I would like to take a moment and discuss a pair of tweets I saw in passing late last week. I had to stop and re-read it a few times to make sure I wasn’t reading it incorrectly, or missing some context, or anything in that regard.
The first tweet, from a now-deleted account, said this:
I deliberately tell my students not to be devil’s advocates in discussions because it normalizes disingenuous argument and leads into gaslighting. There’s no point in arguing from the perspective of evil. Nothing good comes from that.
The person who posted this was not a big account, was clearly just a teacher, and apparently didn’t expect much pushback because the account is just gone now. I am assuming what brought about a lot of the pushback was this quote tweet, which brought the original to my attention.
I wish every educator did this. Being a devil's advocate makes the discourse poorer and thinner and cheaper. You think you are being Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society with some carbon copy of the socratic method. In reality, you are a Reddit reply-guy soldier an info war. https://t.co/tEJ88D3Co8
— Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) April 16, 2021
This is an incredibly strange take on education, and given the current course of society, it feels very much in the opposite direction of where we should be heading.
One of the things that makes politics so difficult a field is that, if we’re being honest, the point isn’t to convince people to change their minds. It hasn’t been for a long time, either. There was a point, though, when we could at least understand where the other side was coming from, and be able to navigate our way through arguments just enough to come to some sort of compromise in the middle.
You see, understanding someone else’s perspective is vital not just to know how to argue with them, but how to take their needs into consideration and come to a mutual agreement over something. In the realm of argumentation, the key is to get the other side to acknowledge you have a point and make a concession. How much of a concession they make doesn’t matter. You simply need to get something out of the opponent in order to declare victory.
That’s also how I’ve taught argumentation to now hundreds of students over the last seven years. The point of the argument is to make the reader understand your perspective and to admit you have a point. You have to convince them you know what you’re talking about. The best way to do that is to acknowledge their perspective and find the common ground, especially if refuting their side isn’t always an option.
This often means using the Socratic method — that is, questioning a statement in order to gain deeper meaning and insight into it — to challenge the reality of a situation. Why is something the way it is? Why does it have to be this way? Can it be another way? These are all questions that are routinely asked, but when questioning turns into argumentation, you need to be able to back up why you are asking the questions. This often means taking a side you won’t normally take in order to challenge the argument of another.
Where the tweets mentioned above fail in tackling the issue of playing devil’s advocate is assuming that taking the opposite opinion just to take challenge someone is based entirely on misinformation and gaslighting. If a student taking part in a discussion of a subject stoops to that level, that is a failure of the teacher to set acceptable parameters and keep students on the right track. The point of the discussion isn’t to lie and gaslight. The point is to challenge using the facts and data that the other side would. That can be done honestly, and it forces the student taking that position to come armed with extra information — information they otherwise wouldn’t go to because it conflicts with their preconceived notions on a topic.
That is, inherently, a good thing. It invites discourse and real learning. Devil’s advocacy for the sake of being argumentative will never cut it, but actually taking the opposite side, researching it, and using that not only to challenge what someone else argues but what you also may inherently believe ultimately makes you better in arguing for the side you truly believe in.
The risk that the tweets above run into is making the assumption that the opposite side is always a dishonest position that shouldn’t be acknowledged. That closes the minds of your students and actually hinders them from truly understanding the other side, making them weaker in the long run when it comes to defending their positions.
I don’t necessarily encourage students to take the role of devil’s advocate in an argument or discussion, but I don’t actively dissuade them. It needs to come naturally. I encourage them to understand the other side. Sometimes, I invite them to stand opposite of what they believe, but that is just to make them stronger over time. But to force students to close their minds to the opposite side — which, make no mistake, is what the thought process of the tweets above ultimately leads to — prevents intellectual growth.
We must understand what the people we disagree with think and why they think it. It isn’t malicious dishonesty. It is simply a matter of opinion and we must acknowledge those differences exist not as a hostile force, but something we must confront head-on.