Etiquette for the devil’s advocates

Devil’s advocacy is when you take a position you do not believe in order to have a debate over it to explore the idea. It’s a really useful tool for exploring ideas that you want to think through.

Unfortunately, it has quite a bad reputation, especially amongst feminist circles (who are particularly used to having it used badly against them). Given the way it’s misused, it’s an entirely deserved reputation.

Fundamentally I think there are two major types of misuse that lead to this: The first is that many people who say they are playing devil’s advocate are not, in fact, playing devil’s advocate: They are using the claim that they are playing devil’s advocate in order to avoid being held accountable for their beliefs. Secondly, people fail to realise that often even if they do legitimately want to play devil’s advocate, it is not always going to be welcome.

I think this is a shame given that when it’s used properly it’s an extremely useful technique, so I’d like to propose the following as the basic etiquette required for playing devil’s advocate usefully and politely. It’s mostly “use words honestly” and “behave with common courtesy”, but given the existing usage patterns it seems to be helpful to spell out specific applications

  1. Be honest about your devil’s advocacy. Do not use it as a cover for just arguing for beliefs you actually hold but don’t want to be held accountable for. You are only entitled to play devil’s advocate for a position if you do not hold that position.
  2. Never play devil’s advocate without explicit up front consent from the person you are discussing things with. Something along the lines of “I would like to explore this issue. Do you mind if I play devil’s advocate for a bit?”. Be prepared for the answer “Yes I do”, and if you get it don’t argue. Also remember that, as always, consent can be revoked as well as granted – if someone asks you to stop after previously having agreed then stop.
  3. Don’t even try to play devil’s advocate in emotionally charged situations – e.g. when your position is going to be “I know you’re upset, but have you considered things from your attacker’s perspective?” this is never going to go well and you shouldn’t even try.

If you follow these rules, you’re both dramatically less likely to upset people and more likely to have productive conversations. This seems like a good thing, so I’d encourage you to do so unless you like having useless conversations where you upset people.

PS. Anyone who response to this post with hilarious comments which declare they’re “just playing devil’s advocate” will be responded to solely through the medium of “Your argument is invalid” gifs.

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