By The Editorial Board
We have probably all been in a situation in which a topic — often one that doesn’t necessarily require debate — is brought up and someone says the six-word phrase that makes everyone pause in their tracks: “Not to play devil’s advocate, but …”
Nothing good ever follows “but” in that context. If you are unfamiliar with the term “devil’s advocate,” it is essentially a phrase used to portray an opposing side of a topic, oftentimes with little to no credible support.
This was not what it was intended for. We aren’t saying that you shouldn’t have opposing opinions, but there is a line between having a differing opinion and using the phrase “devil’s advocate” to defend the unspeakable.
Most people have probably heard this phrase mentioned in some kind of social studies class, when someone feels the need to advocate for people who supported slavery (i.e., slaveowners) and mention how that was just the norm during that time. This is not acceptable. You can’t use the phrase “devil’s advocate” to justify slavery, racism or any other atrocious event from history; it is impractical.
Don’t use this phrase as something to shield you from simply speaking your opinion. If you wouldn’t say it without the guise of “devil’s advocate,” then maybe you shouldn’t say it to begin with. If you really believe something, own it.
In all conversations, make sure you are also listening to everyone else involved in the discussion, whether you agree with them or not. Don’t be a jerk; respect what other people have to say.
Debate can be very beneficial when done respectfully and correctly. Playing devil’s advocate completely undermines the validity of a constructive debate. Instead of falling back to advocate for the devil, step up the quality of disagreements; support your opposing perspective with reliable evidence and reasoning, and use the conversation to learn something.
Always ensure you aren’t using this phrase as a way to start an argument or be offensive. If you are attempting to belittle someone’s opinion or cause more harm than good, then you should rethink what you are about to say.
The term “gaslighting” is sometimes thrown around lightly these days, but it is applicable in this case, because sometimes gaslighting can be camouflaged as playing devil’s advocate. Gaslighting is when someone is manipulated into believing that they are not credible and that they should question their rationality.
This is important to keep in mind when bringing up opposing opinions, because you don’t want to baselessly deny someone’s argument in order to force your opinion on that person.
Not all things and people need to be advocated for. It is OK to let it go. However, there are ways to bring up the other side without being insensitive. If you are using the phrase correctly, you should be bringing it up to refine the discussion, not to tear someone down.