[su_label type=”info”]COLUMN: DEVIL’S ADVOCATE[/su_label]

Carlos Barón (right) plays the devil at the Mission Community Music Center’s annual “Posarela” performance in 2012. Photo Clarivel Fong/El Tecolote Archives

Today, I will attempt to clarify the reason why I have picked the name “The Devil’s Advocate” for this column. May the force be with me, or better yet, “May the goddess hear me while the Devil plays dumb!”

Recently retired after teaching more than 30 years at San Francisco State University, a month ago I sat on top of my last box of books and other less essential belongings, as I prepared to take that box home and lock the door of my office for one last time.

After all those years inside that womb-like atmosphere of the university, I started to think about my immediate future. Mixed feelings occupied my mind—on the one hand, an instant nostalgia of the life spent on campus, on the other, the excitement of getting back to the “off-campus community,” which beckoned me, promising new challenges (like writing a column for El Tecolote).

Being a teacher gave me the privilege of being able to open the door of my classroom every semester to an average of 90 to 100 new students. A privilege certainly… and a great responsibility. It was always exciting to meet the new students and to help them to broaden their horizons. To me, that is one of the main tasks of a teacher, or of an artist (I have been both): to always push the horizon. Beginning with my own and continuing with the horizons of those who were there as students in my diverse classes, or readers in the new column.

In most of my classes, I used a dialectical approach, which is “a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth.” That definition comes from the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary. (Not sure what a dictionary is? Google it!)

In the dialectical method, first one introduces a thesis and then one brings up an alternative (or opponent) to that thesis, called an “antithesis.” The result of the clash that hopefully takes place, is a cohesive synthesis.

That method was not always easy to swallow, to embrace or to understand for the students. After a thesis (or a particular subject) was introduced, I would ask, “What do you think about that?” Many times a deafening silence would follow.

Those deafening silences can cause a great deal of deterioration to the mind of the teacher and he or she has to learn to wrestle them and make them work. It is not easy. A late friend of mine, an activist poet and fellow college professor, got so fed up by those deafening silences, that he invented a method to provoke discussion in his classes: He would ask a question to the students and, if there were no answers coming from them, he would abandon his teaching space and sit on a chair, next to the students. There, he would raise his hand and proceed to answer his own question.

A desperate solution indeed, but then… it was close to the end of his career. Understandable, right?  What do think? What? I can’t hear you!

Now, coming to the role of “The Devil’s Advocate.” The “Advocatus Diaboli,” in its original Latin, can be described as a relative of that particular method used by my friend. A devil’s advocate is a person who defends an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument, or to expose it to a thorough examination… or to an interesting discussion.

In the theater, I have written (and performed) the character of the devil, quite a few times. In the process, I have discovered a blessed truth: people like to tease the devil, to boo the devil, to challenge (and hopefully defeat) him, to laugh at and with the devil. Even famous rock groups write songs to El Diablo, such as “Sympathy for the Devil.” No matter the age or educational level, nationality or gender, the devil provokes passionate responses, which is great for an actor, a writer, a teacher—or a columnist.

So, rather succinctly said, “I want to be a devil’s advocate and provoke responses from the readers, hopefully passionate, as I poke my pen in the parts that cause pain —or pleasure—or peruse the pitiful promises of petulant politicians.”

This devil advocate aims to poke a finger to the wound, which can be a dangerous premise. Many times, as one pokes this or that wound aiming to heal, wishing to find a cure, he or she might be accused of actually causing the wound.

But then, that’s OK; that risk comes with the territory. You can call me a pleader, a polemicist, a sophist, a contrarian—just don’t call me a boring fallen angel.