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Devil's Advocates

Will Essilfie

Dear First Year,

I’m going to let you in to one of the worst phrases you’ll ever hear. It’ll seem innocuous at first, but soon you will find yourself rolling your eyes when you hear it. The phrase?

“Just to play devil’s advocate here….”

You’re going to hear this surprisingly more often than you could ever imagine. Eventually it’ll sound like some f*ked up Dr. Seuss line:

You will hear it in your Lit Hum class. You will overhear it in a Butler. You will hear it in your floor lounge. You will hear it in a cafe. You will hear even while sitting outside on the lawns relaxing. Devil’s advocate, I implore you, student, I am.

And to be completely candid, you’ll often hear it in your classes when your classmate hasn’t finished the requisite reading but is trying to get some participation points (side note: don’t judge; when college readings go to 200 pages every 2 days, you won’t finish them all either). The first couple times you’ll hear someone use it, you’ll honestly think they had something smart to say. After all, it does sound smart when you haven’t decoded that it’s often used in place of sharing credible opinions or views. But I promise you, eventually you’ll realize how deeply alarming it can get.

Let me paint the picture for you. You’re in a required seminar discussing slavery and your White classmate from an elite private high school employs the Devil’s Advocate method to defend the author’s pro slavery argument without even batting an eye. I wish I could say this was a joke. You know what was a joke? That same student having previously talked about all their work in high school advocating for racial equality. The first time (and it definitely wasn’t the last) this happened, I remember just being in shock, one of the four black people in a room of twenty, listening as the discussion continued normally as if this was a valid consideration. We four sat in silence. None of us ever brought up the incident again, but we all left with a similar disgusted response to even the notion of that topic. As I learned over the years, I was not alone in feeling the horror of watching classmates argue in favor of meritless arguments, often relating to race/gender with alarming interest. It’s one thing to try and consider the writer’s era for reasoning, but to watch them double down on the argument so ardently as if they wish it were still true today is horrifying to say the least.

I would love to tell you that it ends there, but it doesn’t. While you’ll often hear the Devil’s Advocate pipe up in the classroom, people aren’t shy to apply it even in personal conversations. And it’s those non-academic moments that often hurt the most and linger on your mind. Why? In the classroom, you learn to realize most people playing Devil’s advocate have no clue what they’re talking about and are either talking because they love to hear their own voice or because they know not talking will lower their participation grade. As you get more used to it, you’ll learn to be ready to throw those attempts back when necessary and be more willing and ready to shut those conversations down when needed. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they’ll shut themselves down, like the time someone tried “playing Devil’s Advocate” during a discussion for the Bible.

But when you least expect it, you’ll realize (with horror) the insidiousness of people attempting to use this phrase to hide behind their true feelings. Another story. Once, my friends and I were talking about race in America. Everyone in the group identified as “liberal,” but some of the arguments made in the name of challenging the accepted view—if that is indeed what we mean by “playing the Devil’s advocate”—horrified me — and I still think about them to this day. What if, posed one white classmate, it were actually the case that the atrocities people of color faced and continue to face allow them to actually lead better lives today? Seeing our horrified faces, he trailed off. Though the conversation started to move away, I interjected and demanded they explicitly explain what they meant. Their response — affirmative action. They believed that because many colleges in the United States consider race as a factor in admissions to ensure diverse student bodies, that this made up for the centuries of atrocities committed against Black and Brown people across the world. The icing on the cake? This person followed up jokingly about wanting to be liberal enough to get a Supreme Court seat and then become a conservative judge. I don’t need to say more.

But what I can tell you is to prepare yourself. While you’re going to hear a lot of bull from people who didn’t do the readings, there’s going to be the people who did but try to hide behind this technique to espouse some horrifying beliefs outside the classroom, too. Be ready for that and be ready to expose that as needed. They’re hoping no one calls them out, but be ready, that’s just the way it is sometimes.

Best,

Will

P.S.: Want to get a head start on preparing for some of the absolutely wild things some of your classmates may say to you? Grab a copy of Professor Shamus Khan’s Privilege and get a sneak peak into how some of your classmates spent their 4 years prior to getting to college.

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