Advocatus Diaboli

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.

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