Satan's Lawyers

devil's advocate

A friend of mine recently shared Melissa McEwan's article, "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," on her Facebook wall:

There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women's Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

This hit hard for me.

As a product manager working with an engineering team, a lot of my life is edge cases. What if this function gets a non-alphanumeric input? What if the user has IE8? What if this change breaks the weird use case of these customers? As we brainstorm solutions to problems we discover, we throw each of them against every exception and corner case we can find. We're always out for the general solution, and finding and squashing obscure failure cases is celebrated.

And doing this day-in-day out, I've been in situations where somebody I care about is explaining their Real Experience of some Real Stuff, and my mind is instinctually running through the edge cases. "Well, I think you might be generalizing a little there," or "what if happens?" No, I don't verbalize those thoughts— I guess I learned decent allyship at some point— but they're there, and it takes a conscious effort to hold back. McEwan's article helped me understand why argument in the wrong time and place can be so damaging.

I used to wrestle in high school. When I stepped into the ring, I knew I'd be fighting somebody, but I also got to consent to that match, could stop it at any time, and knew the rules. There were also weight classes, so I knew I'd be wrestling somebody approximately my size (119lb), and mats to cushion your fall to the floor.

Wrestling at practice or in a match was fun, and challenging, and rewarding. But it would be utterly terrifying if a 250lb wrestler could start a wrestling match with me, out on the street, without my consent. Our difference in size would mean that something that might be a fun little game for him could be a very real threat to my safety and health.

Intellectual sparring is not the exclusive domain of privileged people— go to any high school debate tournament, and you'll see the diversity of people that love to search for truth together by hurling facts, calling out logical fallacies, building an argument and and destroying their opponent's. But like the 250lb wrestler in this example, people like me enjoy the privilege to dispassionately argue about anything, at any time, without feeling like our identities or lives are on the line. Just because somebody is up to debate one topic in one context does not mean they're in the mood to debate all topics in all contexts, and if somebody is sharing a difficult experience without asking for an argument, it's overwhelmingly likely what they actually want is empathy, understanding, and support.

There's a self-interested argument here as well. One of my favorite takeaways from Non-Violent Communication is that it's really hard to empathize when you don't feel empathized with. Or applied to this situation, "It's really hard to give a shit about edge cases when you don't feel like the listener cares about the core case that's affecting my life and the lives of my community." So when you have edge-case worship like #notallmen or #alllivesmatter happening in response to serious voices from oppressed communities, it is really hard to ever expect those communities to relate to or empathize with the problems of white-cis-hetero-techie males. Not that empathy for the privileged should be anyone's priority right now, but to the extent we think success in fighting racism, sexism, and all the other -isms is tied up in hunting for some shared humanity, maybe we should, refrain from doing things that actively harm that effort.

So I challenge myself and other men: the next time somebody explains a problem he or she's having, try to silence the edge-case voice, and think about what that person needs from you to feel heard, validated, and supported. It's probably not devil's advocacy. Go read McEwan's article.