An open letter to privileged people who play devil’s advocate

50's white couple arguing with each other.

Image Credit: Huffington Post

You know who you are. You are that white guy in an Ethnic Studies class who’s exploring the idea that poor people might have babies to stay on welfare. Or some person arguing over drinks that maybe a lot of women do fake rape for attention. Or, recently, someone insisting that I consider the idea that Elliot Rodger could have been a madman and an anomaly, not at all a product of a white supremacist and misogynistic society.

Most of the time, it’s clear that you actually believe the arguments you claim to have just for the heck of it. However, you know that these beliefs are unpopular, largely because they make you sound selfish and privileged, so you blame them on the “devil.” Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.

These discussions may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you. It doesn’t matter whether most mass shootings are targeted at women who rejected the gunman if you are a man – though it should, since misogyny kills men too. If you are white, it doesn’t matter whether people of color are being racially profiled or not. You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.

To be fair, there are many privileged devil’s advocates out there who are truly trying to figure things out. I know people who think best out loud, throwing ideas at me to see which sticks to their “friendly neighborhood feminist.” Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think. You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars.

It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage. Imagine watching a video where a young man promises to kill women who chose not to sleep with him and then being forced to engage with the idea that maybe you are just a hysterical feminist seeing misogyny where there is none. It is incredibly painful to feel that in order for you to care about my safety, I have to win this verbal contest you have constructed “for fun.”

Short Comic Strip Mocking Misandry

Image Credit: Matt Lubchansky

For those devil’s advocates who are trying to learn, I suggest you explore other avenues. Consider that you are not paying your friends to break down concepts that are often painfully lived experiences for them, and be mindful of their time and energy. Be grateful (and show it), and listen carefully and thoughtfully when they are generous enough to talk about these experiences with you.

Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. time.

So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

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Juliana should get a gold star for every time she refrained from saying “go f*ck yourself” to Elliot Rodger apologists.

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a writer, a speaker, and a consultant. Her blogging work focuses on feminist and racial justice movements lead by Latinas throughout the Americas, touching on issues such as environmental justice, immigration, colonization, land rights and indigenous movements. She has been a regular Contributor to Feministing since Spring of 2013, and also been published on the Huffington Post, Mic, and the Feminist Wire. Juliana studied Latin American and Latinx Studies at the University of California and is now based in the Bay Area where she has worked with various organizations on social media and communications strategy. In her free time, she likes to dance salsa and tango and practice Portuguese with her cousins via Skype.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and digital communications specialist living in California.

Read more about Juliana

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  • http://feministing.com/members/cruzy/ Susan M

    I’ve been reading Feministing for a while, but finally signed up today because this article describes so many men that I know. Perhaps it’s because I work in tech, where unempathetic argumentativeness is endemic trait, but I feel like I’m surrounded by these people. Every topic, no matter how serious, is an opportunity for a game. Women exaggerate rape. Women choose not to get paid as much. You can’t prove that Specific Scenario X is directly caused by sexism, there for sexism does not exist. Etc…etc…etc…ultimately, it can be helpful to educate people who are just confused, or don’t have the facts, but it’s also important to understand when you’re being played, and when the privileged individual in question is in fact continuing the problem by engaging in deliberate obfuscation. We need to spend our precious electrons engaging productively, not as foils for those with ill intent.

    • Gavin Jenkins

      I think the problem is the “unempathetic” thing you mentioned near the beginning of your post, not the “productive” part at the end. Devil’s advocacy can be super productive, almost more than any other form of discourse in my opinion.

      BUT not when one of the people isn’t also playing devil’s advocate. It’s a two player game if it is to be fully productive. And if they aren’t picking up that you aren’t into it, then their poor social skills are undermining the effectiveness of the method. Also if they’re making you imagine things that are traumatic to you, it also undermines the process in addition to just causing direct harm. These things all come from the empathy side though. Knowing when to use a tool, not so much the tool itself.

      If we were all just emotionless robots, then you would just fire back additional hypotheticals and providing evidence for each back and forth and you’d both probably discover all sorts of interesting things. OR if everybody had so much empathy that they nimbly avoided all the emotional landmines along the way, you might get similar results.

