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Court jesters, deviants, and advocates of the devil

June 9th 2009 00:03
Wikipedia writes, about mediaeval comedians:

In societies where freedom of speech was not recognized as a right, the court jester -- precisely because anything he said was by definition "a jest" and "the uttering of a fool" -- could speak frankly on controversial issues in a way in which anyone else would have been severely punished for. Monarchs understood the usefulness of having such a person at their side...

The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:

"In ancient times courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters... Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her."

Court jester


J Richard Hackman in an interview with Diane Coutu (Harvard Business Review, May 2009, pp 99-105), talks about how to make teams (in any context) work most efficiently -- and part of his thinking revolves around the deviant.

Every team needs a deviant, someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning. Deviants are the ones who stand back and say, "Well, wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all? What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?"... In our research, we've looked carefully at both teams that produced something original and those that were merely average, where nothing sparkled. It turned out that the teams with deviants outperformed teams without them.

The article goes on to include a piece by Michael Beschloss on Obama's choice of officials, noting the appointments of Hilary Clinton (a former opponent) as secretary of state, and Robert Gates (a Republican) as defense secretary. Beschloss writes:

Of course, Obama is taking a risk by hiring so many strong and contentious personalities. He will inevitably have to spend a lot of time and energy serving as referee. This is what happened with Franklin Roosevelt, who also brought strong-minded figures into his government... FDR temperamentally loved the infighting. He liked to pit people against one another, believing that competition evoked the best performance from everyone.


John Stuart Mill, at the end of the second chapter of On Liberty, gives four reasons for freedom of speech.

  1. Dissenting opinions might well be true, and we shouldn't assume our own infallibility.
  2. Dissenting opinions that are false might still contain a portion of the truth. Mainstream opinions are rarely the entire truth, and it's only by the collision of dissenting with mainstream that the whole truth has any chance of emerging.
  3. Even if a mainstream opinion is the entire truth, it will amount to an irrational prejudice unless it's vigorously contested. People won't know the reasons for it.
  4. Dissenting opinions can make a true mainstream opinion more vital. In the process of arguing for the mainstream opinion, you become aware of what's at stake, what the meaning of that opinion is, etc.

Mill writes, for instance:

If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour for ourselves.


The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonisation of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed... The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of... This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.

Devil's Advocate


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2 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Anonymous

October 24th 2010 01:01
What the hell?

Comment by Nonymous

October 24th 2010 05:36
Hey Anon, if you're genuinely interested, I'll try to explain the point more clearly. If not, then thanks anyway for feeling strongly enough to leave a comment.

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