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.


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

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  1. Posted May 30, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    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.

  2. Posted May 30, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

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

  3. Posted May 31, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    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.

  4. Posted May 31, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    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.

    • Posted June 3, 2014 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

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

    • Posted June 13, 2014 at 1:11 am | Permalink

      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.

  5. Posted May 31, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    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.

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