      (also, nitpick, but if you’re confused / actually considering or believing the argument due to for example lack of facts, then that isn’t devil’s advocacy by definition. That’s just being ignorant of something.)

  • fyoumudflaps

    Yes! Also known as JAQing off. It’s incredibly irritation.

  • http://feministing.com/members/junkchuck/ Junk Chuck

    I agree with all of your points, but worry that framing Rodger’s acts in particular as products of societal shortcomings relieves him from a degree of personal responsibility and suggests a veil of victimhood, however sheer, might lay over his crimes–do not discount the fact that this guy was a maladjusted asshole and supreme coward.

  • http://feministing.com/members/carl/ Carlton

    I usually do not play Devil’s Advocate in gender discussion because it’s a waste of time and it distracts from more important issues like sexual assault and rape. However, since you raised the point…

    When I was nineteen, I was beaten and kick on my front doorstep by some guys who thought I looked gay. Between the ages of six and twenty I was stopped by the police–for no apparent reason–about a half dozen times. Still, I’m told this doesn’t happen to white people.

    However, when I have objected that social policies should not be driven by sweeping generalizations or simplistic dichotomies, I have been shouted down–literally shouted down–and called racist, sexist and other vile terms.

    If I object to your sweeping generalizations, it is not because I’m “playing” or because you’re threatening my sense of privilege. It’s because sweeping generalizations are another term for prejudice, and simplistic dichotomies are not conducive to open, progressive discussions.

    • http://feministing.com/members/abeautifulmess66/ Eli

      Carlton
      I just wanted to say thank you for posting your reply.
      Regards
      Eli

    • http://feministing.com/members/dg101/ dustin guest

      Well, that’s the thing…your story is not the majority. There could be hundred or thousands of straight, white males with the same story, but they’re still not the majority. And that’s what the whole thing is about. It’s awful that you dealt with such things. It’s awful that you suffered the way you did, and I really do sympathize, but in the grand scale, the many outweigh the few. A lot us are still dealing with the idea of “privilege”. I know I am. There doesn’t feel like there’s any privilege when you’re barely keeping the lights on. I’m sure the homeless dude on the street isn’t exactly feeling privileged when he’s struggling to survive in winter. Getting used to the fact that those guys still have some sort of societal advantage is a bit confounding, and I’ll admit, at times very irritating.

      It can be hard trying to empathize with someone who doesn’t appear to be showing you any empathy because you enjoy societal privileges and they do not, regardless of your experiences in life. I get it. It’s frustrating. I won’t even claim to know what it’s like from the other side. I know a lot of guys are threatened by this whole idea…mostly because it aims to take them out of the top of the pecking order and a loss of power is hugely detrimental to them. But I know some also feel like their voice no longer matters in the discussion. Though, hell, maybe that’s an ego thing in and of itself.

      • mg

        I’m not threatened by the idea “mostly because it aims to take them out of the top of the pecking order and a loss of power is hugely detrimental [to me].” I am threatened by the clear and unquestioned path given to those who rearrange the pecking order, sans data, through willpower and tenacity alone, because that is exactly the process by which new injustices are made. There’s a lot more at stake here than ‘power.’ In fact, it’s a biased viewpoint to think that average white, straight male exists in a structure of ‘power’ in the first place. It’s a concept given to you by a) your media-at-large, b) peer pressure (see above article for examples), and c) your assumption that the portion of life you’ve seen is congruent with the many times larger portion of life you HAVEN’T seen. It’s the same concept as, even if someone has never encountered a Middle Eastern who wasn’t rude to them, they’re still wrong when they make “your kind..” comments about Middle Easterners. The generalization that seems to be a fallback, an undeniable conceptual tic, for some people is what a lot of us are calling out, as wrong, and dangerous, and your statement that it’s “mostly because” of power structure rearrangement is a straw man. You want us to ignore the generalizations, or to view them as toothless, so you point so a big ugly toothy concept (itself constructed from bias) hoping our gaze will stay over there for the time being. Please don’t do that, dude.

  • http://feministing.com/members/femister/ D R

    Thank you to Juliana for her challenging article. I hope it has the ends she’s looking for.

