Believing That If We’re Not United, We’re Divided

A common belief among advocates is that if we’re not united, we’re divided.

Those of us who identify as advocates for a just cause often hold a different set of beliefs than those in the mainstream, making us, to some degree, members of an “ideological minority,” or “ideological nondominant,” group.

Of course, the experience of a person who’s only nondominant because of their ideology (like a white, cisgender male environmentalist) is much different than that of a person who’s a member of a nondominant social group that experiences systemic injustice, like people who are not white or are nonbinary.

However, members of all kinds of nondominant groups may have a similar experience when it comes to how they are perceived, and how they feel, when it comes to their differences from one another.

Often, we’re portrayed by the dominant culture as a one-dimensional, homogeneous group. For example, we can learn to believe that all feminists, or all social justice activists, or all climate advocates, are the same. We can internalize this perspective and feel pressured to present a unified front, fearing that our differences will be used against us in the common divide-and-conquer strategy that unjust systems use to maintain themselves.

Seeing differences as problematic

Believing that if we’re not united, we’re divided reflects and reinforces another inaccurate belief: that differences between people—particularly those who have a shared identity, like staff in an organization or advocates for a particular cause—are inherently problematic.

Rather than appreciate that differences between and among people are normal, natural, and necessary, we often believe that those who don’t share our beliefs, values, tendencies, strategic approach, and so forth are somehow “wrong” and need to be changed to be more like we are.

Of course, not all strategies are equally effective, and not all ideas are equally applicable to furthering the aims of a group or movement. However, the main problem isn’t our differences; it’s the way we relate to our differences. In other words, although there are differences in, for example, the effectiveness of various strategies for ending prisoner abuse—and some strategies may even be counterproductive—we can’t determine which approaches are most effective if we’re not able to discuss these differences openly.

When we have a negative view of differences and we haven’t learned how to relate to our differences in a healthy way, our disagreements can become divisive debates that fuel infighting and also limit our ability to effect change—rather than constructive conversations that allow us to determine, collectively, which strategies or ideas are most useful.

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