Canceling the Debate: A Misunderstanding of the Devil’s Advocate

Playing devil’s advocate is a common discussion exercise in schools. It helps scholars see other perspectives and hone their debating skills. The game of devil’s advocate is a tool to be utilized by trusted peers and exercised in good faith.

However, the game begins with a peer announcing their intentions. The advocate is typically already known to their fellow classmates and initiates the role from a place of understanding and respect. But the game of devil’s advocate becomes an entirely different beast in the company of strangers.

To play devil’s advocate in such an environment is to invite the suspicion of others. Outside of a classroom environment, few will know anyone’s true opinions. If another student, without notice, presents an argument that may be considered offensive by others, many may respond under the assumption that said student was presenting their true opinion.

This “offense” can take many forms ranging from purposefully inflammatory material, blatant fallacies, the omission of relevant information, etc. The same response can still be elicited if the advocate attempts to create plausible deniability. If an advocate announces one view, but subsequently denies that view, this demonstration of cognitive dissonance will inevitably be noticed by other scholars. Outside of an academic environment, the most relevant parallel is likely the depressingly common statement: “I’m not racist, but….”

At some point, the advocate must end the game, just as a player must eventually put away their mask and call it a day. To wear the mask for extended periods of time may confuse other scholars, especially those who have only ever seen the mask and now hold little regard for one’s true face. Wearing a mask for too long can also potentially be dangerous; an advocate may actually begin believing the so-called devil while still publicly arguing that they’re just playing around.

Or, perhaps, a scholar means what they said and quickly decides that they were actually playing the advocate, after being called out by their peers, in an effort to save face. In a scenario when an advocate has been playing with strangers, they must execute their reveal with delicacy. A poor reveal will always be accompanied by a negative reception of one’s true point. By playing with the trust of others, an advocate risks harming not only their own credibility, but the credibility of their argument.

Trust is a delicate thing. It takes time to build but only an instant to destroy. Trust is built up over long periods of time, and even the strongest of relationships can be bent by a demonstration of infidelity. With strangers, a break in trust is far more damning.

The worst thing an advocate can do when pulling off the mask is to disregard the criticisms of their peers. To purposefully present a poor argument and subsequently claim that it was all a ruse is to, at best, admit that one has wasted the community’s time. It shows a lack of respect for the scholars who spent time listening and then responding to one’s initial argument. Regardless of the advocate’s true point, they may find that other scholars are less likely to listen to them. The general populace isn’t fond of being used, and purposefully eliciting strong, negative responses is unlikely to put others in a listening mood.

Arguing in bad faith will inevitably poison the discussion and end the debate prematurely, leaving participants with worthwhile conclusion. Trust is one of the most important parts of any discussion or dialogue. To take another scholar’s trust for granted, to purposefully mislead and then chastise them, is to lose their respect and, thus, their ear. Purposefully trying to get a rise out of others to prove a point will inevitably leave one without an audience.