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.

________________________________________________________________________

Here are some helpful videos to check out!

Advertisements

Women of Color: Telling Our Stories, Our Way. A Portrait Series by Yoo-Jin Kang.

A portrait series from Women’s Center student staff member Yoo-Jin Kang. These photos were originally presented at the showcase event for the Telling Our Stories project. 

CrystalCollage

Crystal Ogar

Jamiecomp

Jamie Imperial

Paulinecomp

Pauline Xu

vanessacomp

Vanessa Hall

Sayedacollage

Sayeda Khan

briacomp

Bria Hamlet

Nargescollage

Narges Ershad

Maecomp

Mae McDowell

yoojincomp

Yoo-Jin Kang

 

“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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 3.37.21 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 3.37.27 PM

**************************

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.

Dear Survivor

As part of our 2015 Take Back The Night post-event, the Women’s Center hosted a “Dear Survivor,” letter writing activity. Inspired by the Dear Survivor Project and the book,  Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence students and UMBC community members were invited to craft their own “Dear Survivor” letter or message. Here’s a sampling from just some of the powerful messages written by UMBC community members.
scrapbook

UMBC’s Take Back The Night 2015- A Visual Recap

IMG_6094

Thursday, April 16th was UMBC’s 3rd Annual Take Back The Night speak-out and march. We had an amazing turn out and we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s hard work and support!

IMG_0443

We had signs that were made by community members, staff, student organizations, and Greek life!

IMG_1220

Jess and Megan setting up our TBTN Banner!

IMG_1223

Setting up T-shirts for the mini Clothesline Project Display

IMG_1224

IMG_1269

Right before the Speak-Out

IMG_1254

IMG_0457

IMG_1300

Staff member, Yoo-Jin Kang and Peer Health Educator, Kayla Smith, were the student emcees and march leaders this year!

IMG_1353

Community listening to the Speak-Out

IMG_1360

IMG_1317

IMG_1329

umbcTBTN2015-10

The march made a huge impact on campus.         We were even invited to march through the dining hall!

umbcTBTN2015-9

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAumbcTBTN2015-15umbcTBTN2015-12

umbcTBTN2015-16

IMG_1352 After the Speak-out, the community was invited to hang out together, craft for a cause, and enjoy some lemonade and cookies before leaving the event.

IMG_1547IMG_1550What an awesome night!

Just a reminder for those who might not have been able to attend, there are many resources available to you, both on and off campus.

Here are some links: 

Voices Against Violence

UMBC Counseling Center

UMBC’s Relationship Violence Response and Prevention Program (RVAP)

UMBC’s Title IX Coordinator and Info

Women’s Center at UMBC

Wish I could be [seen] in your world

A reflection written my staff member, Yoo-Jin Kang 

As an Asian-American woman, I’ve always struggled with finding people who look like me in the larger media. You see, May is Asian Pacific Islander month, and regrettably, I am not sure who I can expect to be featured during this month because I am so unfamiliar with Asian historical figures and their contributions.

Growing up in the United States education system, I had always learned about other important figures in our country: white presidents (except our current one!), famous white men who made *amazing* contributions to our society, and the few African-American historical figures who were brought up as part of our history lesson, like Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. What I didn’t consciously realize for a long time was the lack of Asian representation, across the board, throughout my entire schooling and life. Why was this the case? Could it be that Asian Americans did not make useful or noteworthy contributions or impact to our society? Could it be that the only famous Asian American that I would ever know about would be figure skater Michelle Kwan?!

Of course not.

I can’t help but think about how the paradox of the minority model stereotype  fits into this lack of representation and recognition. This stereotype can be truly harmful because it can create a silencing and minimizing effect on the contributions, successes, and voices of Asian Americans who are “expected to do well” anyway, and so it’s not such a big deal. Growing up,  I couldn’t help but feel a quiet voice that told me that no matter what I did, I would not get recognition for it as a individual person, but would be praised because:

“Oh, you Asian people are so good at _____” or “have always been great at _______.”

Not only was this isolating for me… it also contributed to this liminal feeling I had of not being considered white, but not being labeled as a “person of color.” It took until college for me to realize that I, too, belong, and that my struggles were also worthy of speaking up about.

When I think about television shows and movies, this is where I feel the most isolated from the people who supposedly “represent” me in the media. Often, if I ever saw a character who looked similar to me, I noticed their role often consisted of stereotypical characteristics that only perpetuated already trivializing cultural beliefs.

Often, we seemed to be lumped with characters that had little personality — characters who seemed to serve one purpose: The math/science whiz. The person at the computer/phone navigating directions, while all the other characters were out kicking bad-guy butt. The repressed and studious best friend. The fetishized “oriental” model (often with chopsticks in her hair). Or the person with the broad “Asian” accent who spoke broken English, often seen working at a Chinese restaurant. Even when there was “representation” of an “Asian” character, I couldn’t relate to them at all.

Moreover, the term “Asian” is so broad. As an ethnic group, “Asian” encompasses so many regions, all with many similarities and differences in culture and values, and I can’t help but think that it’s harmful to lump so many different regions with one word, when we don’t recognize and pay attention to our differences. This May, I plan to learn more about not only my heritage, but also about the different cultures and contributions that make up the pan-Asian community. I hope you will join me and I challenge you to also recognize when a character of color, in any form of media, is being used as a trope rather than a valued person. 

seemsappreciate

[P.S. I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews for the new show, “Fresh off the Boat“.                 On one hand, I hear people who love the show because not only are they seeing a family that might look like them, they are also identifying with some of the immigrant and often humorous experiences that are portrayed in the show. On the other hand, I hear about people who highly dislike the show, stating that it fulfills stereotypes about Asian immigrants, specifically with the notion that Jessica Huang (the mother) is a “tiger-mother“. It’s interesting to note that due to the scarcity of representation in our media, we often feel that when we do see people who look like us…we want/ expect them to be perfect. There is a fine balance to be made between respecting and honoring a person’s culture and background, as it influences who they are, and completing erasing a person’s racial identity to make it more accessible for a whiter audience.]