Is Controversy Necessarily Divisive?

Accusations of divisiveness sure do get lobbed around a lot these days. I’ve known this for a while, yet it wasn’t until it was alleged against me that I really gave some thought to the question: what makes discourse divisive? How can we know when we are saying something divisive?

It might help to establish what certainly cannot be considered divisive. I’m willing to accept the premise that division is bad if I can do so without sacrificing the communication of ideas. I am on common ground with anyone who is for unity as an ideal, but not as a higher ideal than intellectual exchange. We can all agree that disunity should never be an aim; what may be harder to acknowledge is that it is sometimes an unavoidable consequence of the absolutely essential activity of discussion.

This discussion never necessitates disunity, but it does create the conditions under which it is often sown. What are these conditions? Well, it likely depends on the individual. There is a certain fear which accompanies having one’s beliefs threatened, and this fear can provoke a person to escape rather than confront. Anger, resentment, laziness: these all lead us to react emotionally to the discomfort that comes along with debate. It is these emotional retreats which tempt us towards divisive speech.

What exactly are we criticizing when we say that someone is being divisive? There is only one description that makes sense to me, that doesn’t take hostage our ability to sharpen each other. Division is the negative sentiment felt between groups of people, whether that sentiment is mutual or not, or whether it is justified or not, the result of which is an increased inability of these groups to communicate effectively, exchange ideas, and/or to reconcile their differences.

We have to be able to speak with one another about important topics. It just so happens that the most important topics also tend to be rather controversial, since they concern the solutions to the greatest societal challenges. Naturally, there will be passionate disagreements about these solutions, but it isn’t obvious why a difference of opinion would necessarily cause any division as long as each party grants to the other the assumption of goodwill. It is quite evident, then, that when division is sown, it is usually through emotional accusations of ill intent against a person or group without compelling evidence to support the claim.

If the message you send to your like-minded peers is that those with whom you disagree do not really want solutions, any hope of unity is sabotaged. If the accusation were true, there would obviously be no point in seeking solutions or offering critique, because doing so is only productive if we assume both parties want to fix a problem. The result is that the division between the two groups correlates with the proportion of people who assume bad motives on the part of their opponents.

So, it isn’t the people who express controversial opinions who are divisive, but it is those who react to these opinions not by presenting counter arguments, but by slandering whoever utters them. Those with this tendency erect a barrier which prevents them from hearing and weighing arguments without first filtering them through their own opinion about the individual’s motivations.

Unfortunately, we know that there will always be a certain portion of any group who will antagonize those who see things in a different way. That’s why I said that division happens not because it necessarily has to, but because it is simply a practical reality that certain individuals resort to divisive behavior in moments of weakness or passion; they confuse a controversial critique for chaos-driven taunt and lead their peers to see others as an immoral or amoral foe. Should controversy be avoided on account of this fact? This is the calculation that is made, perhaps subconsciously, by agreeable people who cannot stomach conflict the way their more argumentative counterparts can.

It is for this reason that unity cannot be held as the highest good. Everyone knows this who has had a friend or family member angry with them for telling them the cold, hard truth. Again, we need to be able to communicate with one another. If the truth is habitually stifled to avoid conflict, it is hard to see how solutions can be reached, and it is by reaching conclusions together that we become united.

I repeat: by censoring ourselves for the sake of unity, we leave truth without a voice, thereby inhibiting our progress in overcoming cultural ills. This in turn leaves us just as divided as at the outset. But by engaging each other at the risk of emotional discomfort, we both communicate the truth freely, and increase our odds at curing what ails us.

There is another reason why it is not expedient to avoid potential division at all costs. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which people with certain personality types are disproportionately represented within different groups. A good example would be career. There is strong evidence that one’s career choice is predicted by his/her personality. The same could very well be true when it comes to social, political, religious, or any other affiliation. Suppose you have two groups which have opposing opinions on a given issue. Suppose also that the representatives of one viewpoint are more argumentative, whereas those on the other side are more passive. In such a scenario, the passionate debaters may more freely express their disgust with the opposing arguments, but the pacifists will hold their tongue to end the conflict. Thus, the opinions of one group will seldom be heard, and those of the more contentious group will never be challenged. This results in an echo chamber for one group and a lack of productive dialogue for all of us.

There will always be a bit of division as a result of the ongoing debates we have with each other. The cause of this division is not controversial subject matter, but the refusal of certain individuals to give the benefit of the doubt to their debate partner, and to be civil. Amending this habit would encourage criticism of one’s own ideas in order to test and refine them. This exercise leads to a unification between two “enemies” who have sincere faith in each other’s desire to improve their shared society.

What this means practically, is that the divisive ones among us are not those who say things with which we disagree and which upset us. Falsehood is an evil, but it is an evil that has no immunity the truth. It is completely immune, however, to silence. If you want to know who is being divisive, look for those who make sweeping assumptions about the intentions of an opposing group in order to disallow their opinions.

I will use as an example the recent Supreme Court ruling which is being celebrated by the LGBTQ+ community for its defense of their rights. The court consists of nine judges, three of whom dissented from the ruling. Those who disagree with the decision are of course criticizing the six justices with the prevailing opinion, and those satisfied by the ruling take issue with the dissenting ones.

In this case, whether the dialogue surrounding the decision is divisive or not depends upon the grounds for the critique. If one’s objection stems from a legal argument, it can be challenged on legal grounds and a productive conversation can be had about the constitutionality of the ruling. However, to allege that the judges ruled based on their ideological affinity with LGBTQ+ causes would be a divisive accusation, since it paints the opposition as a posse of corrupt loyalists and dooms any exchange of ideas that might have been possible. There is no evidence that the justices wrote their opinions with an agenda, and so there is no way to answer an accusation that they did, other than to point out the baseless nature of the allegation. Still, some will believe it, and not only will they see these members of the Supreme Court as the enemy, but anyone else who agrees with the decision. This is the real root of division.

“‘I just want my SCOTUS justice to interpret the law and not be a partisan.’
Honestly, what kind of fantasy world do people reside in? They’re all partisans. Get more of yours than they have and cram it down their throat before they do the same to you.” @JesseKellyDC on Twitter

The so-called conservative court makes a hard left turn.@marklevinshow on Twitter
The divisive nature of these statements is found in their framing of public discourse as a battle between teams, instead of a collective quest for the betterment of society. Implicit in the first example is the idea that the two opposing groups can never reconcile, and that the only way forward is for one to crush the other. Likewise, the latter statement implies that the role of our authorities is to agree with us, and to the extent that it fails to do so, it is an enemy to our cause. Both of these attitudes are examples of divisiveness.
In reality, we can be reconciled with our ideological opponents if we seek truth in what they are saying. Sometimes it won’t be there, and we do well to point it out. But controversy is not division. Even provocation is not division. Presuming corrupt motivations on the part of a group fosters unnecessary enmity and furthers the gap between us and them. If we instead attribute the same integrity to others as we do to ourselves, we will have no need to be shy about stating what we believe to be true.

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