Devil’s advocate (noun) — A person who expresses a controversial opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of opposing arguments. This definition states the two functions of playing devil’s advocate: to provoke and to test. In an educational setting, these functions prove to be very useful; they spark discussion and create avenues for learning. However, the devil’s advocate often has a penchant not for provoking and testing arguments, but for provoking and testing Black people and the ways they choose to express their emotions over the issues that they face.
If you’re Black, (or you let your Black friends speak more for longer than a minute in deep conversations) you’ll know about our criminalisation in the western world.
I personally was heavily invested in the topic: I’m Nigerian and spent my “formative” years in my country. Moreover, I was a privileged Nigerian who would never have to really suffer at the hands of my country’s law enforcement, so learning about the struggles of people twelve hours away from me was something that expanded my world view.
While breezing through many sources from across the political spectrum, I frequently came across two numbers: 13 and 50. To the general population, 13 and 50 are two regular numbers that they and their children learned to count to, but to a devil’s advocate these numbers are golden. These numbers help them advocate the subhuman treatment and disproportionate incarceration rates of Black people in the US; because, after all, “despite being 13% of the US population, Black people are responsible for 50% of the crimes committed there.”
It doesn’t matter that the “50%” they constantly holler about represents the percentage of arrests, it doesn’t matter that Black people in the US make up 47% of wrongful conviction exonerations, it doesn’t matter that those two statistics highlight the corruption and racism within the US justice system; they don’t care. Why would they? These advocates only bring up false statistics to provoke Black people’s anger so as to describe them as “emotional”, “biased”, or to dehumanise them further. It was never about making a point, it was about creating an environment for their hatred to thrive. To test whether or not they would receive rightfully emotional responses from Black people, feeding into further stereotypes they harboured.
I can look at those memories of learning with glasses of a rosier shade, not because they made me feel good, but because I, at the very least, never had to hear about the antics of these advocates in spaces I was frequently in. It was all just online; I was just a girl in year 5 with unrestricted internet access. I never heard these arguments in person, and in my naivety I thought I never would have to hear them. Then my shield fell; I began schooling in England. I still believe that I might never have the first hand experience that I do now, had I never left Nigeria.
On the 25th of May 2020, there was a murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota. George Floyd (43) was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin during an arrest made due to suspicion that Floyd was using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. In the same year, on the 13th of March, seven police officers in Louisville, Kentucky had fatally shot and killed Breonna Taylor while she was in her apartment during a wrongful raid. A month before, Ahmaud Arbery was shot in Glynn County, Georgia. He was jogging in his neighbourhood when Travis McMichael shot him after his father, Gregory, claimed he looked like a man responsible for several break-ins around the area.
Two out of these three murders that occurred across four months in 2020 were due to corrupt law enforcement, and these murders unfortunately sparked debate. I use the word “unfortunately” because the “debates” that arose during the summer of 2020 were the works of devils’ advocates. Instead of focusing on the crimes the police had been committing, instead of focusing on changing the way we talk about Black deaths, instead of understanding that law enforcement in the western world, particularly the in US needs reform, these advocates were too busy focusing on something else. They were focusing on how to test and provoke Black people on this subject. Spaces for conversation that should have been filled with empathy, understanding, and a willingness to learn were filled with vitriol, hate, and a desire to discredit the experiences that Black people had with the police and other institutions that had varying traces of anti-Blackness. I personally had to listen to people — who were heavily involved in my life, and whom I admired — spout rhetoric with the purpose to distract. “Non-Black people face police brutality too!” and “All lives matter!”; instead of having discussions within their own communities, people threw whataboutism into conversations that had no contribution to discussions led by Black people.
Of course, it was never meant to: in this instance a devil’s advocate would not care to contribute because the point of disrupting conversations around anti-Blackness, police brutality, and protesting is to try and tear the argument down; to reduce the importance of the discussion. Never mind that the police shouldn’t even be killing any regular civilian in the first place, never mind that these reforms will benefit all. It would be unfairly optimistic, as well as a lie, to say that the distractions provided had no effect on the conversations I had with people that summer. It was possibly one of the most informative summers in my life; a summer that taught me that, for as long as I was in a land that wasn’t my own, I too could be subject to the painful, useless points some devils’ advocates decide to hurl at Black people.
As I said earlier, the devil’s advocate can play a helpful role in academia, but far too often those in educational institutions encourage these advocates to use their “skills” in a way that is harmful to people — especially Black people. The problems these advocates bring are not as hopelessly unsolvable as racism itself. The steps to solve this problem are there, but those in education may not even be willing to take them.
By Sade Smith, student