To play Devil’s Advocate…

Some issues don’t need a counter-argument

Amy Richmond | Wed, 19 Feb 2020

“To play devil’s advocate, Hitler did reduce unemployment…”

How, under any circumstances, is this an appropriate comment to make? And painfully, it is a real statement someone said to me when I was discussing a book on the course I’m studying that looks at Holocaust literature. I do not care if he reduced unemployment, he devised the genocide of six million Jewish people. I do not care if he did what he promised to do as leader, he put into action the murders of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. He could have saved six million puppies from a burning building and it still wouldn’t change the fact he is responsible for six million deaths. Because, to reiterate so it gets in your head, Hitler orchestrated the Holocaust.

So, in the dictionary, the phrase to play devil’s advocate implies that the person in that role does not believe what they are saying. So why say it at all? The annoying thing is that some people just enjoy playing devil’s advocate and being the voice of controversy. And to some extent I get it, it can be fun adding another side to a debate. And even I will admit some areas need there to be a balance in the debate in order to see all sides of the issue. Take the legalisation of drugs, for example. On one hand it poses a risk to the health of a population and could be difficult to police, on the other, many drugs have medicinal benefits and could add a new industry that creates jobs. 

Debates like that one require that voice of controversy or a counterargument in order to see the full picture. But there is a way of going about it that is respectful of the issue at hand. You need to be aware of the scale and cultural impact of the topic at hand before you present an argument that might not be appropriate. There are certain topics of discussion that do not need another side to the debate. The Holocaust. Any genocide for that matter. Climate change. Equal rights. There are so many more. And if you don’t know enough about an issue to make a sound argument based on facts, then probably keep quiet. You have to have knowledge and respect about the issue you are discussing.

Playing the controversial card in these situations hides the suffering of victims and puts focus not on the tragedy at hand, but on other areas of the situation. In these circumstances, the voices of the victims are too often silenced, and their stories are not told.

In studying a course on trauma literature, I am witnessing the untold horrors of the Holocaust and other traumatic events. The impact of violence on a person should not be downplayed or ignored. Trauma is a terrifying companion that forces the victim to relive and relive and relive their worst moments until they have processed it, often with the help of a therapist. But some people never get through their trauma, and it haunts their lives until the day they die, sometimes by their own hand. By playing devil’s advocate in discussions about traumatic and life-ending events, you play into the narratives that drown out the voices of the inexpressible trauma and render their stories unimportant.

There are times where playing devil’s advocate and presenting a counterargument is appropriate. Discussing a mass-genocide is not one of them. When it is a situation like the Shoah, or any other event that caused mass-murder or mass-trauma, it is not appropriate. So, before you play devil’s advocate for the sake of being edgy and controversial, grow up and don’t be disrespectful.

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