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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