Why Not Devil’s Advocate?

A couple of years ago I took a break from CMV and started /r/NotMyShoes. The issue was two-fold: first, I was experiencing some serious moderation fatigue, and; second, I needed a new challenge.

As much as I complain about law school, one of its benefits is being put in the position of defending an argument that is not your own. CMV understandably does not allow for devil’s advocacy; it would be impossible to change my view if it’s not, well, a view I personally hold.

I wasn’t interested in devil’s advocacy either, because I think – especially online – this results in contrarian positions that have more to do with signaling one is capable of pugilistic debate rather than earnestly confronting the view one is, for the moment, espousing. There’s no intimacy with that view — no deep dive into its quality. You’re only putting a point on the board.

This might be an unfair depiction but it was and remains my impression of devil’s advocacy. Nevertheless, I wanted to emulate the experience of having to confront and defend a position that you might not personally have any stock in. I believed, first and foremost, that this was an important skill to challenge yourself. Much like lifting heavy things breaks down a muscle and rebuilds it stronger, “lifting heavy” for less intuitive positions has always, for me, felt like a robust mental exercise.

Second, I got the impression that practicing this habit made it easier to appreciate the place another person was coming from. I firmly believe that no one is under any obligation to be sympathetic to a particular view; lots of views are abhorrent and should be shunned as such. I do believe, however, that it is much easier to probe and challenge a view if you can put yourself in the position of the person holding it.

I enshrined this as best I could in my mission statement:

I’ve spent a lot of my time – both on the Internet and off – debating with people. I noticed these debates became more enjoyable the more they resembled conversations. I began to appreciate seeing others’ perspectives and, through that, either changing my mind or finding ways to tighten my own logic. The former reason is why I began participating at /r/changemyviewThe latter reason is why I’m creating this subreddit.

Insight is key to maturing and defending an argument. As a lawyer, I learned the value of preempting an opponent’s qualms in my position – anticipating the holes in logic, if you will. One way to do this, maybe the key way, is to put myself in their shoes and falsify the things I intend to say. That’s a habit I think anyone should get into for two reasons: (1) you might be wrong, and this might force you to reevaluate your position and reach a better one, and; (2) it allows you to better champion your position by framing it in the most advantageous way, embracing criticism and characterizing it in a manner that benefits you or by pivoting and putting the other party on the defensive.

Ultimately, the subreddit failed, in large part because my personal life took off in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I still believe there is a space for this kind of conversation, but it would perhaps require less delineation between devil’s advocacy and my aforementioned goals, since this seemed to confuse would-be posters rather than clarify. In retrospect, I think Conor Friedersdorf does a better job of framing conversation in terms of equilibriums and limits, and that I was trying to convey a similar message that the subreddit wasn’t intended to be binary and oppositional.

Additionally, more promotion and active moderation would have been a major boon, and I failed on that end. /r/NotMyShoes is, if anything, a testament to the work Kal puts into CMV.

Regardless, I think this practice is beneficial, even within CMV, not as an original poster but as a commenter. It’s easy to marginalize a given view, or combat it out of rote habits. We see many of the same arguments repeat themselves, and at a certain point we’re no longer practicing the kind of insight or challenge to which CMV likewise aspires.

Upon writing this out, I hope that readers can see what my underlying goals were, and I’d like to hear their thoughts on how this relates to how they use CMV (or not).

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