Thursday, July 24, 2014

An open response to the “letter to privileged people who play devil’s advocate”

By: A privileged person who plays devil’s advocate

(Before I begin, the reader should know that I make a point of addressing people with the same level of scathing, patronizing condescension with which they address me. Bear that in mind as you read both the original letter, and my response below.

If you’d prefer a more respectful tone that isolates the ideas in question, instead of coloring them with sarcasm, defensiveness, and personal attacks, so do I. In fact, I have employed such a tone when discussing this very issue here, here, here, here, here, and here. But right now, I’m simply not in the mood. I have spent the past two weeks pausing every half sentence to bite my nails for fear of being misconstrued by thin-skinned manufacturers of perpetual outrage. My back is not flexible enough to bend any further backwards in accommodation for these people. Caution is healthy, but too much timidity for too long can drive a writer insane, so I’m going to let loose for once. Consider this your trigger warning.)

“You know who you are. You are that white guy in an Ethnic Studies class who’s exploring the idea that poor people might have babies to stay on welfare. Or some person arguing over drinks that maybe a lot of women do fake rape for attention. Or, recently, someone insisting that I consider the idea that Elliot Rodger could have been a madman and an anomaly, not at all a product of a white supremacist and misogynistic society.”

Although I’ve neither taken an Ethnic Studies class nor accused a woman of lying about a sexual encounter, it’s worth pointing out that the positions you presented in your last sentence are not mutually exclusive. Elliot Rodger could have been a product of a misogynistic society, and also a madman, and also an anomaly. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to argue he was all of those things at once. Positing those positions as contradictory is an example of a logical fallacy called “false choice,” in which one is directed to choose between fewer possibilities than actually exist. But then again, you much prefer ethos and pathos to logos, don’t you?

“Most of the time, it’s clear that you actually believe the arguments you claim to have just for the heck of it. However, you know that these beliefs are unpopular, largely because they make you sound selfish and privileged, so you blame them on the “devil.”

There are a few reasons this paragraph is, erm, “problematic”:
1.     The first half of the first sentence is just not true. Most times I play devil’s advocate, I’ve not yet thought about the topic enough to have well-formed beliefs. The fact that I’m engaging in devil’s advocate means I’m hoping somebody else will help those beliefs form. By contrast, there are many topics on which I do have thoroughly considered views. When those topics come up, I assure you I have no reservations about voicing them in my own name (see reason #3).
2.     The second half of the first sentence also isn’t true, but for a separate reason: I do not claim to play devil’s advocate “just for the heck of it.” I do it for two reasons: first, to learn more about the subject from someone who may have more extensive exposure to it than I; and second, to further the disussion on the matter, to the potential gain of all participants and observers. Those are important benefits with important implications for the question of whether devil’s advocate is a worthwhile endeavor. To dismiss them as simple shits and giggles is to purposefully and lazily misrepresent my intentions.
3.     The second sentence is just pure bullshit. I believe, and have publicly argued, that polygamous, homosexual, undocumented immigrants should be able to do heroin on their wedding night without breaking any laws. I’ve defended the sale of organs, sweatshop labor, prostitution, open borders, and a whole bunch of other shit that’s a whole lot less popular than the thought that maybe you don’t have a right to free birth control. Besides, if we truly feared advocating unpopular ideas, why stick our necks out by commenting at all? Most people would just keep to themselves. There are a lot of people in the world who are afraid to take their ideas wherever they lead them, for fear others will disapprove of what they say. I am not one of them, and I suspect most people who demonstrate the intellectual curiosity it takes to play devil’s advocate are not either.

“Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.”

By “the devil”, the author means “ideas she disagrees with.” Of course, everybody in the world with any opinion at all thinks the opinions they disagree with do not need any more advocates. The trouble is, you can’t just wish those ideas away by closing your eyes and clicking your heels together. If you want to prevent the people who disagree with you from gathering additional sympathizers, the burden falls upon you to convince the undecided people that you are right, and those other people are wrong – a process which is greatly aided, might I add, by a glorious explanatory tool called “devil’s advocate.”

