How playing Devil’s Advocate in the world of debate creates disharmony

By Faith Liu

In the world of debate, “playing devil’s advocate” is a popular strategy, and often used to determine the strength of the opposition’s argument. However, there is a limit for when this game should stop being played.

In my extremely short-lived time being a “debate kid”, I had witnessed young debaters using this term countless times, sometimes to defend outlandish and inappropriate topics in the name of a little piece of paper congratulating them for being “the best delegate”. From defending terrorists to trying to pass slavery in the United States, there is truly no law of the land when it comes to devil’s advocate, and this is the issue at hand.

According to the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA), high school debate teams in the United States are 47.87% white, with coaches having a percentage of 72.74% being white and the second-highest demographic being Asian: 21.79%. I vividly remember logging onto my Zoom call for the Harvard Model Congress Conference, being greeted with over a hundred white faces in casual western business attire, with a few people of color here and there. During that conference, a white student had decided to “play devil’s advocate”, stating that “people in the Global South contributed very little to the global economy, and therefore their respective citizens should be given vaccines last.” My jaw had dropped. Even some moderators were visibly displeased, but decided to continue forth in order to keep the pace and energy afloat. Even one of the most high strung debaters in my group had a face of bewilderment. How could one say that – something factually wrong, while simultaneously being shielded by this “devil’s advocate” play? 

“Devil’s Advocate” is a veil to protect people from saying horrible things, and in a realm that is extremely white dominated, it is inexcusable to accept bigotry within the debate community simply because of a “things are the way they are” attitude. Are there roles that we have to play into, sometimes ones we dislike, in order to excel in debate? Of course, but, this does not mean we as debaters, specifically debaters of color, should put up with it.

High school debate is a place where exceptional, young minds congregate in order to discuss issues within our geopolitical, and socioeconomic world – a place where every member should be able to speak their mind in a way that is respectful and free of hate.