There’s a new rhetorical game being played, which is to cast anything controversial or even perfectly normal as “divisive.”

If someone disagrees with you, or argues against an idea, the media seems to like to call these things “divisive,” which is essentially an appeal to tribalism — this person is part of Tribe A, and they are arguing against Tribe B, making their stance divisive.

What’s been truly divisive, and what seems to be feeding this sweep toward tribalism as default, is social media, which I consider to be the bane of modern society and culture. Rather than talking about ideas, we talk about polarized groups, with the metaphor being who is inside your group, who is your friend, who is your follower, who is your tribe, rather than who is also a citizen, who is also a neighbor, who is also a person.

Social media creates tribes, and my recollection is that the term was used by Seth Godin and others to describe social media groups, but in a positive way (“find your tribe”). The problem is that tribes are primitive and possess inherent animosity to outsiders.

Some of the things I’ve seen called “divisive” lately include:

  • Urging others to vote and participate in democracy

  • Sincerely believing a nominee to federal office lied under oath

  • Questioning the value of open peer-review

  • Pointing out commercial conflicts of interest in publications

Wielding the term “divisive” is a powerful way to ratchet up emotions without actually addressing the critique or concern. Labeling a critic as “divisive” personalizes the criticism, impugning motive, and diverting attention from the disagreement and moving it to focus on questioning the social intent of the critic.

Of course, labeling a critique as “divisive” is itself divisive, as it turns what might be an intellectual disagreement resolved through rational discussion into something emotional and personal, eliminating the territory for discussion and raising everyone’s hackles.

When derailed by this rhetorical device, it’s difficult to move back to a rational zone. You have to use the “don’t you agree?” approach — Don’t you agree people should vote? Don’t you agree he wasn’t telling the truth? Don’t you agree peer-review has other challenges that come before making it more open? This can shift the discussion back into a rational space, but it’s difficult to not get sucked into the emotional trap “divisive” opens.

We are in an emotional and irrational age when it comes to societal communication. There are tricksters everywhere, from hackers stealing information to social engineering hacks fooling us into making bad decisions or believing lies. Social media has been designed to segregate and target us. We are divided enough already, and in ways that make very little sense.

We’re all trying to figure things out. That’s the common bond.