Being an Effective Devil’s Advocate

Scene: a coffee shop where two people are in a heated discussion over a complex topic.

Galina: “So you can see that, generally speaking, this is predominantly the case!”
Bob: “No! What about this one time, that thing happened! That shows that you’re completely wrong!”
Galina, confused: “I don’t understand what that has to do with this?”
Bob: “Hey, this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m just being a Devil’s Advocate….”

This scene is all too common, and it’s immensely frustrating for people who have spent time and energy learning about a topic to be “refuted” by someone who knows very little. “Refuted”, though, is not the same as refuted, because Bob hasn’t actually offered a useful counterargument. No, Bob is just being a contrarian jerk. And contrarian jerks love to claim that they’re “just being a Devil’s Advocate”.

The purpose behind the official position of the Devil’s Advocate in the Catholic Church was to research the background of a person being proposed for beatification (canonization, being made a saint) in order to present informed arguments against the lawyers proposing the beatification of that person. The important point here is “informed“,

Even taken out of that 400-year-old concept into the secular world, there is much to be gained by having someone advocate for the devil, to take the opposing position in an argument, in order to further the argument, or to dig into details that may be overlooked by a roomful of people in favour of the idea. There is merit in getting everyone to stop and reexamine their assumptions on a topic, and I would argue that is one of the core benefits of philosophy.

However, there is only a benefit when the opposing position is informed, and presenting counterarguments that intersect with the proposed position. To return to the opening scene of this essay, a situation I’ve encountered far, FAR too much: Bob’s point is completely irrelevant. Because Galina is presenting a *general* point, a single instance doesn’t refute it. A general argument doesn’t exclude the occasional piece of data going in the opposite direction. Bob, it would seem, just doesn’t seem to understand what a ‘genera’ point is. Spend some time online, or around people who take joy in ‘winning’ arguments, and you’ll find this to be a common failure. The stunned silence of their interlocutor isn’t the stunned silence of “oh wow, my whole argument has been destroyed” but the stunned silence of “oh wow, in order to have a useful conversation, I now have to explain to this person the meanings of words like ‘generally’”.

Moreover, disputing a point with someone ‘just for fun’ without letting them know beforehand generates stress and anxiety for that person: all of a sudden, they are in the midst of a (possibly public) disagreement with someone, and it would seem to them (and everyone else) that the counterargument is being made in good faith. This can take someone by surprise, especially if they made the statement believing that everyone around them felt the same, and to pull the rug out from under them for your own amusement is, frankly, the act of a jerk.

Let’s say that you don’t wish to be considered a contrarian jerk, with no regards for other people, but you would still like to try to argue the opposite position to those around you: how should you approach the situation?

  1. Ask the person you’re speaking to if it’s ok for you to disagree with them for the sake of exploring the idea further
  2. Listen carefully to their points.
  3. Rephrase their position and state it back to them to ensure you have a clear understanding of the point that they’re making.
  4. If a point has multiple angles, discuss with them where they think the central idea lies.
  5. DON’T merely think of a broad statement that seems to counter ‘the whole thing’, because that’s almost never the case.
  6. After each counterpoint that you make, check with the other person if they feel you’ve made a relevant point, or an irrelevant one, and ask if they would like to discuss your counterpoint, or change the topic.
  7. Assuming they want to keep going, circle back to 2.

You are, of course, free to ignore this advice. But this advice is only for those people who wish to be effective Devil’s Advocates. Being a contrarian jerk doesn’t require either effort or education, so it’s obviously the easier path to take.

[It goes without saying that the above steps can also be applied if you’re sincerely disagreeing with someone. This is, essentially, about respecting the person you’re disagreeing with you, and I’d suggest that if you’re disagreeing merely for your own entertainment, the onus is on you to ensure that you’re not upsetting people around you. Because you’re not a jerk, right?]

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