Divisiveness and Disputation

A Response: Divisiveness and Disputation


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote, “Haley was overtly calling for a change from the politics of divisiveness, to the politics of hope, with which Obama had become so identified. Like Obama, she called for a better politics. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said, ‘A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything…Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of the government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.’ Democracy, he insisted, requires ‘basic bonds of trust between its citizens.’

It was on this issue that Obama admitted failure. Though he vowed to keep trying, he had failed to bridge the divide and overcome the feelings among a wide swath of Americans who felt their voice did not matter and that the system was rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and certain narrow interests. One could manipulate those feelings and feed the politics of distrust and divisiveness, or address them with a politics of civility.”

One reader responded as follows:

It is this second paragraph above where Obama shows he is of two minds — the divisive politician who uses his rhetorical skills to divide the country and demonize his opponents right out of the Saul Alinsky playbook.

I find this part of his speech the most insincere and infuriating.

In fact, only a short time before he reached this point of his speech he had engaged in this type of rank rhetorical partisanship when speaking about his fellow Republican Americans in the room whereas Haley took the high road throughout.

How does that figure into your analysis?


Let me distinguish between divisiveness and disputation, some of which can be very contentious. These are two key terms among an array trying to describe various ways of approaching differences in the positions people take on different issues. A case for one side is divisive if it meets any one of the following criteria:

  • The intention is to get the other angry.
  • The intention is NOT to convince the other of your position, or even to convince observers of the debate, but to separate people into groups and pull them apart rather than assume that they have a common cause and identity beneath their differences.
  • The difference over issues is not what really divides the two sides; rather, a position is taken to forge those differences.
  • Divisiveness among opposing groups is the real source of the opposition and not the different interpretations about an issue, for divisiveness promotes disagreements and divides and separates people.


If the intent is not to anger the other (note Obama’s offer of a hand of cooperation with Ryan), if the argument does not begin by defining the other as Other, if the intention is not to antagonize but to reconcile, then we witness an argument and not divisiveness. Taking different positions on contentious issues, as Haley and Obama did, because they differ and are willing to argue for their respective sides is NOT divisive. Even when the argument becomes contentious and even hot! This distinction is very important to philosophers who collegially engage with one another through disputation. Disputation then becomes an expression of congeniality. Arguments are inherently not divisive. Assertion, declarations, and claims can be if they are used for divisive purposes. One makes a category mistake when one identifies rhetorical partisanship with the politics of divisiveness.


What happens if a divisive personality enters a debate with someone who is interested in engaging in an argument? The divisive person will often win because the one willing and interested in engaging in argument, given a governing premise of assuming a commonality of reason and ultimate purpose, will often be unwilling to pin the tail on the donkey. Further, if he does, if he calls the other out for being divisive, is he not then being divisive? This is but one of the many paradoxes that allows philosophers to keep their jobs.


However, Obama was not confessing of a failure to overcome the divide between a politics of rational argument and a politics of divisiveness, because he long ago learned that this is impossible. He was referring to his failure to overcome the feeling of alienation of a wide swath of Americans, who, because of this alienation, are more easily led by populists who manipulate them through the entertaining performance of divisive politics. One does not demonize opponents who engage in divisiveness. They already perform as demons. Obama merely had to name them, as I do, for what they reveal themselves to be. Haley and Obama are both politicians who agree to disagree, but both would contend that their agreement is much more fundamental than their disagreements.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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