The Mentalist Model and the Issue with Playing Devil’s Advocate to People’s Experiences

Today I’d like to talk about “Devil’s Advocates.

This is the person who is often situated in a place of both privilege and ignorance, but simultaneously has the confidence to suggest simplistic, often black-and-white, solutions and questions for an often complex and multifaceted issue.

As an activist, woman of color, undocumented immigrant, and survivor of violence, I have encountered my fair share of devil’s advocates to the very issues that impact my life daily.

“The Sake of Argument” xkcd web comic [xkcd.com/1432]

I’d like to first recognize that I am all for respectful dialogue in which both parties are listening and considering each other’s points of view. I understand that we are not all going to agree on everything and this is what helps us expand and even strengthen our own perspectives.

So how does this differ from people who play “devil’s advocates”?

I first look to an article written by Juliana Britto Schwartz called “An open letter to privileged people who play Devil’s Advocates”  in which she articulates the potential harm in using this strategy: “These discussions may feel like ‘playing’ to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are ‘playing’ with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you… You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.”

Often, devil’s advocates (or DA’s) aren’t open to engaging in a real dialogue because they are so committed to proving that they’re right… so they’re unwilling to listen, learn, and potentially change their opinions. DA’s don’t want to learn from a discussion — they want to win a debate.

Interestingly, a devil’s advocate isn’t even necessarily trying to prove that their position is correct; in fact, quite often they don’t even necessarily believe in the position they’re arguing! DA’s might argue a devil’s advocate position not to prove themselves right, but rather to prove someone else wrong– they’re not arguing for their position so much as they’re arguing against yours. So the difference between someone who engages in conversation in good faith versus a devil’s advocate is that for a DA the conversation is an impersonal and abstract intellectual exercise, whereas for people actually impacted by these issues it’s very personal and significant.

Like Britto Schwartz describes, it can be incredibly hurtful, damaging, and insensitive to approach a conversation with a person about a painful experience with an “objective” viewpoint and expect the person to do the same. You might hear comments like, “Don’t be so sensitive…”, and “But I heard that…*insert story about the exception to your point here*”

This is where the idea of “objectivity” as “truth” comes into conflict. I’d like to challenge this idea of “objectivity” and the misguided assumption that someone who has not had a personal experience or investment in an issue is necessarily better able to understand it and is thus more equipped to provide critical perspective and solutions. I, along with many of my friends, particularly women of color, have often expressed our frustration with this idea of “objectivity” as truth.

Why is it that an issue or experience can miraculously become relevant and worth listening to when someone who is not directly impacted talks about the issue? It’s as if people are more willing to listen to and empathize with someone who they feel is not “too involved” or a “direct survivor” of an experience because it is more comfortable.

As I was working on my senior capstone, I came across an insightful and informative research report called, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence” from the FrameWorks Institute. The goal of the research was to figure out some of the effective ways of communicating what constitutes sexual violence and what can be done to address this in the United States. The study measured both experts’ and the public’s perceptions about sexual violence and showed the discrepancy between experts, who looked to larger social and cultural patterns to explain why sexual violence is pervasive, and the public, who often saw sexual violence as a problem that rested within the minds, hearts, and actions of particular individuals. Interestingly, one of the main thought models that the public most often used is similar to what I have often seen used by devil’s advocates.” This thought model is called the Mentalist Model. 

“According to the mentalist model, Americans tend to view outcomes and social problems as a result of individual concerns that reflect character, motivation and personal discipline. As such, the use of mentalist models by the public has a narrowing effect—it boils complex interactions among individuals, contextual determinants and systems down to either the presence or absence of individual motivation and internal fortitude.

