May the devil’s advocate go back to hell: The dangerous appeal of “both sidesyness” in the classroom

For about five minutes in high school, I was on the debate team, having been identified as verbal and assertive by a teacher who urged me to give it a try. I hated it. It wasn’t that I lacked aptitude. The teacher was right: my vocabulary and reasoning skills were decent, and I could stand in front of grown ups and say things without bursting into tears. But I loathed researching issues I hadn’t been drawn to, and could muster no enthusiasm for championing positions I didn’t actually believe in or care about.

It was a disconnect that left me stranded miles away from the smart debate kids whose passion for argument seemed genuine. For me, it felt like being on the school softball and basketball teams all over again. I wanted to win, sure, but unlike my teammates, I wasn’t rendered heartbroken by losses or elated by wins. While I enjoyed athletics for the sheer sake of moving my body and perfecting skill, though, I couldn’t relate to argument as if it were a satisfying sport. This wasn’t, I think, because I undervalued it but because I took moral and political persuasion so seriously. I dismissed the debate ethos as a schtick, as a self righteous preacher scorns ministers she thinks are in it for cynical reasons.

Enter the current crisis of objectivity, what Samantha Bee calls “both sidesyness.” This is the inclination to situate urgently important issues in pro-con terms and draw false equivalences between polarized views about them, regardless of how absurd or disingenuously offered. It’s a pseudo objective posture that grants time and space to positions and players that may have done nothing to earn that privilege. At the same time, it erodes the status of reasonable, well founded views. The best, most dramatic, example may be how climate change science has long been framed as locked in debate with climate change denial. It’s almost as if the most fanatical debate kids grew up and founded news outlets. As if the fate of the planet were not about the urgent truth of the matter, but about performing argument.

To be fair, I’ve probably suffered more than most from “bothsidesyness,” having endured the debate ethos in my philosophy classrooms — and frequently with other philosophers — for decades. This has nearly always been in the form of young white men, some of whom were so enamored of their own argumentative prowess that they threatened to deplete the room’s oxygen. When, instead of sparring, I asked these fellas if they actually believed what they were advocating, or even found it plausible, they tended to look surprised. Didn’t I know that that was beside the point? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” they’d tell me, confident I’d never heard of such a thing. Mastering this skill, they painstakingly explained, was what it meant to be a good critical thinker.

Unfortunately, lots of instructors, too, seem to implicitly agree that the capacity to quickly produce well polished arguments and hurl them at one’s opponent is indeed what it means to exhibit higher order thinking skills. Too often, the ego-focused performance of playing the devil’s advocate in a pro-con arena supersedes thoughtful, holistically logical thinking. Students are rewarded for their cleverness, for a facile ability to backfill with rationalizations, rather than for thoughtfulness, empathy, or capacity for nuance. I know first-hand about such rewards because I relied on them during my razor’s edge walk through graduate school in an overwhelmingly male program. Cleverness, counterfactuals, and contrarianism became some of my very best friends.

To be clear, then, I’m aware that sophisticated rhetoric and reasoning skills are important and grant that debate-like expositions may be one effective means of developing them. I benefitted from such training and am among those who believe that the Sophists got a bad rap. And as an analytically trained philosopher, I didn’t just grudgingly learn to dissect arguments, I came to enjoy it. But the inveterate devil’s advocate — that guy (and, yeah, it’s still nearly always a guy) who argues for the sake of argument, has drifted so far from the relevant social and political context, so far from the argument’s existential moorings, that there is often a kind of cruelty to it. If you’re a woman who’s ever faced a devil’s advocate eager to argue with you about rape, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean.

Exacerbating the problem is that we instructors are often so grateful for students who show any inclination whatsoever to give reasons that we may be reluctant to discourage or assertively redirect the cheaply performative devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’re so desperate for students to talk — say anything at all, please! — that we actual welcome his clever repartee. And, besides, even if the performance doesn’t really deepen anyone’s understanding of the issue, it can provide an excuse for showing off our own logical acumen, right? And, as PhDs who have run the full gauntlet of higher education, who is better prepared than we are to defend the devil himself?

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