This used to be an easy word. In a generic sense, it means “causing disagreement or dissension.” There, “divisive” meets up with our more discursive selves. We like to argue, and what we’re arguing about is that which leaves us on opposing sides of a divide. Last year, the world went bananas arguing over the color of a dress posted on Tumblr. Some people saw white and gold. Some people saw black and blue (although they’re crazy2). And that made the dress divisive. But that kind of divisive seems quaint.
The word is now used in a way that is both antirhetorical and opportunistic. In January, at a forum for the Democratic presidential candidates hosted by the media network Fusion, Bernie Sanders was asked whether he supported slavery reparations for African-Americans. “No, I don’t think so,” he said calmly. “First of all, its likelihood of getting through a Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”3
In response, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wondered in The Atlantic how progressive Sanders’s presidential candidacy could really be if this was his stance on reparations. “The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as ‘divisive,’ ” he wrote, “is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist.”4 In that same thought, Coates stage-whispered that “there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist.”5
Coates went old-school. He wanted to get divisive about which word was more divisive. He wanted a debate. Sanders employed one of the more common current usages, which labels “divisive” as loaded — too loaded. For him, reparations go in the wariness jar, which sits next to the one labeled “trigger warning,” tucked away on the “don’t go there” shelf. This incarnation of the word doesn’t invite debate. It pre-emptively squelches it. “Divisive” here tries to take what’s divisive off the table, in order to keep a version of the peace.
- I myself say ‘dih-vEYE-sihv’ not the terrible sounding ‘dih-vih-sihv ↩︎
- Correct. ↩︎
- This is, like, how I feel about every-freakin’-thing Bern says he’ll do if elected – and I’m a tax-and-spend Canadian, for crying out loud. ↩︎
- Yup, it’s spectacular to see a white dude say and do what white dudes are known to say and do, namely, argue that their plan is ‘logical’ but dismiss Other people’s suggestions as implausible. ↩︎
- Everything in this sentence is why I love Morris and Coates! ↩︎