I understand that male-dominated anti-feminist ideas have pervaded our society for centuries, and I agree that feminist ideas pose a welcome challenge to those outdated concepts. I further recognize that those who challenge stubborn mindsets are often met with predictable responses from those whose mindsets they challenge, so I can grasp the skepticism with which you might approach the next guy in line. But people engaging you in conversation have neither an obligation to omit those arguments you might have heard before, nor an obligation to be convinced or satisfied by the rebuttals you offered previously.

“These discussions may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you. It doesn’t matter whether most mass shootings are targeted at women who rejected the gunman if you are a man – though it should, since misogyny kills men too. If you are white, it doesn’t matter whether people of color are being racially profiled or not. You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.”

Fair enough, which is why we should be a responsible devil’s advocate, but this is not an argument for why we shouldn’t play devil’s advocate at all. Yes, I’m very lucky to be able to discuss things in an abstract and objective way, without potentially traumatic personal experiences coming into play. For that reason it behooves me to tread lightly around those who are less lucky. But no matter how lightly I tread, the conversation still needs to take place if feminism is to get anywhere at all. If we ever want to reach the day when there are fewer misogynistic massacres and less racial profiling, we as a society have to frickin’ talk about those issues! We have to exchange the bad ideas for the good. What too many feminists fail to recognize is that this communication is a process; it can’t consist of feminists talking at people and expecting them to just shut up and agree.

“To be fair, there are many privileged devil’s advocates out there who are truly trying to figure things out. I know people who think best out loud, throwing ideas at me to see which sticks to their “friendly neighborhood feminist.” Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think. You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars.”

You were doing good up until the second half of the last sentence. It should have finished “because not everything we say is sacrosanct, occasionally we’re wrong, and it’s important to tease out those occasions from the rest so that feminism’s otherwise laudable message isn’t polluted with illogical crap.” But besides that, yeah, you got the gist.

“It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage. Imagine watching a video where a young man promises to kill women who chose not to sleep with him and then being forced to engage with the idea that maybe you are just a hysterical feminist seeing misogyny where there is none. It is incredibly painful to feel that in order for you to care about my safety, I have to win this verbal contest you have constructed “for fun.”

To answer your question, yes: I do want you to substantiate your beliefs. If this burden is as “incredibly painful” to you as you claim, perhaps due to some personal trauma you’ve suffered that I cannot relate to, you have my sincere condolences. As someone who thinks feminists are right 80% of the time, I sympathize with how agitating it must be to have people deny your oppression. I, as a privileged dude, don’t have to deal with that same feeling, so I will take your word that it is physically and emotionally draining. Accordingly, I will treat you and your beliefs with respect and sympathy. I will also give you every opportunity to either a) take a break if you need to collect your thoughts or cool down, b) direct me to a link that explains it better or more thoroughly than you’re presently able to, or c) tell me you’re not in the mood and that I should go on my merry way. Which I will do!

What I won’t do is what you and too many of your feminist sistren seem to expect: encounter ideas I’m not sure about on topics that are important and affect all of us, but shut up and roll with them anyway, just to prevent you from “being forced to engage with the idea” that you might be wrong about something. That’s not how my mind works, it’s not how our society’s discourse will advance, and it’s just not a reasonable thing to expect of the world. If I see the public discussion being swayed by an idea that strikes me as dubious, I’m going to challenge it. If I have a question, I’m going to ask it. You don’t get to police my reactions to your ideas any more than I get to police yours to mine.

What this means for you is that if you’re not interested in having your ideas respectfully scrutinized, you shouldn’t share them with an audience of people that includes me. When you post your opinions to a public forum like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or the comments section of an article, you do so at the peril that somebody else on that forum might not immediately agree with you. This is especially true, as you seem to have gathered, when the ideas you’re posting radically unsettle entrenched power systems. Prepare yourself accordingly! You ever heard that saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?” Well, if you can’t handle dissent, don’t preach controversial opinions on social media, because it’s essentially daring people to take you on.