    I agree with her that casual arguing can become a game of oversimplification, the result of which distances the arguer from the subject. Devil’s Advocate becomes more of a coping mechanism to deal with difficult topics. Rather than deepening an understanding of misogyny and race, those issues are only salved and become increasingly abstract.

    My concern isn’t whether or not Juliana and people like her will close herself to new ideas and constructive feedback (though they probably will) but whether privileged groups will have a way to understand these issues on a more palpable level.

  • JM

    Thank you Juliana for your extremely interesting article.

    I would like to share the point of view of a french white male supporting feminism at its finest. And I will go forward saying that I truly think that a matriarchal society would be way much healthier for everyone. It has been this way in many societies through mankind’s history and still is in some part of the world.
    But why would I start off with this statement and want to add a comment then ? Because I feel like awaking consciousness with a continuous balance of power is just some kind of patriarchal feminism. I’m not defending, denying nor encouraging the fact that white males are highly advantaged in this society. I’m just emphasizing the fact that most of us would rather, instead of facing this balance of power, contribute for a consistent and relevant shift in society, for our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, and truly for ourselves. Women shouldn’t need men to be safe, to be considered as equals etc., but playing the misogynist game with such dichotomies is no solution. It’s a shortcut for communitism. I would suggest another perspective and blame capitalism (would be quite long to explain but I’m willing to do it if you want to).

    In other words, there is no fun for a white male like me to see that women still have to fight to justify something that is a simple and verified fact. But think of the way you want to change things, isn’t it through the scope of this unfair society that you’re doing it, opposing your eternal allies and equals : men.

    Thinking that we could just walk away is the problem. On a more practical statement, just because you wrongly think that we’re not affected by this inequality because we “don’t live it”, is simply wrong. We don’t live it as you do, it’s true, by definition, we’re different. But we live it. I have a girlfriend and want her to be just as happy as anyone else could be,
    without struggling between the social pressure of having a successful career and the natural clock ticking, rushing her to be a mother (This situation pushing lot of couples to the edge of their own condition, and eventually not having the time for both and finally entering in another dimension of this consumerist society forcing a couple to “buy” a baby or to raise your own by another person etc.). I also have a mother and I want her to feel accomplished because she raised my brother my sister and I so well. I want my sister to have the choice of her life, of her happiness with equal chances. We get involved in this every single day, and participate to this shift. It is our fight. We’re not walking away. This is our problem and we’re here to face it with you.

    Hope this is not too simplistic, I tried to use my personal example, not to make a general statement but as a sincere and true analogy in order to readdress the problematic.

    Sorry for the english mistakes, hope it makes sense.

  • Budders

    you hate “devil’s advocate” because the devil makes some good points. As a man I can acknowledge there’s a problem with sexual assault without pretending moralistic exhibitionism is going to solve it. Feminism in its present form, like Fox News or any singular political identity, is an echo chamber. As a student of the humanities i’ve seen serious scholarship (which takes time) as a means of credibility replaced by a leap frogging contest to the left where credibility is the position to shout over the person just to your right in a contest of vicarious victimhood. isn’t the foundation of socratic methodology – the model on which western civilization built its identity through education, demand debate? and doesn’t just shouting down white men, as appealing or as easy as that may sound, a violation of that process which is, as long as we identify as interested in truth, essential?

    • Katrina

      Is it “shouting down white men” or acknowledging said “truth” which is
      that socratic methodology and western civilization was in fact built by
      white men…for white men? Acknowledging this and bringing forth ideas
      that seek to acknowledge that truth encompasses everyone is not
      violating a “process” especially if that process always leads to my
      “truth” being denied or questioned in the name of preserving a
      constructed truth for a majority. I applaud your will to preserve the quest towards truth- but it’s dangerous to only recognize that of some.

