I was asked to give a TED Talk like presentation at my university recently, and, in giving it, was once again exposed to why public speaking is a scary thing. There were only nine or ten people in the audience, which is both better and worse than having a bigger crowd. After planning and delivering my talk, I realized that it was too complicated for oral presentation. I’m a writer, it’s to be expected.

This is what I had before me while I was talking. I didn’t read it off the sheet, but I wanted to have some of the more important phrases in front of me for reference. Obviously, what I actually said differed from what is written here in phrasing if not content.

When I was 20 years old, just ending my second year at [university], [a student paper] hired me on as Editor-In-Chief. Now, at the time, this wasn’t something to boast about. I was hired because I was reasonably sane, I’d been working there longer than a month, and I hadn’t shoved a piece of salami into the disk-drive of a coworker’s computer.

Really, I didn’t become the ‘boss’ as much as part of a group of three friends who’d decided that the position of EIC was too much for any one person to bear, so we split it three ways. None of us knew much about journalism, but for the next eight months or so we struggled, and we screwed up, and we learned. For me, it was a defining twelve months in my life. What I am going to tell you here today is the result of the stupidity, the insanity, the beauty of those twelve months. My two friends and I were the first Cascade team in a while not to disintegrate like cheap toilet paper under the cat vomit of student politics, and this, what I am about to say, is one of the reasons why.

Before it was abolished in 1973, the process of canonizing a potential saint required a case trial argued between two parties: God’s advocate and the Devil’s advocate, both represented by bishops or cardinals or whatever. God’s advocate was there to argue for the canonization of the individual by praising their miracles and sacrifice and general wonderfulness. The devil’s advocate was there, essentially, to argue that the candidates miracles were bogus, that the candidate was not worthy of being a saint, and that God deserved better. Obviously devil’s advocate wasn’t the most popular of positions, since the job required you to try and bring the rain on someone else’s sainthood parade, but it was also necessary. Every organization, every communal process, needs someone willing to express doubt, someone willing to play the devil’s advocate.

There’s a popular concept making the rounds right now because of the release of the zombie movie World War Z. It’s called ‘the tenth man principle,’ anybody heard of it? It’s not based strictly in fact, but it has enough basis in the intelligence community, and in truth, to be useful. The gist is that after 1973, after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel was taken completely by surprise and almost got wiped from the map, AMAN, the Israel intelligence section, changed how they interpreted intelligence data. They’d all been sure that Egypt wouldn’t attack in ’73, and because they were SO SURE, they were almost destroyed. Therefore, from then on, wherever nine intelligence analysts agreed on something, it was the duty of the tenth to disagree, to follow up alternate explanations, to be willing to express doubt.

It’s not easy to be the Devil’s advocate, just as it’s very lonely to be the tenth man. But in both cases, the presence of a dissenting voice is fundamentally necessary to making an important decision. Then again, most of you are never going to have to worry about canonizing a saint, or (hopefully) defending the world against a zombie apocalypse, so let me give you an example a little closer to home.

Four months into my time as Editor-in-Chief, one of my editors came to my Managing Editor and I with an article he’d written that was SO FAR out of my ideological construct that, when he presented it, I laughed in his face. The article was on male circumcision, well, the horrors of male circumcision, and the people who advocate against it, who call themselves ‘intactivists’.

Now as far as I was concerned, circumcision was painful religious rite that made a hysterically funny punch-line for jokes. My editor’s article was four pages of serious, poignant advocacy, punctuated by an end interview with a guy from Vancouver who used to pleasure himself in front of live audiences to show how much more fun life was with a foreskin.

I didn’t get it, nobody else I knew, nobody I talked to, cared about, was REMOTELY interested in advocating against the evils of male circumcision. We had, in my opinion, vastly more important issues to advocate for. I was baffled by my editor’s position, so one day I asked him something that wasn’t very polite, but he also never answered. I said, “How can you be anti-circumcision, and also pro-choice? How can you be okay with killing the kid before he pops out, but not giving him the snip-snip once he does?”

(Ugly pause. Watch the discomfort.)

Okay, maybe I had an ulterior motive for telling that story. On one hand, that story is a great polarizer. It provides cognitive friction because I just gave it a very controversial twist and you guys and girls have to decide if you agree with me, or if you don’t. And, more importantly, if you’re still willing to listen to me if you don’t. Based on that story and a certain ideology, it would be easy to conclude that I’m a jerk. So your personal question might become ‘why am I listening to this jerk?’ or even ‘what could this jerk say that I could possibly need to know?’

Well, those are questions I had to ask myself when that editor approached me. That editor was, for me, a sort of devil’s advocate or tenth man. He latched onto an issue that I thought was hilarious, and made it serious and note-worthy. He taught me that the issues that had been hysterical to my friends and me in my Christian private high school, were more than simply caricatures and stereotypes. And while circumcision may not have been an issue that he really changed my mind on, he forced me doubt the foundational rationality of my own perspective. As a leader, I needed to tolerate and encourage the expression of those I led at [student paper], and as a person, I needed to entertain the idea that I could possibly be wrong.

We have a name for people who don’t need devil’s advocates or tenth men to make decisions. We call them psychopaths.

Seriously.

Aside from lack of empathy, aversion to human relationship, bed wetting, fire starting, and torturing animals, psychopaths also tend to enjoy an amazing level of confidence. They can make decisions, BAM, because they don’t really believe in the possibility of their being wrong. Some might say it never occurs to them, but I suspect that the consequences of making a bad decision simply have no weight in their minds.

