On Being the Devil's Advocate
(Oregon Planners' Journal, October 1997)
By Richard Carson
In my pursuit of the truth, I may occasionally upset someone -- a planner, an environmentalist, a developer, an elected official or some other citizen of this fair state. I occasionally get mail -- via the Internet and USPS -- from someone saying my writings are "lame" or "stupid." I also get mail telling me that I have my finger on the pulse of political reality. Neither perspective is right or wrong. However, they both beg the question, "Why am I doing this?"
So I decided to explain why I write what I do. It will become my standard response every time someone says, "Carson has gone mad again." My Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary has two very relevant definitions for the term "devil's advocate."
"A person who opposes an argument with which he [or she] does not necessarily disagree, to determine its validity or be provocative."
"An official [of the Roman Catholic Church] appointed to present arguments against a proposed canonization or beatification. Also officially called the 'Promoter of the Faith.'"
I prefer the second definition. I argue against the "canonization" or declaration of sainthood of land use planning in Oregon. Not because I detest it. I do so because I respect it. I will not let others cheapen it by the often blind and mindless rhetoric of praise. We have become the Mecca of planning in America. And even' Mecca needs its religious heretic.
As my favorite curmudgeon H.L. Mencken, said of the journalist, "His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is this thing called self-expression." Such is the existence of a journalist. Writers are people obsessed with their art. I am no exception. I have been writing commentary on Oregon public policy for over a decade. If this was an eating disorder I would weigh 300 pounds.
Some of you may remember that two years ago I became the Editor of the Oregon P1anners' Journal from a hospital bed. For me was a life changing experience - literally and physically. I decided then and there to make some life choices. I decided I did not care be a "conformist" or speak the party line. I want to be the planner's advocate. I want to the question that wanted to ask.
I hope I am doing a good job. I certainly have upset a few people. But the bottom line is that I kept my promise to you. I write to entertain and occasionally be irreverent, to make my point and say the things you have said to me.
Being the devil's advocate means that inconsistencies will occur between the articles I write, but hopefully not in the same article. The fact is, I often learn by prodding someone to take exception with me. I also reconsider my positions because some planner makes a more articulate arid intelligent than mine. Mencken says such a person, "is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than cabbage, it will also make better soup." As the "Promoter of the Faith," I occasionally make rose soup.
No apologies are given. No apologies accepted.
Richard Carson is Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.