Riding the Intellectual Roller Coaster
A few months ago, Asha and I attended a conversation between Rebecca Solnit and Maria Popova. Both are insightful writers that I deeply admire. Throughout the evening of wide-ranging discussion, I found myself in the strange position of oscillating between heartfelt agreement and staunch disagreement. Strange as it was, there’s value in riding this intellectual roller coaster.
In a world where everyone along political, cultural, and religious spectra is at risk of epistemic closure, the work of exposing yourself to differing opinions has never been more essential for the healthy functioning of our democracy and society. The effort inoculates your own thinking against the expression of dogma and sharpens the edges of your persuasive endeavors.
A Model for Clear Thinking
I’ve formulated a model — what I call the Three Advocates — that aids this effort:
In order to effectively engage in public discourse, expose yourself to three “advocates”: the Angel’s Advocate, the Devil’s Advocate, and the Autonomous Advocate
The Angel’s Advocate
The Angel’s Advocate is part of your tribe and espouses your deeply held values with sincerity, clarity, and force. At the same time, the Angel's Advocate knocks down steelmanned counterarguments and criticizes with kindness. Listening to the Angel’s Advocate makes you think, I wish I had thought of expressing it that way. Though there are many who are on your side, the Angel's Advocate is a rarity.
The Devil’s Advocate
The Devil’s Advocate is like the Angel’s Advocate in every way, except they labor in support of the opposing viewpoint.
The Autonomous Advocate
The final — and perhaps the most valuable — advocate you should pay attention to is the Autonomous Advocate. In addition to pressing a point with all the tools that a good Angel’s and Devil’s Advocate uses, the Autonomous Advocate’s efforts place you on the intellectual roller coaster. You follow them in agreement only to lose them around a corner and feel like you've stumbled upon a different person. You are left uncomfortable and sometimes, confused. You're thinking.
The Dance of All Three
Each of the three advocates has a role to play. The Angel's Advocate equips you with the sharpest tools with which to press your viewpoint. The Devil's Advocate challenges you by poking holes in your thinking. The Autonomous Advocate keeps you just enough off balance in order to escape the traps of dogmatic thinking. You can use this model to dive deeply into a particular topic or to curate a conversation of voices on a diversity of questions. No matter the use case, I've found it essential to ask myself: Do I have my Three Advocates in order?