Sexual violence continues to be perceived as a problem solely and fundamentally created by individual moral failings on the part of the perpetrator and, on the part of the victim, the lack of responsibility to ensure one’s safety (often seen in Victim-Blaming).” (4)

While this research was focused on attitudes toward sexual violence, I find it incredibly relevant to many other social issues in our society. For example, in discussions about unemployment, a DA can be heard dismissing or ignoring the importance of systemic inequality, generational poverty, and racial discrimination by reducing the problem to “laziness.” Or talking about how “illegal” immigrants are taking “hardworking Americans'” jobs, when undocumented workers are not even eligible for the jobs that DA’s allege they’re “taking.” How people of color need to “get over it” and “stop talking about race” because we live in a “post-racial” society in which racism no longer exists and everyone has equal opportunity for success (also meaning that any disadvantage is, again, caused by the control and decisions of the individual). And of course, when we talk about sexual assault and gender-based violence and the DA references how one woman lied about her rape, thus reinforcing the idea that women are vindictive, untrustworthy, and constantly “crying rape,” or the popular favorite: “Not ALL Men…”

When we are faced with challenging discussions about social issues, particularly those that we have not experienced, it is so important to take a step back, consider the larger perspective, and listen to the members of the community who actually experience the issues that we might only talk about in the comfort of our homes and schools. Playing devil’s advocate to someone’s life experience by spurting out counter statistics and black-and-white solutions can be both isolating and damaging. It is important that we all check our privilege, recognize and acknowledge when we do not know things, and make clear our intentions when we engage in critical dialogues.

The path to social change requires community and solidarity. In order for solidarity to develop, we must practice listening to and talking with— rather than talking at. We are not all going to see eye-to-eye on everything, but by taking the first step to solidarity, I believe we can get a lot more done together.

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Here are some helpful videos to check out!

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UMBC Women Who Rock: Ashley Sweet (a Mother’s Day shout-out)

UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year. In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

-Jess

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UMBC Women Who Rock!
Ashley Sweet, GWST & Social Work double-major & Returning Women Student Scholar

When I was in second grade my mother graduated from Essex Community College (now CCBC). I vividly remember her graduation day. The special occasion provided me the opportunity to wear my first communion dress again. We sat in the make-shift auditorium of the gym waiting and waiting for my mom’s name to be called. I’m not sure if I connected her studying and note taking throughout my childhood to this special day. Though I remember her watching her classes broadcast through local TV on Saturday mornings while she folded the laundry, I’m also not sure if I correlated those memories to her graduation day. But, finally hearing her name called on that hot day in that gym with tons of people was like music to my ears. My mom was special. She was somebody special enough to have their name read out loud in a crowd.

Richie and Benny trying on mom's graduation flare in preparation for the big day!

Richie and Benny trying on mom’s graduation flare in preparation for the big day!

I can only imagine the way Richie and Benny will feel when they hear their mom’s name called from that very impressive stage from inside the downtown arena on May 21st. When they hear “Ashley Sweet, summa cum laude,” I am certain their ears will perk up. They’ll smile and wave and know in their heart of hearts that their mom is someone special.

And she so very much is.

In her three years at UMBC, Ashley has maintained a 4.0 GPA. 4.0 folks! She was one of the leaders of Women Involved in Learning and Leadership which led her to projects like acting in and directing Vagina Monologues, advocating for pay equity, and working to end street harassment (i.e. she’s also a bad ass feminist). She spearheaded a “Prove It” proposal that would have provided drop-in childcare at select campus events. She completed hundreds of hours at her social work field placement and is now working to complete her GWST capstone project about birth stories and experiential knowledge. She spoke at the Women’s Center Healthy Masculinity event about her experience raising boys and ensuring their masculinity isn’t confined to societal norms and expectations. She is a Returning Women Student Scholar and has received additional awards throughout her time at UMBC. She attended conferences like the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders and the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference while forming important and meaningful friendships and mentors. Did I mention that she’s raising 2 young boys while doing all of this as well?!  Continue reading

“Don’t tell ME to Chill out”– Holding our Friends Accountable and saying NO to Rape Culture

A reflection written by Women’s Center staff member, Yoo-Jin

Content notice: This post contains information about a sexual assault.

