My Turn: The bogus use of the word "divisive"

The English language is a wonderful and versatile method of communication. It can be used to condemn, honor and ridicule — perhaps all in the same sentence. It has been described as a “mongrel tongue” — having been influenced and formed by so many other languages, cultures and events.


I am no language expert — not by a long shot — but I have picked up one thing about our language and our culture: Even one word can be used to subliminally convey an idea or thought without ever actually stating it and by virtue of its power try to create an unassailable truth.

And while its original definition may not have changed much, its overuse can turn it into a code word that means something different but which everyone clearly understands.

“Divisive” is just such a word. Even its pronunciation is divisive. Should I pronounce it “di-VY-siv” or should I pronounce it “di-VIS-siv”? (Hint: the former pronunciation is preferred).

It is used routinely in politics today to squelch debate and shut down legitimate criticism of policies or actions. Its misuse is a favorite ploy of some since the term almost always defies refutation.

Consider the Merriam-Webster definition of the word “divisive”: “causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups.”

On the surface, this would seem to describe many issues — even those brought up routinely at City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meetings where people express different opinions.

But I think the operative word in the dictionary definition is “causing.” People disagree all the time. The mere fact of their disagreement doesn’t make the issue divisive — it already is. People tend to divide along political and cultural lines naturally according to their background and experience. Why is this “bad”?

Debate and disagreement are healthy. How else can we be exposed to different opinions and viewpoints? If every time someone disagreed with the person he was talking to and the “divisive” card was pulled out, our productive conversations would effectively end.

In America, we are allowed to express our opinions without fear of government retribution — but if we want to be taken seriously we must support our opinions with facts and rational arguments. Arguing that someone is divisive does not make them so, nor does it make your case.

So the next time people tell you that you are being “divisive” because you dare to disagree, look them in the eye and ask why. Chances are they won’t be able to answer.


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