There have been numerous studies done over the years on the psychopathic traits of humanity’s great leaders. In 2012, some psychologists analyzed a bunch of former presidents and found that, surprise, the most successful ones tested out as enjoying psychopathic levels of confidence in their decision-making. They were just on that line where they believed enough in their decision-making to make the call, push the button, and accept the consequences, and yet still be able to listen to their advisors and fellow world leaders. The average Joe or Jane would probably evaluate the possible consequences of making a presidential decision and never be able to do it, just too scary. The average psychopath would probably launch a nuclear war, totally unfazed by the ramifications of his or her actions, and then blame it on someone else. Good leadership, it seems to be, is a balance between the confidence to act and the humility to admit limitations and ask for help.

In [student paper] office, I realized, I was often the tenth man. There were more people who were sympathetic to my editor’s intactivism than there were to my religious wackery. In some ways I felt vindicated by this freedom to dissent, since it allowed me to speak boldly when I disagreed on things. On the other hand, as important as the tenth man is, he’s also the one expected to be completely wrong the most often, since, barring a apocalyptic zombie event, the nine other guys probably have a more creative, nuanced, and balanced idea. Having been occasionally both wrong and alone, I can tell you it’s not a happy state. Often necessary, but not happy.

Unfortunately, the concept of the tenth man, of embracing cognitive dissonance, is one that is perpetually under siege. One of the things that I was taught in Anthropology: World Religions is that humans like binary opposites, or things that are simple and dichotomous. Good and Evil. Right and Wrong. Black and White. We don’t like to have doubt, or nuance, or ambiguity, the exact things that the devil’s advocate and tenth man are supposed to provide. Many of us are constantly trying to choke such things out of our lives, try to make our world’s smaller and ideologically narrower, and trust me, we pay for it.

We shrink our worlds by deleting Facebook friends who post things we disagree with, by seeking our news only from certain sources or certain authors, and by cultivating our Twitter follows to reflect our dominant ideology. We do it by making things we disagree with ridiculous, by caricaturing them or making them the butt of jokes. If we think that all priests are perverts we never have to look Christianity in the eye, do we? If all feminists are angry man-hating lesbians, then who needs ‘em.

This process is called ‘ego-casting’, because it allows us to take our egos, our ideologies and biases, and prune our ecosystems to fit them. Just as in real life, we can pick who we hang out with, on the interwebs we can pick what part of the larger world we wish to see. It provides the illusion of scale — global news, far-reaching reporting, fair and balanced coverage — without any of the discomfort of being exposed to something we might disagree with.

And when someone does come along who dares to say something our ego doesn’t like…

Jerk.

University is supposed to be about exposing us to the jerks, and nudging us into the realization that sometimes, we are the jerk. Hopefully, by fourth year people can reach the point where they can disagree without either party being jerks, or perceiving the other party as being a jerk simply for disagreeing. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m in my fifth year, and I can still be a jerk.

So, how do we deal with jerks?

I had it easy here because I come from a very different ideological background to [student newspaper]. So, to survive, I had to learn first of all to accept the tenth man, and second of all to be the tenth man. I’ve spent years now straddling two different ideological worlds, and I think there are two key lessons I’ve learned on being able to embrace cognitive dissonance and grow as a person.

1. Who are you to separate the jerks from the not-jerks? In life there are people who act like jerks, and those who don’t. Sometimes they are easy to tell apart, and sometimes they’re not. All of us have had embarrassing moments where we’ve been in a confrontation where we are SO SURE it is the other person who is being the jerk…and then later we realize that, actually, it was us. Usually we were missing a critical piece of information, proving that, with our flawed and limited perception of the world, we need to stop judging individuals unilaterally.

2. Celebrating difference is not enough. I see a lot of motivational posters, a lot of inspirational quotes, arguing that we are all different and that’s wonderful and great. On the one hand I agree with this, and on the other hand, ‘difference’ alone is not a good enough reason to listen to someone. A ‘different’ surgeon might kill me. A ‘different’ teacher might not actually know his or her stuff. At some point, the intellectual idea of embracing difference, of the ‘tenth man’ is not powerful enough to overcome the fact that so-and-so seems to be a real asshole or just plain stupid. At that point, a more powerful idea than ‘different’ is needed to compel us towards respect and community.

I get my more powerful idea in the form of Christianity. I believe in the principle of “Imago Dei” which is that all people are not only different, but also made in the image of God and therefore sacred. If this is true, than I am compelled by the divine will to listen to what they have to say, and not close my mind to the possibility that within even the most crazy rant there will be kernels of wisdom. Because of this principle, I can’t write anybody off as a complete jerk, or an asshole, or a doorknob or whatever. I have to remain in the discussion.

Not saying that I always succeed, or that everyone here needs to run off and become Christian. Most spiritual disciplines or religions have a similar principle about the sacred nature of life or humanity, and I’m simply urging you to embrace one of them. I’ve given you an intellectual reason in the ‘tenth man’ principle to avoid ego-casting, now give yourself a spiritual incentive as well. We are not wholly logical nor wholly spiritual beings; therefore we require arguments from both camps.

You need a devil’s advocate, even if it’s just to make sure you never become narrow and close-minded. You need that tenth man, if only to remove the shadow of the unknown from your decision-making. YOU NEED people who disagree with you in your life, because if you don’t believe in their potential to prove you wrong, you have moved into the realm of the criminally insane and the truly psychopathic.

You need the jerks because, if you dig deep enough, you find that a sizeable number of them are not really jerks. You need cognitive dissonance because egocasting makes people simple and reactionary. And you need to believe, as I try to, that there is something inherently sacred about each individual person, because hate, scorn, and ridicule are double-edged tools in even the most resolute hand.

This is what I began learning in 12 months at [student newspaper]. I probably will never stop learning it. Thank you.

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I'm a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a sports writer/church intern/LOTR nerd.

2 Comment on “Devil Advocacy and the Image of God

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