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Playing 'Devil's Advocate'​ is Harmful to Advancing Inclusion

Happy Love Day!

If I don’t say it enough, thank you for showing up for me with compassion, curiosity and love. I hope you feel the same from me.

In the past decade, I’ve been working on creating inclusive, equitable workplaces, there are few words that make me more angry or exhausted than:

“I’m just playing devil’s advocate.”

Sadly, I hear it often enough that I'm writing this piece on it.

Look, I’ve been called some really mean things (as many women of color are on the internet), but when someone tries to make a “logical” argument for why racism isn’t real or doubles down on trying to disprove peer-reviewed data around the existence of bias in the workplace, I find it more harm-causing to advancing equitable places than when someone calls me a "woke idiot."

Hearing or reading the “devil’s advocate” phrasing fills me with dread. Here we go again. By definition, the devil’s advocate is someone who, regardless of their own beliefs, is going to counter anything you say for the purpose of… Well, what is the purpose?

In my experience with devil’s advocates, they often demand proof that bias is real. And often, when offered proof, they double down on trying to disprove the proof. See the problem?

Add to that, asking for facts, data, and hard numbers that support my argument disregards a few things:

  1. I am an expert in my field with years of experience and a best-selling book on inclusion, replete with data and anecdotal evidence.

  2. The facts, data, and numbers that I provide are almost always dismissed by these "other siders."

  3. When we’re talking about bias, it isn’t necessarily quantifiable or even provable, especially when our systems of measuring and understanding harm were not built with historically underestimated communities in mind.

In 2017, The New York Times rightly got criticized for hiring Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist. Reading his work (I forced myself for research purposes) is a glimpse into the devil’s advocate’s brain that I never asked for, but for me, it highlights the dichotomy between perpetuating harm and dissent or disagreement. In much of his work, Stephens ties himself to the strongest pillar of the devil’s advocate: the right to free speech. He criticizes colleges and universities that cancel events with speakers who are known white supremacists and calls protesting “bullying.” Free speech is a great principle in theory, but it must be practiced with caution and an equity-informed, anti-racist lens. Calling me a "woke idiot" is rude, but I'll concede your right to free speech (and your wrongful opinion). Calling me a racial slur that has a long history of harming communities and inciting racial violence....? Hate speech that has a huge cost to people who have already been traumatized over generations. Ergo: not free. And not all words (and their contexts) are equal–no one knows this more than people who argue about their right to free speech precisely so they can use hateful words. When I talk to people I love from marginalized communities, the fear is real when public speakers with white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ ideologies make their thoughts public. Free speech isn’t free if it harms large swaths of the population.

Identity Politics and "Both Sides"

It doesn’t take Stephens long to cite “identity politics” as a problem, arguing that issues like same-sex marriage wouldn’t be so polarizing if the two sides could have a reasonable conversation. This is another tool of the devil’s advocate. He’s dismissing that there is one side, a historically underestimated community whose safety is being jeopardized, and another side who has historically violently attacked and dehumanized the LGBTQ+ community. To suggest that reasoning with people who deny your humanity is even a possibility is yet another way the devil’s advocate perpetuates harm, and it’s no surprise that these arguments often come from people who have not had their humanity brought into question. Maya Rupert wrote a great response to one of Stephens’ lectures here: “As a concept, the devil’s advocate is incoherent. If a position is really as unpopular as the name indicates, there is no need to argue for it...In order for it to be effective…It’s the other person who must be willing to treat the discussion seriously on the promise that the person arguing with them will not.” I have another word for the act of playing devil’s advocate: gaslighting, or a form of psychological manipulation that hinges on creating self-doubt. The objective here isn’t to have an informed discussion or to help the target of the devil’s advocate. It’s for the devil’s advocate to plant self-doubt, invalidate, and ultimately manipulate the other person to acquiescence. Because I do have the expertise and data on hand, sometimes I drop a quick note to the trolls. But this isn’t always what’s best for me, as the devil’s advocate will almost always insist that the harm that I know is present isn’t there, an issue women of color often face in the workplace and the world, and repeatedly explaining why others have caused harm can be retraumatizing, especially when the person you’re speaking to refuses to see this. Plus, people are prone to confirmation bias, which is why one set of data may mean very different things to different people. Devil’s advocates seem to see themselves as soldiers, always ready to defend what’s right, when their “advocating” so often aligns with the oppressive messaging of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Maybe they are trying to help, as they so often insist. But in the words of Lilla Watson… “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Gratitude to Shahzia Noorally for reminding me of this quote and sharing some highlights from our conversation on The Power in the Collective - Standing in Solidarity as Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour. She writes: “There is liberation in working together and moving away from a divide and conquer mentality that upholds racist systems that keep all of us back. Standing in solidarity allows us to overcome hurdles, shatter barriers and unveil opportunities as women.” By the way: I don’t use “divide and conquer” in any other context: it was a colonial strategy used by the British to brutally pit communities against each other to weaken them and build the British empire on their backs. Everyone knows that our power multiplies when we are together, in solidarity. Most of all, those who try to disrupt it by playing devil’s advocate to divide us.

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