This Is Us

What We Really Mean When We Call Activists ‘Divisive’

On political discourse, abolition, performative activism, and real love

Monochrome image of activists raising fists as they protest.
Monochrome image of activists raising fists as they protest.
Photo: Giuseppe Manfra/Getty Images

I have a physical response to the word “divisive.” This twisting sensation in my gut that comes up my throat all acidic. It’s shockingly similar to the feeling one might get after eating too much cheese. Apparently, my stomach has an issue processing both dairy and mistruths. While my brain might need a moment to catch up to the fact that I’m being fed something bad, my body knows better.

I grew up bouncing around the southeastern states, so I’m deeply familiar with the brand of suburban, Southern hospitality that prides itself on the performance of compassion. It prefers its violence honey-coated in the language of God, love, and freedom. Like the time my Baptist grandma sidled up to say she loved me, but I was still probably going to hell — for reasons I didn’t know and wouldn’t ask. I might have laughed it off, but I carried it with me.

I spent a lot of time afterward wondering what that kind of love could be worth. What is love if it can’t save you? Can’t redeem or protect you? A love that leaves you to the wolves isn’t love at all. This seemed obvious. I was certain then that this knowledge would keep me from making my grandmother’s mistake. I believed that my hurt had rendered me incapable of spreading the same toxic, worthless love. I was wrong.

Around the same time that my grandma condemned me to hell, I was learning about love in a new way. I was dipping my toes into the action of big love, the one God asks us to give our neighbors—otherwise known as activism. I’d grown aware that the world wasn’t the fundamentally fair place I’d been raised to believe it was. I was desperate to change that, and I knew I couldn’t accomplish anything alone, so I made friends. Impossible work became slightly more possible together. We marched, we raised money, and we distributed goods throughout our community. It was exhausting work but good. Often, good.

I remember vividly a conversation we had in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder. We were discussing our local and national ambitions for police reform. As we planned our agenda, one friend raised the subject of abolition and community-oriented restorative justice. While I agreed with them and abolition was in line with my personal values, I argued against making it a central part of our mission. I worried that including it would be confusing for our fast-growing community. Reform could be presented as a series of small concrete steps, whereas abolition seemed abstract, idealistic. I didn’t want to scare people off, so I said we should wait until we were more established. That we could return to the idea later.

I should have owned up to my ignorance. Instead, I used my voice to silence the one person in the room with the awareness to teach me and the courage to speak up.

Everyone else in the cramped dorm that served as our headquarters seemed to agree with me, and the person who’d brought up abolition fell silent. I took that silence as permission to move on. So, we moved on.

If I were 19 again — in that room, with those people, knowing all I know now — I would do everything differently. I would have started by acknowledging that, despite her confident tone, my younger self had a limited understanding of what “abolition” actually meant. I’d heard it floated about, and it sounded appealing based on my informed awareness of the atrociousness of the prison industrial complex. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

I hadn’t read any abolitionist texts or engaged with any studies outlining processes for restorative justice. Of course, these sounded like lofty, out-of-touch goals to someone who lacked an understanding of the work that had already been done. I should have owned up to my ignorance. I should have tried harder to understand and to learn. Instead, I used my voice to silence the one person in the room with the awareness to teach me and the courage to speak up.

While I hadn’t explicitly told my abolitionist friend that they were being “divisive,” I might as well have. Divisiveness was the basis of my argument. I didn’t want to fracture our base and limit our potential for growth. Reform was more accessible and, therefore, more achievable. I thought it was in our collective's best interest to prioritize that conversation.

I’d coated my lack of care in the honeyed language of unity.

Now that I know more about abolition and mass incarceration, I understand that reforming prisons and police can only make those fundamentally unjust systems more just. The roots are rotten. The roots are white supremacy and classism. They are inherently violent and exploitative. They cannot be salvaged. They must be replaced. If we abolish those systems, we can redirect the funds that sustained them into mental health care, addiction care, poverty intervention, and restorative initiatives. We can create a new system. One that finally looks something like justice.

Calling someone divisive is just a clever way to shift blame away from our flawed society.

I could have come to this awareness years earlier if it weren’t for my hubris, lack of imagination, and self-aggrandizing approach to activism. I labeled my friend divisive when it would have been more honest to admit that at that moment I didn’t care to learn what I didn’t know. Like those cloyingly sweet Southern ladies I’d grown up with, I’d coated my lack of care in the honeyed language of unity.

Calling someone divisive is just a clever way to shift blame away from our flawed society. All of us are culpable, yet this shift puts the burden onto the shoulders of those brave enough to call attention to its hierarchies. It’s easy for a cisgender man to tell a cisgender woman she’s being petty and divisive for complaining about discrimination that he’ll never experience. It's easy for that ciswoman to do the same to trans people. It’s easy for the young to dismiss the old; for those with the privilege of whiteness to dismiss racism; for straight-size people to condemn fat people; for the able to render the disabled completely invisible. So on and so on.

Violence begets itself unless we combat it, passionately and ruthlessly. It’s not enough to simply recognize the violence you experience. The harder task is to recognize the violence in yourself—to come to terms with the harm you’ve done and to do the work of transforming that harm into love. A love that redeems and protects. A love that is worth so much more than empty platitudes and Hallmark card sentimentalities because it holds us accountable to each other, responsible for each other.

I am accountable for the harm I’ve caused. I transform that harm by listening better and speaking up when someone makes an argument like the one I made at 19, when bravado masked my ignorance. When I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, I don’t swallow it down. I speak up. I make space for those who are silenced by bringing the conversation back to them, giving them the chance to finish making their point and supporting them. I let them know that their voice is valuable, regardless of whether those in the room are prepared to receive it.

I listen to the silencers, too, paying special attention to what they don’t say. They rarely say that the divisive person is wrong. They say, as I said, we’ll return to it “later.” But that later never comes. It’s avoidance, it’s “me first” and “wait your turn.” It’s bad, certainly, but avoidance is far better than delusion. I try to turn avoidance into opportunity. I redeem myself by putting this confident voice to good use and sharing what I’ve learned about activism in the seven years since I last stood in that silencer’s shoes.

A true activist doesn’t limit the scope of their ambition for the sake of comfort.

I’ve learned that the label of divisiveness is only ever a smokescreen, a misdirection. I’ve learned the only real way forward is all at once. No first or last. Together. We can’t build a world without hierarchies by honoring our existing hierarchal systems. No more trickling down, we must go bottom-up, destroying each level of distance until the entire thing topples down. Each of us together and secure, in the awareness that the elevation of those least loved among us will elevate us all.

Thinking back, I’m still certain that the pivot from reform to abolition would have lost us supporters. But my response to that loss should have been “so what?” Activism has never been about popularity. Activism is about investing in a better, fairer future. It’s about having the bravery to be divisive. To challenge what divides us even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular.

A true activist doesn’t limit the scope of their ambition for the sake of comfort. Or for followers. They challenge themselves to stay curious about the world and what they might contribute to it. They practice revolutionary compassion through the radical act of love that is activism.

A true activist often looks divisive to the untrained eye. So look harder. Listen better, and educate yourself. What you thought was divisive, thoroughly examined, looks a lot more like wisdom. | Freelance Editor | Essayist | Culture Analyst | Pronouns: she/they

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