Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Devil's Advocate

Apparently it was Oscar Wilde who said, "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit."  Now, I don't know the context of the quote, but I think it's true.  Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.  Similarly, I think playing the devil's advocate is the lowest form of argument.


In my experience, people play the devil's advocate for two reasons:  1) because they think their audience is ignorant of an opposing argument, or 2) because they have no conviction on the discussion at hand.  Assuming these are indeed the reasons for playing the devil's advocate, here are my thoughts on each:
  1. Why do people so often assume the worst in others?  What if we approached every discussion or debate with the assumption that most -- if not all -- people have done their homework or have put some thought into what they say?  Just because someone is arguing one position doesn't mean he or she hasn't thought of every other one.

    But let's say that in the course of a discussion, it becomes apparent that the person you're talking to has, in fact, not considered all sides of a topic.  Instead of standing behind an idea that you're not necessarily 100% -- or even 50% -- in support of in order to teach a lesson or make a point, you could simply say, "Some people think [this] about this topic.  What do you make of that?"  Or, "I've heard a few friends say [this] on the matter.  What are your thoughts?"
  2. People should say what they mean and mean what they say.  If they don't know what they mean, then they should listen.  Or ask questions.
This post probably seems like it's coming out of nowhere, but it's actually something that's been on my mind for quite some time.  Why?  I suppose it's because I know a lot of people who play the devil's advocate on a regular basis, and I'm tired of it -- not tired in a sassy, I-don't-want-to-be-your-friend-anymore kind of way, but in an exhausted, will-you-just-please-be-yourself kind of way.*


*This post isn't directed toward anyone in particular; it's meant for a general audience.



Thing I'm thankful for: Tanya, my fellow student worker

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the full quote is "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence." And no one really knows where that quote came from. Sarcasm is great, as is exploring the merits of an argument from various perspectives. I completely fail to relate to this post, but I suppose that's not a bad thing.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Hm. Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence. I will have to think about that for a bit . . .

As for exploring the merits of an argument from various perspectives -- Well, that's exactly what someone who plays the devil's advocate would say, right? The assumption is that the person who doesn't play the advocate doesn't or hasn't explored the merits of an argument.

The problem with playing the devil's advocate is not that you're considering other arguments, it's that you're arguing something that you might not necessarily believe for the sake of starting a debate.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Will said...

"playing the devil's advocate" is a convenient way to assert power or dominance over others by forcing them to justify their beliefs to you while allowing yourself to take no responsibility for your own. If you are a woman with opinions and a man consistently wants to argue with you for its own sake and not because of the actual issue, his real agenda may be (probably unconsciously) to disempower you relative to himself.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

You should've written this post, Will. You understand how I feel when someone plays the devil's advocate with me better than I do. Well said. Well said.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Your comment is interesting--"As for exploring the merits of an argument from various perspectives -- Well, that's exactly what someone who plays the devil's advocate would say, right?" Do you really not believe it is not possible for someone who is playing the devil's advocate to have any pure and good motives?

The devil's advocate often sees the view of "Assuming these are indeed the reasons for playing the devil's advocate [or any other position]" and explores what other logical reasons might be.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I guess my suggestion to you would be to create a blog post that explores the valid or logical reasons for playing the devil's advocate (and how one can be a decent individual and still take this position). But I want you to go further and convince your readers this is a valid approach--not just a treatise on how silly or immature this position is.

You might respond with something about not wanting to mislead your readers, and suggest that I be less misleading in my presentation of my opinions.

My response would be that if someone really wants to know my opinion, they can ask and I will be honest. But most of the time, they don't really want to know my opinion, they just want verification of their own opinion.


But maybe what you're really against is not the devil's advocate, but those who are belittling and condescending in their speech. This, I can agree, is definitely appropriate, but can also be displayed by those not playing the devil's advocate, and even by those agreeing with your point of view.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Nathan, I never said that people who take a devil's advocate approach to discussions aren't decent people. (Besides, we could go on and on about what "decency" is and what it's indicators are.)

I'll say this: You asked whether I believe it's possible for someone who plays the devil's advocate to have any pure and good motives. In life? Yes, absolutely. In debate? No, probably not. But I'll think about this question for a while before I make a definitive answer.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Right. And as a decent, good, human being, etc, I believe I have good and pure motives in debate. I challenge you to justify my thought processes.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Saule Cogneur said...

Sometimes the "devil's advocate" position is useful. I don't think the issue is one of lack of personal conviction. Rather, I believe it is sometimes one of thorough treatment.

Every time I write a paper or perform a study, I think about the material from as many perspectives as possible - even the ones I don't like or think are extremely improbable. Arguing against my conclusions from those perspectives helps me find logical flaws and inconsistencies.

10:55 AM  

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