Illustration by Alex Nash

Devil’s advocates play vital role in classroom debates

The devil’s advocate: someone to give voice to the overlooked, or a person with a penchant for chaos? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a devil’s advocate is, “a person who champions the less accepted cause for the sake of an argument.” According to Urban Dictionary, it is “one who takes up the opposite argument to another person’s statement or position, just to cause a problem for them.” 

Here is my definition of a devil’s advocate: someone who calls attention to a point that has been overlooked in order to open up a conversation. A good devil’s advocate will advance the conversation in order to encourage growth in mindset.

I invite you to reconsider a devil’s advocate in this way as well. A person with a penchant for chaos is someone totally different. Many people have endured that one person who raises their hand to contradict the teacher on a point, or who will viciously attack another’s argument and then claim that they were never wrong. Those people are not devil’s advocates. They are people seeking to create conflict for the sake of arguing, or just to cause a problem. 

Do not hate on the good devil’s advocate. The person who plays this role in a conversation is often demonized because the points they bring up cause other speakers to realize their own close-mindedness.

I often hear conversations around the Lewis & Clark campus in which people disparage and disgrace others with the justification that the people they are criticizing have broken a moral code. This is a flawed justification because it implies that the criticizers have unbreakable morals and are without fault, which is impossible. 

We are all humans who make mistakes, we are not omniscient. We can be ignorant at times. Most people do not wake up thinking, “I want to make someone feel bad about themselves today.” We have reasons for our actions and opinions, and taking time to consider someone else’s point of view creates a mindset set towards growth. 

A good devil’s advocate advocates for the humanity in everyone and the complexity of actions and events in order to open minds.

For example, consider a group of people talking about canceling the singer Cavetown due to a past tweet from 2014 that was possibly anti-semitic. These people judge him and begin to differentiate themselves from ‘the bad person’ (Cavetown) by talking about other things that make him bad “oooh I knew those lyrics were sus” or “I never liked how they interacted with audiences anyways,” drawing together points to demonize Cavetown. 

The group of people use the tweets to  justify their scorn and hatred and emphasize that Cavetown is inherently a bad person. By bashing Cavetown this way, the group implies that they know better and are better people. 

In this situation a good devil’s advocate would challenge the separation of good vs. bad people and ask why our former selves’ ignorance anticipates total cancelation and vilification. Would anyone want to be known for the views of their 14-year-old self?

Is that not part of stereotyping, something that these self-proclaimed “open-minded” people like to avoid? Granted, there is a possibility that Cavetown is actually problematic. But there is also a possibility that they are not. 

I think that discussing possibility is worth the attempt to understand another person’s point of view. There is always something to be learned: That there is some part of their viewpoint that you can understand, or that they truly are bad and you do not have to spend energy on them anymore.

People have reasons for what they do, and a devil’s advocate can draw attention to this to help people reflect on their own judgments or develop an empathetic ear. We should not wonder why people act the way they do, and assume that there is always a reason. 

Maybe people demonize ‘devil’s advocates’ because they themselves are not as open-minded as they claim to be, and they do not want to confront that. Bashing someone for a single mistake is not open-minded. So, rethink the definition of devil’s advocate, and consider investigating and discussing the humanity that lays within each of us. 

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