It’s the first day of class. You shuffle into your seminar, grab a seat and take a look around. You assess your classmates. Across from you, the one you expected: a red, leathery hide coats his body, two horns protrude from his goat-like skull, a fur linen covers his most precious assets.
And to his right? His advocate.
We all know them — the section assholes, the teachers’ pets, the devil’s advocates. We know that they suck. But whether we like it or not, devil’s advocates walk among us. So, what can we learn from them?
Playing devil’s advocate is the endeavor of taking a controversial or inflammatory opinion in pursuit of debate or “thorough examination.” But devil’s advocates hardly examine anything. The act is hardly the bearing of the cross of discourse on one’s shoulder blades. For most who do it, it’s just fun.
Playing devil’s advocate epitomizes the masculine fantasy of contrarianism, of going against the grain, of being the odd one out, the one who heralds free inquiry and truth and logic and facts that don’t care about no one’s feelings. But the endeavor is nothing more than exactly that — a fantasy. The pursuit of playing devil’s advocate — like writing a purposefully inflammatory YDN opinion column — with the full knowledge that it will do little more than inflame is the pursuit of enraging, not engaging. Discourse is hard, after all, when you’re choking on smoke.
But before someone in the comment section quotes 1984, let me make something clear. Of course, there is nothing wrong with genuine inquiry, genuine debate and the “free pursuit of knowledge,” but that is assuming a “free pursuit of knowledge” exists in the first place. To be able to divorce the “facts” of history from their reverberations — legacies that kill, endanger and oppress to this day — is to tout one’s own removedness from history, one’s ability, whether bestowed by race, gender, class, geography or any other combination of factors, to define themselves on their own terms.
Yes, it is possible to know a lot about a subject and still not have an ounce of a stake in it. To embrace that reckless abandon of privilege, to ignore that what you’re discussing has extremely real effects because none of them happen to affect you, perverts the point of being here at all.
Wait, but what is the point of being here at all? Is it not fine, rigorous discourse among the world’s finest, most rigorous young whippersnappers? Sure, maybe, but to an end.
I’ll put it this way: Yale sells itself on the interchangeability of its courses of study — “English and economics majors get the same jobs, anyway!” If this statement is to be anything other than a blatant admission that skills and knowledge are secondary to brand, then we must believe that there is some greater point to our education: a confidence, an audacity, a rigor that manifests over the course of our time here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with intellectual exploration and taking risks. But knowledge doesn’t float in the ether. The point of discourse is not to provoke a response, or to weaponize “facts and logic” against those around us. If we are not applying what we learn to better ourselves, to better the lives of those around us, then why are we here at all?
Why does the residue of our time here have to take the form of some radical audacity or confidence? Why not radical empathy? A desire to understand — not enrage — each other as best as we can.
Playing devil’s advocate — toying with the “facts” of history to inflammatory ends — makes no good faith attempt to understand the world around us. It does not honor “civility,” it does not honor “discourse;” it makes a game of it, it treats it like a game of MindFlex.
You don’t remember the board game, MindFlex? Let me fill you in.
MindFlex was a board game that channeled your brain waves through a headset to move a metal ball through an obstacle course. When it was released, there was a lot of debate over whether the game actually measured your brainwaves, whether the player was actually in control. Whether you know it or not, you’re playing it right now. You say a lot of things; you do a whole lot of things that you won’t even remember tomorrow. Are you in control, or is it all just some sort of implicated illusion?
The answer to that either/or is yes. For as much as we are empathetic, we love to judge, to essentialize and construct versions made of preconceived notions of each other. We construct our worlds via these narratives, these lenses and scripts that help us make sense of it all — even when they’re out of focus and feed us the wrong lines.
But this historical project of essentialization is one that has served as a conduit of oppression. To play devil’s advocate does not undo these legacies. It reaffirms them. To pretend that these histories don’t matter beyond a thought experiment, that past-and-present violence does not reverberate — if only to pretend — is to allow them to survive completely unnoticed, to reinforce their destructive capacity.
But what if the devil’s advocate is a straw man constructed of nothing other than expectation glued together with extrapolated experience, one that — for better or for worse — helps us understand the world around us and that which plagues it.
But, after all, straw men walk among us in their straw hats with their straw feet and straw hands. They’re irresistible to look at — they stand out. They argue in seminars, they make outlandish points, spewing straw spit from their straw lips. But, touch a straw man and their loose, fibrous skin soon comes apart. They fall to the ground, disintegrating before your very eyes.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .