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Background

When it comes to politics I prefer to take the role of a "devil's advocate" instead of firmly entrenching myself into one political party's ideas. I do not like to disclose my own vote to people because of hostility from others who voted differently, so I keep it to myself.

With the current situation going on in Canada for the Ontario elections, with the Liberals not getting the 8 required seats to keep official party status, many people who supported them have brought it up in general conversation. I never explicitly ask people their views, but they end up telling me anyways. When I have brought up issues that I feel might have caused the Liberals to perform poorly, I am met with hostility and accusations of supporting "an evil party".

I have already tried explaining that I do not necessarily agree with the opposition, but people ignore it and continue to attack my character.

I feel overwhelmed and some of my relationships with people I truly enjoy talking to have been strained because of this issue. I would appreciate being able to continue to talk about politics with people, and this issue may come up in the future except with different parties, so I would like to know what I can do for the next time.

My Question

What strategies can I use to stop people from assuming I am against a certain party (and therefore a "bad person") when I bring up counter arguments against them, without stating my personal political view?

  • 8
    Just to be clear, are you starting these things off with something like "Just to play Devil's advocate..."? Because, to quote a James Acaster bit, "Otherwise it just sounds like your own, horrible opinion." – zibadawa timmy Jun 10 '18 at 17:50

10 Answers 10

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+100

I'm going to focus on the part of your question which is

When I have brought up issues that I feel might have caused the Liberals to perform poorly, I am met with hostility and accusations of supporting "an evil party".

(Disclaimer: I'm from the US where political tensions have been running very high; I'm not sure if this is more or less so than Canada, but it sounds very similar in this regard.)

My partner often has conversations like that, most frequently online - sometimes strangers, sometimes friends. Like you, he doesn't like to publicly identify as a member of any particular party. However, his views do end up pretty much aligned with one party, and he has some strong opinions and criticisms about how they could be doing better. Unfortunately when he tries to bring these up in internet forums, he often gets ad-hominem attacks in response (think "Spotted the [opposite-party candidate] voter!").

After seeing his experiences with this, I personally choose not to discuss politics unless I know the other person well enough to tell that they'll either be open to a respectful debate.. or mostly agree with me anyways.

We've both observed that the vast majority of people openly discussing politics

  1. Have very strong views, as in "if you're not for us, you're against us"
  2. Don't like their views to be challenged

(Please note I don't mean the vast majority of people overall - just the ones who are vocal about their politics.)

Some indicators that work fairly well for me:

  • Good: You've seen them respond to other people's criticisms respectfully
  • Good: They offer caveats and disclaimers when giving their opinions about policy
  • Good: They ask questions and invite follow-ups
  • Bad: They phrase their opinions as fact or absolutes
  • Bad: They attack people in the opposite party

So the best way I have found, if you aren't sure if they'll be open, is to start by asking questions instead of going straight into a full-on debate.

I kind of stumbled upon this by accident: shortly after I moved states, I joined a local forum, and someone posted an article about a very concerning character running for public office. Unbeknownst to me, a law had recently been changed in my new state that had made this person eligible to run. So when I saw a disparaging comment along the lines of "Ugh, this is why [category of people] shouldn't be allowed to run for office", I was confused and asked honestly, "Huh, interesting idea, what about [potential complication]?"

The commenter was a bit hostile at first, but I continued responding in good faith and explained I was just interested in exploring the implications of such a policy... although it didn't go too far after that (I think he wasn't really interested in a discussion) the subsequent responses were much less hostile and I even got some virtual internet points out of it :P

Another good strategy is to throw them a bone. Try to include concessions when you can, instead of simply disagreement, e.g. "I really like the general idea of this law, but I'm worried it will be used to allow bad things." This is something my partner had problems with as well: he often posts criticisms of Party A, and certain people started saying "hmm, you say you're not on Party B's side, but I never see you criticize them..." (when the reality is that he follows Party A more closely, and feels like it will be more effective to talk to Party A people than to the other). Signaling some agreement in the beginning statement helped soften the blow and cut down on knee-jerk "oh no a nonbeliever!" reactions.

For people that I do know well and don't want to harm the relationship, I try to be sensitive to how they receive such comments. For example, I have pretty much opposite views of my parents now, although I was raised with their values. When I had just shifted my ideology I tried asking questions and trying to subtly poke at some issues - later my mother told me she was very offended by that. So I don't talk about politics with them anymore! Instead, I'll talk to my partner or friends that I know are interested in political issues and that I've seen have measured discussions before. And with new friends, I'll still revert back to asking questions first and watching their reactions to others before deciding whether or not to bring up a discussion.

One thing to keep in mind that political issues might be a fun thought experiment for you, but an intensely personal issue to someone else, and they may well be offended by you treating it like an abstract academic exercise. If they do, apologize and make a mental note not to debate with them in the future. There are certain things I know I can't tolerate a debate on either! My partner's solution, since he sometimes does really want to discuss a particular issue, is to seek out a forum (could be online or in person) which explicitly encourages an atmosphere of open debate, instead of trying to engage random people who mention it.

  • 10
    This keeps getting deleted, but this really is the better answer... "One thing to keep in mind that political issues might be a fun thought experiment for you, but an intensely personal issue to someone else, and they may well be offended by you treating it like an abstract academic exercise." That's some good stuff right there. – apaul Jun 18 '18 at 3:39
104

Play stupid games; win stupid prizes...

I know that sounds a bit harsh, but if you know that it's an issue that people are passionate about and you play devil's advocate for kicks, don't be too surprised if people want to kick you out. Telling them that you're just playing devil's advocate, because you enjoy debate, is likely to make that worse rather than better. (Most folks don't enjoy being challenged just for the hell of it, or for your recreation)

I have a cousin who likes to play this game. He'll argue both sides of an issue just to get an argument going. It's like trolling in real life. The trouble is that most folks have noticed this and have started to regard the things he says as debate bait, even when he actually does feel strongly about one side or another.

I have another cousin, the first cousin's little brother, who seems to employ the same tactic, but actually does have pretty strictly right leaning political views...

Bottom line is... Claiming that you're "just playing devil's advocate" doesn't do anything to lessen the irritation experienced by your conversation partner. They're likely to think that you are either hiding your true agenda, or just trolling for fun.

So, what can you do about this? Stop it. Have an honest conversation where you honestly discuss your views and honestly listen to the views of your conversation partner, or drop the subject.


In response to comments:

There's a difference between playing devil's advocate and educating oneself or others about an opposing view... Playing devil's advocate is often flying a false flag when there isn't a good reason to. One can talk about why the other side believes what they believe without pretending to believe it yourself, or hiding your own beliefs.

In most cases people won't appreciate being played with by someone who doesn't even hold the view they're arguing for. Particularly if they've already heard the argument from someone who actually holds that view.

To expand on that a little bit... I can't begin to describe all of the times I've heard someone expose a really awful point of view and then try to absolve themselves by claiming that they're "just playing devil's advocate" and that all sides should be heard, but they don't really support the things they've said... That usually sounds awfully hollow and it's all too often said by people backpedaling after they realize that they've said something deeply offensive.

If you don't want to be perceived that way, try having an honest conversation instead.

30

Politics is a very contentious subject. When you "play devils advocate" you're fostering disagreement where there wasn't any previously. This is especially the case if you are just arguing whatever the opposing viewpoint of your conversational partner takes while being evasive about your actual political views.

When someone brings up a counter argument there's an implication that they disagree. If someone doesn't disagree, bringing up a counter argument is a violation of the Gricean Maxim of Relevance. This is why people are interpreting you taking the opposing position as you believing in that position. It wouldn't be relevant for you to bring up the counter argument otherwise. To put it simply when people argue a position the default assumption is that they believe in that position.

The problem I've had when taking contentious positions "recreationaly" in the past is that it's incredibly difficult to have productive conversations around contentious issues even when everyone involved is acting in good faith. Often people just want to vent or remark on events, not get into a debate. By always picking the converse position I was making everything into a point of contention. This lead to people finding me argumentative and frustrating since my goals for the conversation were different than theirs.

If you want to "play devils advocate" you need to choose when to do it wisely. You want to find people who are on the same page with you about the goal of the conversation. Find people who want to explore the issue and different interpretations of events with you. Make sure that they are on board with doing a deep dive on an issue at the start of the conversation. I've found it helps when doing this to take multiple positions within the same conversation to signal to others that I'm wanting to explore differing viewpoints rather than argue the correctness of a particular viewpoint. If you're clearly taking many different positions with a group of people who are on board with exploring the issue you're a lot less likely to get attacked for taking a particular position.

  • 3
    Sorry, I realized my question was unclear, but I am not acting as the DA just for the sake of argument. It is mostly when people bring up the results in conversation and ask sweeping statements about how ". However I do understand your point on doing it wisely and with people who are on the same page. Thank you. – TheRealLester Jun 8 '18 at 15:51
  • 17
    @TheRealLester Remember that people saying "How could anyone ever believe x?" could be expressing their frustration and disbelief rather than looking for someone to explain it to them. I think a lot of the problems you are facing may have to do with the purpose of the conversation not including political debate. Sometimes the appropriate response is to express sympathy for the feelings of the speaker, rather than explain other people's perspectives to them. – sphennings Jun 8 '18 at 16:01
  • 2
    Good point, I never thought of it that way. I'll reconsider my choice to engage. – TheRealLester Jun 8 '18 at 16:09
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I play the Devil's Advocate all the time, I think with a good amount of success (as in, people don't usually get made at me for it). There are a few things I always keep in mind.

When you should do it

If you know that the person you're talking to appreciates open discourses on contentious subjects.

There are some people who do not want their worldview challenged. For those people, do not challenge it. However, there are some people who simply want to find the root of an issue. They're willing to forgo political affiliations in exchange for objectivity. These are the types of people you play the Devil's Advocate with.

If you know both sides of the debate

Further, you shouldn't play the Devil's Advocate on an issue you're not too familiar with. The whole point is to open up a discourse, but if you don't know how each side fits into the other (or, more appropriately, how they don't), then you're just arguing. They'll say their side, you'll present the alternative, and that's that. Nobody like that. Don't do that.

How to approach it

Remove your own opinions from the conversation. Completely.

When playing the Devil's Advocate, you have to remember that you aren't expressing your own opinion. Rather, you're communicating the Devil's opinion. By definition, the Devil's opinion is not favorable, so you have to make absolutely sure that you don't accidentally conflate that opinion with your own. That's one of the reasons it's so important to know both sides of the debate. If you enter the conversation with only one side, you'll find it very difficult not to give a bias towards that side. Once you stop approaching the conversation objectively, you're not playing the Devil's Advocate anymore. If you find yourself too emotionally attached to one side, don't play the Devil's Advocate. It won't work.

Never present these arguments as your own.

This one's a little tough, but you have to keep the person you're talking to from thinking you endorse the Devil's opinion, even if you do. I do this by explicitly stating someone else holds this opinion. For example, if you say "when Y happens it leads to Z", and someone disagrees, they're arguing with you. If you say "conservatives think that Y leads to Z", and someone disagrees, they're arguing with the idea. I've found when people push back on the former phrasing, they're expecting me to defend that stance, and if I oblige I find myself entrenched on that side. We're trying to avoid that. When people push back on the latter phrasing, they're typically expecting me to explain why the other side thinks that. This keeps me nicely detached from either side, keeps things objective, and lets me just shrug if the other person seems too upset.

Try to present both sides equally

If you end up presenting the liberal stance on every issue, you're not the Devil's Advocate; you're the Liberal's Advocate. Now you're not objective anymore. Further, by only presenting an opposing position, the person you're talking to is going to slip into that mindset that you agree with the Devil. Avoid that. Don't be afraid to counter the arguments you bring up with arguments from the other side (another reason to know both sides). This reinforces the perception that you're just trying to keep an open and objective discourse. If you only argue one way, people will forget that.

When to stop

The other person gets too fired up

Remember when I said not to play the Devil's Advocate if you're too attached to one side? That applies for the person you're talking to as well. If I told someone I supported vaccinations and they tried to play the Devil's Advocate, I'd get mad at them no matter how far they try to separate their own opinions and the opinions they're sharing. That's one of those topics I cannot approach civilly. If you realize you've stepped into one of those topics, stop.

You aren't certain about what you're talking about

Remember the whole point here is to discuss both sides of a topic. If you find yourself speculating too much, you aren't representing the other side very well anymore. Further, the bigger the gaps in your knowledge, the more you'll find yourself filling those gaps with personal opinions. We've gone over why this should be avoided.

An example's been requested

My wife and I were talking about the "Right to Try" bill recently passed in the US. It states that terminally ill patients can try non-FDA approved medicines now. That's an overgeneralization, but it's close. My wife says:

How could everyone not support this? If someone's dying why not let them try anything?

Personally, I agree, but I'm actually familiar with some of this debate. Further, I know my wife. I'm aware she'd be open to discussion, assuming I don't push it too far.

I replied along the lines of:

Well, a lot of critics are concerned that sick people will try the non-FDA drugs first because they're less expensive. Since those drugs are also less likely to work, that might cause avoidable deaths. They think it should only be an option after trying the FDA-approved options. Of course, drug manufacturers could just game that by saying their regimen takes a year or something to run its course so people don't get to try anything else anyway.

Here I've presented an opposing stance (as someone else's), but also brought up a flaw in it as well. Hopefully, that response shouldn't tip my own hand. Further, I know there's an argument to be made about lowering drug prices, but I don't know it, so I didn't make it. Also, if my wife had a terminally ill family member, I'd never touch this issue. I would be too personal, too emotional, and would just cause trouble.

  • 3
    This is a very thorough write up, in which you make some excellent points. Current site policy requires that answers be backed up by some form of supporting arguments (ideally personal experience, or citing sources). Can you edit this to include arguments to support the claims that you are making. – sphennings Jun 8 '18 at 20:37
  • @sphennings It's kinda tricky since this answer's mostly my experience throughout the years, but I tried adding an explicit example at the end. Let me know if that's not what you had in mind – Lord Farquaad Jun 8 '18 at 20:58
  • You were already most of the way there. Each of your suggestions were detailed and well explained. What I think would be most helpful would be some explanation about why you are suggesting these things. We're in the process of figuring out exactly what we mean by "back it up' and whether just providing an explanation of the logic behind an answer (like you've already done) is sufficient or not. Take a look at my answer to get an idea of what I did to back up the claims that I made. The example you provided doesn't harm your post but I don't think that it supports the claims that you've made. – sphennings Jun 8 '18 at 21:05
  • 1
    @sphennings that makes sense. I'm afraid I won't be able to get to that today though. I will this weekend – Lord Farquaad Jun 8 '18 at 21:08
  • If you say "conservatives think that Y leads to Z", and someone disagrees, they're arguing with the idea. True, if you're saying this one or maybe twice in a conversation. Try this a third time and it's gonna be sure awkward when people wonder why you're constantly talking about 3rd persons and whom those might be, if not yourself. – Mehrdad Jun 11 '18 at 19:58
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You can't have your cake and eat it too.

When it comes to politics I prefer to take the role of a "devil's advocate" instead of firmly entrenching myself into one political party's ideas.

contradicts your very next sentence:

I do not like to disclose my own vote to people because of hostility from others who voted differently, so I keep it to myself.

"Devil's advocate" means deliberately taking the opposing position, so you're not "keeping your opinion to yourself", you are setting yourself up as their political opponent (no matter their view). You can't blame them for taking your argument seriously.

You're welcome to continue doing that, but that might be incompatible with not being viewed as a jerk.

Another way to think of it: devil's advocate can be seen as trying to turn a deeply important issue (to one person) into an amusing academic exercise. It can be seen as an attempt to trivialize an issue.

To you, a discussion about (for example) proposed legislation regarding LGBT discrimination in the workplace may be an interesting hypothetical argument. But for the person you're arguing against, it's not hypothetical at all, because you're talking about them (or their sister, or their son, or their best friend). And no, not being part of that group doesn't make you more "objective" on this issue, it just gives you a different perspective.

  • 5
    While I think you make some excellent points this answer is light on supporting arguments. Can you edit your question to provide some back up for the claims you are making? – sphennings Jun 8 '18 at 18:35
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I also enjoy political discussions, but I prefer to maintain a reputation as a neutral centrist. And while I do hold strong opinions on some matters, I prefer to not out myself as any specific political direction in casual conversations, because that would just generate animosity with people I would prefer to stay on friendly terms with.

I made the experience that the best way to do this is by not phrasing arguments as your own but as arguments from a political strawman.

Other person: The widget tax is too high.

You: Maybe it is. But the position of the XYZ party on this matter is of course that it should be even higher because [...].

Other person: Those XYZ people don't know what they are talking about. That's wrong because [...] and even if it were true, that would be irrelevant because [...]

You: That might be true. When you say that to an XYZ sympatizer, they will usually say [...].

Other person: Don't they see that this is a textbook case of [logical fallacy]? And besides, there is also this argument: [...]

You: I would be careful with using that argument in a discussion with an XYZist, because they could easily counter it by pointing out [...]

I think this will address your concerns, because it allows you to bring counter-arguments into the discussion without signaling whether you agree or disagree with the strawman you are attributing these arguments to.

2

Be up front, which works for me.

I prefer negative voting - eliminate the options that have a real concern for you, and treat the other options as more-or-less acceptable. It's not the same as devils advocate but if explained poorly would hit the same issues - namely you are focusing on what could be bad/wrong/a concern with X, while everyone else is looking for what's great with X.

Solution? Be more "up front". Try this approach which works well for me:

"I tend to look for concerns and problems. Everything looks good at first, if you look for the ways a nice idea can go wrong, I find there's a better chance to avoid it, or at least have eyes open and not be disappointed. So when I look at Theresa May/Vladimir Putin/Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton, I start by thinking "where they can screw up or make things worse", and what's a problem with their approach.

"I might admire X for what he's done for business, but I'm much more focused on how that's been at a cost of stirring up populism and social divisions, how he exaggerates and doesn't seem to be truthful all the time, and how he seems to think bullying and attacking others is a valid way to succeed. Those are much more my focus than any prestige or business gains. If he looks good but parts of society gets worse, that's not okay for me. Do I know the answers? No."

2

I've had good results with just explicitly saying what I'm doing before asking a risqué question:

Just to play devil's advocate...

This lets them know that the next statement is not necessarily one you endorse (i.e., hedging the maxim of quality). If people don't realize your implication, you can always add "not because I'm convinced of this" or "so I can understand our position(s) better".

Of course, bringing up any emotionally loaded topic, not just politics, for the sake of learning more is best done tactfully in scenarios you've judged to be comfortable and open, in relationships where there's a basic level of trust. Probing opinions often tests relationships...

For the same reason, you can intentionally use a humble, inquiry-based conversation style like "What do you think of ...?" People rarely mind being asked if they perceive the question as sincere (not insistent, not implicitly a challenge). The only downside is that you sometimes come across as naïve for asking, which doesn't bother me much personally. You're sincerely trying to learn!

If on the other hand you are challenging them, well, expect relationships to be strained! That doesn't mean never challenge, but you could lay off till trust and comfort are reestablished. You don't have to state your view or agree with theirs, but just listening and deflecting argument can allow people a chance to cool off and see that you enjoy their friendship more than debate.

2

Ask them questions, instead of giving them answers.

"Do you think x-y-z could have caused this?" or "I have seen some people say X-Y-Z caused this, what do you think?" will be far better received than "X-Y-Z could have caused this". You are still providing them with the same concept to mull over, but in a manner that they can dismiss if they choose.

You are getting called a supporter of the opposition because you are being critical of the team they (and you) support. Whether it's constructive criticism or not, a lot of people do not want to hear it, and as the opposing side will inevitably have latched onto the same criticisms in one way or another, you will be lumped in with them.

By asking the question, you are not putting forth that it is the reason, or even putting forth anything at all, you're just going to them for their opinion on it - if they want to say "no that's rubbish", they are able to do so without thinking they're getting into a debate with you.

By utilizing the socratic method and using questions to manipulate their thought processes, you will find you can help them to question things that they take for granted, without being seen as a provocateur or traitor to the cause. Of course, you need to handle this in a manner that isn't seen as being condescending, which is why I find it's best to genuinely be uncertain about these things, as that will naturally shine through - and we ultimately have no way of knowing for sure what caused the results, so it's the most honest position to take.

1

For any non-Ontarian readers, the situation here was similar to America's last presidential election (which more people are familiar with) in that none of the candidates were exceptional or well regarded by the majority of the population. The leader of the Liberal Party (and Premier prior to the elections) was hated by the majority population; the leader of the PC Party has views resembling those of Donald Trump and was also hated by a large number of the population (for those views).

I understand what you mean, when someone asks "how could anyone vote for Ford" or "how can anyone still support Wynne", it's hard to explain those people's point of view without being painted as one of them, regardless of which party you support.

The solution depends on who you are talking to.

Some people make it their goal to convince everyone that every politician is evil, except the one they support. They don't see a reason to support a party other than theirs and they stop listening when you try to give them some. Their arguments don't have to be rational, and they're not interested in having a conversation: they want to rant out a monologue at the end of which you agree with them, and any other views are inexcusable. I have family members like this (uncle). Conversations about politics won't go anywhere but arguing unless you unequivocally support their views. It's a loss of time, and possibly ruined relationship. For those people avoid talking politics. Change the subject, do it bluntly and explicitly if you have to.

"Let's not talk about politics"

Other people are more open-minded and willing to have a conversation with opposing points of view, and can understand other points of views than theirs without getting angry. With those people, I think you can keep acting as you currently are. One thing you can do, is preface your sentence with

"Well, I understand them, "

before explaining your point.

Your job is now to find who falls into which category, and direct the conversation accordingly.

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