Should you choose to share your views (and I so hope you do), you rightly point out that you do not have to humor me in discussion. But if you have enough energy and interest to show me your thoughts on the topic in the first place, you do have to deal with me showing you mine, at least initially. That’s how this works; you clutter my newsfeed, I clutter yours.

“For those devil’s advocates who are trying to learn, I suggest you explore other avenues. Consider that you are not paying your friends to break down concepts that are often painfully lived experiences for them, and be mindful of their time and energy. Be grateful (and show it), and listen carefully and thoughtfully when they are generous enough to talk about these experiences with you.”

I must have some tremendously generous friends, because sometimes they seem almost eager to talk about their most passionate beliefs, and I’ve never paid them a dime! You may find it hard to believe, but a great many people (who, might I add, are wholly capable of managing their own time and energy) actually enjoy a polite intellectual joust on topics that intrigue or animate them. I engage with these enthusiastic social activists on a daily basis. You may find this shocking, but some of them are even women.

Patriarchy or no patriarchy, you will not convince me that women as a class are too traumatized by dudely oppression to have their ideas scrutinized – even if it’s by someone who fails to demonstrate adequate gratitude for the opportunity. There’s some overlap here with the Blurred Lines controversy, which I wrote the following about last fall:
“I am bewildered when self-described feminists suggest men must coddle women, and speak to them more gingerly then we speak to other men. This mindset only perpetuates the bullshit stereotype that women are these dithering, indecisive, easily overwhelmed creatures who lack the emotional wherewithal to take charge of the situation and say yes and no with clarity and confidence. There was a time when feminism was about empowering women to view themselves as fully capable of such authority. It’s sad that the modern version seems to have given up on encouraging female communication, and turned instead to blaming men for having the audacity to expect it.”

Ideas cannot be fairly examined when the discussion takes the form of one participant doing the other one a favor. You cannot expect people who aren’t sold on what you’re selling them to sit cross legged at your feet, patiently pleading you to shower your enlightenment upon them. Socrates comes to mind, feigning reverence for Euthyphro’s wisdom even as he runs intellectual circles around him. In fact, Socrates – who was condemned for persistently questioning widely held beliefs in Ancient Greece - is a damn good analogy for what’s happening here. You should read him some time.

“Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. Time.”

I am tired of reading the word “forced” in sentences where it does not belong.

            “ideas you are forcing me to consider”
            “being forced to engage with the idea”

“You keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Am I putting a gun to your head and demanding that you debate me, or else? Or am I asking you a fucking question? Tweeting upon your Twitter involves no force whatsoever. What’s more, the fact that I’m playing Devil’s Advocate to test the strength of your idea means that you did it first! I’m not forcing you to consider my ideas any more than you are forcing me to consider yours.

Anyways, when you strip out all the circular arguments and stylized vitriol, the reasoning that underlies this paragraph is just pure intellectual laziness. Translated from feminist to English, it reads “Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas…but those ideas are wrong! I know I’m censoring important opportunities for growth…but…but…but I don’t wanna grow out of the exact same set of opinions I already hold! I’ve probably got it all figured out already – after all, I’m in my twenties!”

So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

No. I refuse to timidly tiptoe around the heart of important matters because some people are too feeble-minded to deal with dissent – whether or not the reason they lack that mental fortitude is because they’ve been systematically oppressed in ways I have not. They’re welcome to my sympathy and assistance, but not my silence, because the vibrancy of our public discourse on the critical issues facing humankind is simply too important to sacrifice on behalf of their short term mental state.

If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Ignore me, vilify me, go on cathartic rants about what a douchebag I am for daring to speak my mind. Or, even better, articulate why I’m wrong, and put it in writing. If you do, I’ll be happy to abandon the rambling anger of this post and resume the respectful, considerate tone of an intrigued but uncertain debater, eager to learn. But I won’t prostrate myself before you or refuse to challenge anything you say, so don’t expect me to “take a seat.”

Juliana should get a gold star for every time she refrained from saying “go f*ck yourself” to Elliot Rodger apologists.

Andrew should get a gold star for every time he refrained from closing his computer and giving Juliana the comforting cocoon of unchallenged consensus the thinks she's entitled to.

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