Whether they’re hashing out the cons of writing about sex for the internet (aka my job) or suggesting that our current POTUS “isn’t that bad for LGBTQ people,” I’ve noticed that when people say they’re playing devil’s advocate, I often end up feeling railroaded or unheard.
Devil’s advocate, defined:
When someone “plays devil’s advocate,” they’re arguing an opinion or taking a side they don’t agree with in order to foster debate.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for diversity of thought. Heck, as a journalist, it’s my job to make a stance and argue for it eloquently. But in today’s polarized world, especially in the context of online debate, where self-righteousness often trumps nuance, the devil’s advocate card can feel less like a way to engage with a subject and more like a bullying tactic.
If well-executed, playing devil’s advocate can even be a useful way to generate debate and, ultimately, strengthen knowledge.
An example of someone truly playing devil’s advocate might look like:
Person A: “The air quality has been so bad here recently that I’ve had to find ways to exercise inside.”
Person B: “Yeah, I’ve been doing that too. But, to play devil’s advocate, how do you know the air in your house is any better? I read an article that said unless you have an air purifier or AC, there’s no difference in air quality.”
Person B is introducing an opposing viewpoint without saying that they think it’s true or they agree with it. By presenting this alternative perspective, they’re making Person A think harder about the subject.
The problem is that people aren’t typically using the devil’s advocate strategy to further the conversation. Instead, it’s often used as a method to silence those whose opinions, beliefs, or experiences don’t align with their own.
According to mental health professional Jor-El Caraballo M Ed, a relationship expert and co-creator of Viva Wellness, devil’s advocate is commonly used to do one of the following:
1. Troll or derail a conversation
“A lot of times people are advocating a side that they don’t actually believe,” says sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT. Basically, it’s trolling.
Often, the pushback has no point other than to disrupt, destabilize, dissent, or create a rise from the person who stated the initial argument, she says.
“It’s without a doubt manipulative, abusive, and ill-intentioned.”
2. Mask a provocative or controversial personal opinion
On the flip side, some people pretend to play devil’s advocate when they’re actually arguing their own point of view. Someone might do this if they realize their perspective is offensive or ill-willed.
“The devil’s advocate position allows them to disguise their own opinion and hatred,” says Francis.
3. Gaslight someone about their very real lived experiences
Francis gives this example: A person of color is telling a white person how they’ve been harmed or oppressed, and the white person responds by suggesting that maybe they misread the situation and there wasn’t actually any racist intent.
Not only is this gaslighting — which is a form of emotional abuse — it’s also counterproductive.
“When someone is trying to name what hurts them or harms them, it isn’t useful for someone to reintroduce the perspective or viewpoint of the person (or group of people) who is (are) creating that harm,” says Francis.
Why? Well, it de-centers the person who is trying to express their lived experiences and re-centers the position that is already the center — the position of the person who has created racial harm.
Signs of malicious intent
- Tone. The way someone says something is key. Their actual words may be logical, but if their tone is condescending or you feel undermined by how they engage with you, that’s a red flag.
- Intent. Are the person’s comments productive and helpful? Or are they seeking to undermine, silence, or discredit you? If it’s the latter, exit stage left.
- Awareness of power. Does the person actively acknowledge their power? “When there is a power hierarchy, it is really hard for the less powerful voice to be heard,” says Francis.
It can be emotionally harmful to stick around while someone presents a “rationale” that ignores your humanity (or others’). That’s why, Caraballo says, it’s “important to have a very low threshold when people who hold certain privileges choose to employ the ‘devil’s advocate’ angle.”
To protect yourself the next time you’re face-to-face with this kind of behavior, consider the following:
1. Be honest with yourself
“Assess whether continuing the conversation actually meets your needs or goals,” says Caraballo. If not, you have a right to end it, especially if it’s not emotionally safe for you (or if you don’t have the bandwidth in that moment to engage).
2. Be honest with them
If you’re invested in your relationship with this person — maybe they’re a sibling or friend — or think they could be receptive to feedback, tell them how it feels when they talk that way. It’s possible they’re unaware of how their views and communication style affect others.
“It might be safe for you (and helpful to them) for you to acknowledge how their thoughts are guided by privilege and misinformation and how that impacts you,” says Caraballo.
Caution: Take this route only if it feels safe for you in the moment and doesn’t run the risk of making things more fraught for you. And, of course, it’s never your responsibility to educate someone else.
3. End the conversation
“We do ourselves a disservice when we entertain bad faith attempts to understand or see ‘all sides’ of an argument that actually impacts our lives,” says Caraballo. And sometimes ending the conversation is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Some lines you might try:
- “I was hoping to engage in an emotionally vulnerable discussion, but I don’t feel that this is a safe place for me to do so, so I’m going to exit this conversation.”
- “Engaging in a conversation about [X] is not productive for my well-being, so I’m going to walk away.”
- “In this conversation I’m not trying to understand the counterpoints. What I really need is for you to try to understand my experience. If you don’t feel like you can, that’s OK, but I’ll have to leave this conversation.”
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.