This past week has been both emotionally charged and draining all at once. I’m sure that Baltimore and its people have been in many of our thoughts, and I hope that we can keep the conversations going. In this post, however, I wanted to share my story about sexual assault and the reflections I’ve had since then.

On April 26th, I attended the Kesha concert at UMBC. The concert environment was already a difficult space to feel comfortable due to the huge crowd of people on the floor, many of whom were associated with large groups and/or were intoxicated. As the show started, I began to feel more comfortable and tried to enjoy what I thought was going to be an amazing concert. At one point, my friends and I were slightly dispersed due to the shifting dynamics of the packed crowd. I was in a pocket of space where I was mostly close to my friends but was also near open space and other people who seemed to be minding their own business.

This was when things drastically changed.

First, I felt someone grab at my hip. I thought to myself, “That’s strange” since I didn’t think people would be grabbing me if they were trying to move past me like many people had already done. I shook it off and went back to focusing on the music until I suddenly felt someone’s hand fully grope my body from behind. I turned around instantly to stare up at one taller male, who shifted his eyes toward me but did not acknowledge me, and another male next to him who seemed to be dancing to the music. I had a feeling that this incident would happen again so I informed a friend who was standing behind me of what happened and asked him to look out for me. Unfortunately, the guy did grab me again, but this time– I saw him.

I have never felt more angry in my life. I went up to the perpetrator and started yelling at him with various expletives asking him what was WRONG with him and telling him NOT to touch my body. The man who didn’t acknowledge me from before, who clearly knew and saw what happened, stood in between the perpetrator and me, telling me to “Chill out” while spreading his arms out. If that wasn’t enough, another one of the perpetrator’s male friends came up to me and explained that I should just “Calm down” since he was “just trying to have fun.” When he noticed that this comment didn’t, in fact, help calm me down, he reassured me that he would make sure his friend didn’t touch me again, in which I responded in dumbfounded anger that, “No! Tell your friend not to touch anybody. That is sexual assault!”

The scene eventually subsided and I went back to my close circle of friends in the crowd. The tone of my evening significantly soured and I felt angry tears well up as I watched the perpetrator and his friends enjoy the rest of the concert with laughter.

Looking back at what happened, I think what was most hurtful was the bystander behavior of the guy’s friends, who excused his perpetuation of rape culture behavior. Rather than holding their friend accountable for violating a person, they instead turned to me and told me to “chill out” and “calm down”, as if my reactions were completely unwarranted. Could you imagine how this situation would have been different if any of the surrounding male presences stood up for me and held the perpetrator accountable?

Being told to “calm down” and “chill out” when you have been sexually assaulted is the worst kind of ignorance and isolation. When someone touches a part of your body without your consent your sense of safety is also taken away- and for me, this happened several times.

While I was glad to have stood up to the person who assaulted me, I still felt a deep sense of anger.  I channeled this anger through a Facebook status the next day. Even though I did not know the name of the guy and was not able to hold him “officially” accountable, I chose to share my story on Facebook as a way of hopefully holding us all accountable.

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The responses I got were overwhelming. I did not expect close to 400 people to like this status and furthermore, the comments on the status were even more telling. I had women share that they’ve also experienced this and one friend who even said that she was inspired to speak up the next time this happens after reading the status.

I was so moved by the immense support I received from sharing my story. Now more than ever, I feel motivated to tackling gender-based violence and calling it out for what it is: an act of violence that no one should tolerate. Women should not be made to feel unsafe in public spaces or events, particularly in those that are crowded, where people feel they can hide in a cloud of anonymity.

While I wish that this incident didn’t happen, sharing my story and reading the responses have further reinforced for me the need to continue talking about these issues and calling them out in our own lives.

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Want to learn more about bystander intervention? Check out UMBC’s Green Dot Program

You may also want to check out Baltimore Hollaback for more information related to public/street-based harassment.