On “Divisiveness”

A group of people in purple shirts with fists up in the air on a college campus
May Day Rally at Santa Clara University

Accusations of divisiveness are a classic union-busting tactic.

The employer notices that a unionization campaign has brought together workers in ways it hasn’t seen before and knows that, to defeat them, it has to break through the unity. In Confessions of a Union-Buster, Martin Levitt, a retired union-buster writes, “The enemy was the collective spirit. I got hold of that spirit while it was still a seedling; I poisoned it, choked it, bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce.” What better way to bludgeon the collective spirit than to accuse the members of the collective and their supporters of divisiveness! It’s a textbook example of gaslighting.

What better way to bludgeon the collective spirit than to accuse the members of the collective and their supporters of divisiveness! It’s a textbook example of gaslighting.

We are already divided.

Accusations of divisiveness only have weight when they concern an entity that is united in harmony. When members of my university community bring up the fear of divisiveness, I wave at everything and say “Look around. How can we be more divided?” At my university, we have 3 ranks for tenure-track (TT) faculty and 4 ranks for NTT faculty. Among NTTs, the disparity between the job security, salary and working conditions of faculty who get paid per course and faculty who are full-time and in continuing positions is dramatic. This means that there are divisions within divisions and hierarchies within hierarchies. There isn’t just an “us vs. them,” to quote my university’s president, but so many us’s and so many them’s that it makes our heads spin.

Accusations of divisiveness are meaningless without a power analysis.

Simply put, the boss and the worker can’t be equally “divisive” because they’re in an asymmetrical power relationship. The boss has ultimate power over the individual worker. We are all “at will” employees at my university, the NTTs being especially but not uniquely fireable. That’s because any NTT contract can simply not be renewed. But any individual worker is nearly powerless if the administration wants them out badly enough.

The way that the neoliberal university is currently run doesn’t just encourage “us” vs. “them” but, in fact, turns “us” against “us,” rewarding our competitiveness and making us think that the path to success is one where the worker becomes the boss.

Fears of divisiveness are often fears of retaliation.

Sometimes organizing can feel a bit like therapy. A good organizer listens and asks questions. A good organizer even pushes fellow workers to try and understand why they feel a certain way and what is at the source of a specific feeling. When a fellow worker tells them that they’re afraid of more divisions, I ask them what that division looks like. What I usually get in response is a scenario where a tenured colleague or a department chair treats them badly because of their membership in the union. This tells me that the real fear is not of “division” but of retaliation.

Fears of divisiveness are often fears of conflict.

For a group of people who are supposedly indoctrinating students to become revolutionaries, many academics are conflict-averse. This is what happens when enough people benefit from the status quo and enough are too afraid to speak up due to job insecurity. In such an environment, you can squash attempts at dissent by appealing to “civility,” “collegiality” and “respect” (when you really mean “respectability”). You can paint all conflict and dissent as bad, regardless of the source, reason or the power relations of those involved. Even conflict due to exploitation, disrespect and abuse becomes “divisive.”

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Maggie Levantovskaya

Maggie Levantovskaya

I write about adjuncting, chronic illness and whatever else strikes my fancy or makes my blood boil. More: https://maggielevantovskaya.com/writing