Devil’s Advocacy

The origins of the Devil’s Advocate lie in the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. When candidates for canonization were being considered, it was this person’s job to argue against the candidate. Not “for the sake of argument,” but with the genuine goal of examining the candidate honestly and looking for flaws and problems which could argue against canonization. The Devil’s Advocate was one of the people tasked with keeping the process honest and introspective, of ensuring that a canonization could stand up to scrutiny and investigation because it had already been scrutinized.

This role has been corrupted of late. People falsely believe that the function of the Devil’s Advocate is not to fully examine and explore an argument, but to argue for the sake of being argumentative. And they believe that the role is a mantle; once donned, it allows someone to speak and act with impunity because it’s “all in the interests of argument,” and it’s not possible to do harm while wearing this magical cloak of Devil’s Advocacy.

There are a few things which people seem to miss when misappropriating the role of the Devil’s Advocate in discussion.

The first is that the Devil’s Advocate comes from within. In social justice communities, I often see people outside the community coming in to “play the role of Devil’s Advocate,” except that this is not how it works. In the Church, the Devil’s Advocate was from inside the community. This made this person uniquely qualified to understand the nuances of the situation and the argument. People outside the Church couldn’t argue effectively against a candidate for canonization because they didn’t understand the process, the rules of the community, the language of the community, and what it was like to be inside the community. Even if they had studied them extensively and thought about them and might even be considered authorities on them, because they were still outside.

I can’t walk into a conversation being conducted by people of colour and “play the Devil’s Advocate.” Because I am not a person of colour. I can witness the conversation, if invited, I can take notes on it and think about it and roll arguments and counterpoints around in my head, but my place is on the outside. Because I am an outsider. It is not appropriate for me to position myself on the inside, to try to preempt the conversation, to pretend that I know this community and thus can argue against it “for the sake of argument.” If invited to speak, I can give my perspective as an outsider and testify, but I can never play the Devil’s Advocate, because I am not inside the community.

The second issue is that the role of the Devil’s Advocate is one of critical thinker. This person must entirely inhabit and ponder a counterargument, must think about every possible point which could be raised in opposition and develop a counterpoint, must honestly consider and question and examine the issues. This is exhausting and detailed work. Those who did debate in school probably remember that half the work of prep involved thinking up arguments which might be brought up by the other side. Note, again, that this did not involve asking someone from the other side to argue, it involved examination from within to challenge an argument for the purpose of making it stronger.

This is also an invited role. The Church formally appointed a Devil’s Advocate, choosing the person on the basis of ability, skills, experience, and history. Someone cannot self appoint as a Devil’s Advocate because other members of the community must recognize the person most suited to the role and invite that person to participate in a discussion as the person probing and considering the arguments of the other side. Indeed, one of the people least suited for this role in a discussion is someone who thinks that ou would be appropriate as a Devil’s Advocate.

Critics may be invited to “testify” in the canonization process, much as people from the outside may be invited to speak sometimes in social justice communities. But these people are not Devil’s Advocates. The Devil’s Advocate argues against a position in which ou believes. Outsiders who criticise and testify are arguing, at least to some extent, for a position they believe. And this includes outsiders to social justice communities.

Because this is how privilege entangles with things. Even recognising the role of privilege in your own life and working against it, you are fundamentally an outsider and you are fundamentally going to argue in a way which benefits you. This is a hard thing to realise and accept. It is really difficult to come to the point where you understand that something is wrong and hateful and should end but you will still, in the end, on some level, argue for it to preserve yourself, because this is the nature of being human. Look at how strongly people resist to being asked to examine privilege, how the kneejerk reaction when told that one is privileged is to lash out and say “no I’m not.” People aren’t necessarily going to fault you for that, just like they don’t blame you for having privilege, but it does mean that you can never truly be a Devil’s Advocate when you are approaching a community from the outside, because you don’t fully believe and inhabit the position which you are arguing against. You can’t.

And that’s ok.

There are all kinds of discussions to be had, and all kinds of roles which people can take in those discussions. The Devil’s Advocate is a very special and complicated role, and I for one am tired of seeing it abused. It does have a place, a valuable one, but people need to recognise and be aware of that place. If you are approaching a community as an outsider and claiming to be the Devil’s Advocate, you are simply wrapping yourself so that you can argue to preserve the status quo which protects and privileges you.