  • gay-pua.blogspot.com

    The article is saying “check your privilege.” It limits discussion by saying only people going through it can talk about it, even though whatever is affecting them is probably affecting other people too. It’s not unfair for a straight person to argue against gay marriage, because actually, there are people who might disagree with it (probably for bigoted reasons but still) who make a living marrying people, and we have to consider gays will adopt children so the gay people in question are not in a vacuum, so it’s okay for others to play devil’s advocate — maybe foreigners will marry same-sex friends under the guise of gay marriage to get papers, etc. It’s not unfair to mention that many claims of rape are false, because there are jailed people actually being raped in jail because of these false accusations. But people with specific agendas only want their side of the story to be heard. (Also, I am gay.)

    It’s also interesting she calls people out for having plausible deniability for their views by blaming it on the “devil.” That’s actually the result of a lot of people believing one thing and having hostile views and feelings towards people who believe otherwise. That need to blame it on the devil is a symptom of a larger intellectual problem.

    She writes, “Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think.” This is the most reasonable way to think! Why anyone would think in any other way, on purpose, is beyond me. Usually people think something because it is emotionally congruent to them so then they haphazardly back up their viewpoint intellectually and resent other viewpoints. I don’t think this article helps to solve that problem.

    “It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough.” She needs to learn to back herself up with sources. This literally translates, “Well it’s hard to be [something] and since I am [something] I don’t have to say why that is.” Wow! This isn’t how progress is made.

    It seems a lot of her problems would be over if she could present statistics to the people who have viewpoints different from her own. This isn’t exhausting, unless she needs to pursue a hobby outside of debate!

  • Kris

    So basically: “let me forward whatever theory I want on the internet, without criticism or counter-example, otherwise you are a bigot”. This whole argument is simply a justification for intellectual laziness, or worse intellectual dishonesty. I think the final paragraph is particularly telling, referring to any questioning or criticism as “your cause”, rather than a counter-argument. These are all elements of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

    I completely understand if someone doesn’t want to explain their experiences, or consider alternatives to their current thought patterns. But posting socio-cultural theories on the internet is a bad way to achieve that. e.g. If the author made the claim that killers like Elliot Rodgers are the product of a misogynist culture, then they better expect the counter-argument that those killers are instead the product of a failing mental health system. Personally, I’d argue by process of elimination, that such incidents are the products of both (and other factors) especially when viewed in the context of other spree killings. But the point is, trying to get away with advancing a single theory, then protecting it by saying “if you disagree then you are a bigot” is pure intellectual laziness. It doesn’t help society, and it sure doesn’t help the “us” side that the author has constructed.

  • Sam Hain

    Are there people that find the “asking me to argue my position is oppression” argument convincing?

  • Maus Reddan

    amen

  • Gavin Jenkins

    There’s a major distinction here that is getting lumped together into one argument, when it shouldn’t be.

    Devil’s advocacy type #1) The advocacy is something that you don’t agree with but which is a position that a semi reasonable person might hold and does not include any obvious violence or completely horrible concepts. Since this is about feminism, an example might be “But what if some catcallers are actually trying to productively flirt?” From somebody who hasn’t experienced it, that’s actually a perfectly reasonable possibility to consider. Sure, it’s annoying to you maybe to have to slog through your contrary experience or the arguments with multiple people about this, but tough noogies. I don’t have much sympathy for complaining about this, since the person is likely sincerely trying out ideas, and they can’t read your mind about why it might be wrong. Wishing people could read your mind and magically step into your shoes and not have to bother you with explaining things won’t ever make it so. If you want them to think like you, you have to convince them against REASONABLE (even if naive) concepts like this.

    Devil’s advocacy type #2) The advocacy is about a heinous or ridiculous position that is completely obviously wrong and/or makes you imagine traumatic situations. This is just being an asshole, because everybody at the table already knows that it’s not a viable opinion, so there’s no practical need to explore it, since there’s 0% chance of anybody actually deciding “maybe that’s a good point!”

    Type #1 is totally fine and productive, type #2 is not. The article uses reasons why type #2 is bad, however, and just uses those as a blanket justification for all types being bad.

  • Hrayr

    I am that person who thinks best out loud, and come at a concept from every angle, because that’s just good reasoning. If it’s done honestly and sincerely, it shouldn’t be condemned. I realize that there is an urgency to remove structures of injustice and oppression, but it has to be done with a scalpel, not a sledge hammer, and there’s no way around that that I can see. Do you?