In Praise of the Devil’s Advocate
This article is a tribute to those devil’s advocates who were hurt or killed just because they asked questions
â€œI disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it” said Voltaire after reading Rousseau’s Social Contract in 18th century France. We respect the courage and honesty of Voltaire and other leaders of the time for they laid the foundation for an enlightened century.Â MedievalÂ dogmatism, prejudice and narrow mindedness was set aside at the political level to allow for more mature acceptance of questioning and criticism.Â This laid the foundation for recognizing the individual and the concept of the democratic ideal.
Contrast that with the 21st century political dictum first uttered by George W Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 â€“ â€œIf you are not with us you are with them” a line followed closely by the Sri Lankan government as it fought the difficult war with LTTE. By extension, asking questions is treachery and not condoned through threat driven by fear.Â The questioners are ridiculed and even silenced by death.Â Yet the questioners are few and far between to begin with as the masses are shaped to be left brained linear thinkers and not encouraged to creatively ask questions.Â Â Our logical and rational education ensures that. Â Â Who sets this agenda ?
Most of us have been shaped through specialization to only use the left brain for the purpose of providing centre stage to human beings based on natural selection where the strong few dominate.Â Â So, it is the strong few that set the agenda but they will selfishly guard their right to leadership and hate being questioned.
The brave few who question or play devil’s advocate are creative.Â Much of the time they seek better ways of doing what is being done but may not be against the people who act – only their actions. Â Â This may require them to stop and re look at their process and the methods â€“ so it is disruptive to a plan of action, especially if there is a firm goal set, like how the government went after the LTTE. Â Â How do we find the middle ground on this ?.
There are a few things at play here.Â The level of openness and transparency of the people being questioned, the intentions of the questioner and the way questions are being asked.Â Â Of course the actions that are being questioned and what is at stake also matters.Â Yet with whatever we do as a civilized and a humane society, there is a foundation for our existence based on a code of ethics and practice enshrined to respect and protect human beings and their right to exist.Â Â Many leaders break this code freely and not many people hold them accountable.
One cannot blame us ordinary people as being a devil’s advocate is deemed a trouble maker, a non conformist, a heretic and many other brands that have been foisted on people who question.Â So most of us remain in our left brained comfort zone and not make trouble.
Unfortunately, many of us by our nurture and training have little capability to be reflective ourselves, ask self inquiry questions which extends to us being uncomfortable too when others ask questions. Â Â Therefore, we do not ask questions of others.
Asking questions is to engage the right brain to be creative, to push the limits.Â If we do not ask questions, we will not progress.Â Â It is the likes of Aristotle, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela who have inspired our imagination as they went against the grain and questioned the status quo at a great personal cost to them.Â Â They all challenged injustice to human beings based on a universal moral code of what is right and what is wrong.Â They found creative ways of expressing their message and their actions have made the world a better place.
Leaders looking at you through a barrel of a gun saying, â€œIf you are not with us you are them” may achieve their immediate goals but is bound to leave a mess behind as their goal orientation and narrow focus does not lend them to be open to feedback and look at the bigger picture.Â The effects of their words and action, the impacts, good and bad they may have in the wider world around them are not considered. Â Â Often this kind of leadership is driven by their fear and insecurity, which negatively impacts on the psyche of the people.Â Â As a result, they may win battles but lose wars.
Politically, allowing the masses to engage the right brain makes it difficult for leaders to control them.Â Â When the masses ask questions the leaders are in the spot light and will be held accountable.Â This makes it a challenge for leaders to act with impunity without thinking about the people they lead.Â This puts corrupt selfish leaders on the spot.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has been plagued with this kind of leadership since independence.Â Â I lament for Lanka in recent times for allowing the loss of life for many just because they asked questions.
I was not a regular reader of The Leader nor did I agree with some of Lasantha’s professional ways, but it hit the core of my being when he was killed â€“ for Lasantha the fellow human being.Â He did put a lot of people on the spot with his questions, but a death sentence was too harsh of a response for which the entire nation has to suffer the karma.Â This kind of behavior in the last twenty five years has left the country with a fear psychosis leading to low social esteem and stifled progress.
History is dotted with stories of great leaders â€“ Alexander, Napoleon, Marcos, Suharto – who changed their world for a time but lost the plot to end their days without dignity. Â Â We have had others, the winners who left an inspiring legacy behind like Gandhi, Churchill, Anwar Sadat, Corazon Aquino and the ones yet living like Mandela, De Klerk, Gorbachov who transformed the world in our life time and will go in dignity.Â Even India’s honest, humble yet steely Manmohan Singh in the way he is quietly changing India to be a superpower is a wonderful example for us.Â They will be remembered in history immemorial.
For us, apart from the fortune of a righteous leader now, one way to transform is through education so at least the next generation will be creative and have the courage and confidence to ask questions. The spread of communications technology will complement this as it will be easy to mobilize the country when questions need to be asked.
As a 14 year old when I moved to Canada, what stood out most was my new ability to question the teachers.Â I was naturally uncomfortable with this at first, but realized the power and confidence I gained through it.Â Â It is no surprise that Canada is one of the most just and progressive countries in the world, a country with high social esteem.
We yearn for a time soon in Sri Lanka where leaders will transform their style to become more open and inquiring, reflective and welcome questioning; who realizes the link between justice and the health of a nation; who understand the concept of ‘dependent origination’ â€“ the laws of karma; feel the impermanency of life and take seriously the legacy they will leave behind â€“ cool like Voltaire and friends or un-cool like so many leaders, once great, but caused so much suffering for so many at the end.
I praise the devil’s advocates as it is their courage and persistence that will help make this world more compassionate.Â Â I salute and pay tribute to those who lost their lives being so.