xkcd makes a brilliant, if sarcastic, statement on the devil’s advocate.
In short, playing “devil’s advocate” is the act of debating the points of an opposing side of an argument, in an attempt to put one’s own argument into context. (I’m assuming, however, that you already know that.) When done prudently and properly, the devil’s advocate allows us, at best, to gain a greater understanding of our own views and to add more depth to our arguments and, at worst, gives us more ammo with which to assault the strawman.
I’ll cut to the chase; this is probably going to be a whiny blog post. Recently, a group of friends and I were led into a three-hour (yes, three-hour) debate and dissertation on every global sociopolitical issue from US economic policy to Arab-Israeli conflict to video game DRM standards, you name it. And after these three hours, the so-called “devil’s advocate” admitted (much like in the comic linked above) to pressing the argument forward for no other reason than to fuel greater disagreement. At no point did this guy actually listen to any of our viewpoints (he actually admitted to “not caring” about what we said as much as he “enjoyed watching [us] get all mad and stuff”), rather, multiple hours worth of hot air were belted out for no real reason. I’m just gonna link the YLFI page for appeals to ignorance here.
The idea behind playing devil’s advocate should precisely be to deepen one’s understanding and expand one’s mind. If you’ve ever spoken to me in person on any debatable issue, I do my best to make it clear that, frankly, I couldn’t be paid to care about your opinion. I don’t mean that in a bad way — rather, I care deeply that you have an opinion to begin with, and that you can back it up with some degree of evidence. One can never really hope to change someone’s mind on any major issue by telling them they’re wrong. (Be my guest; try to convince Stephen Hawking that the earth is 6,000 years old, or tell Al Gore that man-made climate change doesn’t exist.) But I can say with certainty that I’ve changed people’s minds by broadening their understanding of the issues they think they can’t understand.
That’s the point behind debate, discussion, and deliberation. We, as conscious people, are able to learn new things, new facts, figures, and observations, and use them to grow, develop, and even change our world views. But we can’t hope to learn if we lock ourselves in echo chambers and repeat the same arguments to the same people who already agree with them anyway. In other words, a mother can have a child, and tell them day after day that hot dogs taste better than hamburgers, and the child will surely believe her. He might even go to school and tell all his friends. But he’ll never know for sure until he tastes one himself.
Too frequently, we defend our viewpoints as correct, not necessarily because they are correct, but merely because we believe they are, and hey, I must be right. Conscious, open-minded debate should never be something to be afraid of. To put it bluntly, if you’re unwilling to discuss, explore, and expand upon your viewpoints, it’s probably because you’re afraid you might be wrong. After all, you’ve been telling people all your life that hot dogs taste better than hamburgers, but what if they don’t? Oh, God, you’d look like a fool!
If you’re one of the unlucky many to get roped into any sort of debate with the dull-witted masses, you ought to do your best to realize when you’re wasting your time. I’m sitting here whining when I ought to be studying for finals because it took me three hours to realize that. And to the aforementioned masses that enjoy wasting others’ time with debate that you don’t care enough to listen to, I hope you step on a Lego.