writer, speaker, content creator

Advocatus Diaboli

In Rants, Self Improvement on August 2, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Last night, I got into a rather inconsequential argument with a friend of mine, the details of which are not worth repeating here. A few minutes into the argument, I realized that I wasn’t truly behind my position. Intuitively, I knew my friend was absolutely right. I didn’t want to prove her wrong though. What I wanted, was this: I knew that she was right in an intuitive matter, but that didn’t satisfy my curiosity. I wanted her to explain her position in a more convincing and intellectual fashion, and to do so I was pelting her with a series of questions and accusations that sought to test her contentions. She did, finally, explain herself to my satisfaction, and throughout the course of the conversation I had the thought goddammit, I’m doing it again.

I am a skeptic. This is not just a facet of my character- I sincerely believe that skepticism and inquiry make us into better humans. Believing something for muddy, emotional reasons, I think, has a certain whiff of irresponsibility about it. We all do it, yes, but I believe that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to believe things that are true, and the truth can stand up to scrutiny.

This is all well and good, yes, but sometimes it can really annoy the shit out of people. An example from my own experience: drop handlebars.

I love drop handlebars. Riding a bike without them seems a little weird, actually. But, a little over a year and a half ago, I remember railing against them, asking all kinds of questions about their utility and ergonomics and such. I was out with my ex, an avid cyclist, and I was in the market for a road bike. I said that I found the handlebars awkward and wondered why anyone would prefer them. I pelted her with questions about them, tried to poke holes in her argument about them and she, rather understandably, became extraordinarily angry with me.

What she didn’t understand, though, was that at no point did I actually disagree with her. I wanted her to prove her point. I didn’t want to get a new kind of bike just because it was “better.” I wanted the reasons for its superiority outlined to me in a coherent manner. This, however, occasionally had social costs. “Why do you always argue things that you don’t believe?” was an exasperated question often levied at me.

I try to moderate it. I really do. I know that such concerns, accusatory questions, and general poking and prodding are not everyone’s idea of a good time, and many people seem to regard my persona of a devil’s advocate as something hostile or nihilistic. It’s not. I’m not skeptical because I want to tear down people’s beliefs. Really. I’m skeptical because I want people to have a coherent outline for their positions, because I believe that such rigor improves the quality of people’s arguments and principles. My questions and criticism, I hope, are forces for good. I also play devil’s advocate with my students on a very regular basis, with great results. In the classroom, though, such a thing is more anticipated.

It’s difficult, though. Mind you, I’m not asking for pity or pats on the head as I explain this. This isn’t a fucking livejournal. I just felt compelled to shed a bit of light on this sometimes (perceived) obnoxious aspect of my personality, in light of my conversation last night. I advocate for the devil, yes, and do so with all of my abilities. But it’s not because I want him to win.

  1. I have to say, I was as relieved as anyone at that table to hear you explain at the end that you weren't actually arguing against Scientology, that you were just trying to make us all better Scientologists.


    ::hhmm hhmm::


    Damn. I almost made it with a straight face!

  2. Suffering from the same personality tick, I find that I frequently don't give people enough credit for their opinions. Which is to say, just because someone hasn't rigorously spelled out and defended the rational behind their opinions doesn't mean that they're incapable of doing so, and indeed haven't (at least, to themselves).

    Sometimes people make assertions off-the-cuff and without putting much thought in to them; in those cases, being devil's advocate is probably a useful social function. More often, though, I think people have a pretty well-thought-out rationale for their opinions; spelling this out all the time is generally boring, though, and harmful to conversation.

    That's my two cents, anyway. And I have to agree with Sydney: I, too, was worried you'd haad some crazy lapse of character and turned against the teachings of L. Ron. Glad to see you're still with us.

  3. s/rational/rationale

  4. I, for one, am glad that it all turned out for the best, and that we're all better Scientologists because of it. May we be ever vigilant in the fight against thetans, my comrades! Down with Xenu! Huzzah!

  5. Now let's all head down to Clearwater and see if we can get David Miscavige to beat the shit out of us for no reason, and just take it like good Scientologists!

  6. I have just come out of a course in which we examined the fact that our society places utmost stock and faith in science and rational thought, and that though we like to think that knowing through inquiry is unbiased, the fact that we place so much stock in rationality or science, over other cultural ways of knowing, is in fact bias. A valid way of knowing, certainly, but not the only valid way of knowing, at least not for me.

  7. Indeed. I've been rereading Robin Lakoff's The Language War recently, and she makes a similar point. Not that science isn't the best way we have for knowing things right now, but more than we lack the ability to evaluate what is really the best way to know things. That 1,000 years ago many people thought the sun revolved around the earth and lepers should be stoned to death, but those ideas would make you seem crazy in today's society. Her point is more about social "facts" rather than actual scientifically verifiable facts, that we don't know how crazy what we believe now will seem to us 1,000 years from now, but I think it can be extended to science in so far as we may have technologies and understanding in the future that make our current methods for testing our perceptions seem quaint and silly.

    Also, there's this cat that can sense your aura…

    No, no. Sorry. That was wrong of me. People are trying to have a serious conversation, in which I am trying to participate, and I still can't control my desire to be glib.

    You can't be stoned to death for that, can you?

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