Instead of Division, Schools of Thought

Posted on April 13, 2021 By

by Rachel MacNair

Several kinds of arguments show up in most large, long-lasting nonviolent social movements. Activists often express distress about these divisions, thinking more unity would mean more success.

I’d like to make the case that instead of thinking of “unity” – an unworkable concept when dealing with large groups of people with strong opinions – we should realize that these kinds of arguments happen so constantly that it’s better to expect people to have them. We can work with these differences harmoniously.

If we’re aware of it, these differing schools of thought can actually be used to make all movements far more effective.


Not Division, But Multiplication


  • the “purists” vs. the “pragmatists”

Purists say compromise is immoral and detrimental in the long run. Pragmatists argue for an “all or something” approach, believing it is immoral to allow violence to continue while waiting for purity.

These two approaches can complement each other. The purists keep the compromises from getting too watered-down. The pragmatists can use the purists to make themselves appear more moderate.

We once had a major heated debate in the division of peace psychology in the American Psychological Association (APA) on the topic of torture under the Bush administration and the APA response to it; I was president of the division during one of the years of this raging debate, 2013. I discerned that this was what the controversy was about: the purists were accusing the pragmatists of selling out, and the pragmatists were accusing the purists of posturing rather than getting something done.

I proposed to both sides the point that the two approaches complement each other. The pragmatists caught on to this immediately, and confirmed it: on the APA Council, they had been seen as a bunch of radical extremists – until the more extreme purists made a lot of noise. Suddenly, with the same position, they were the moderates, and the people more reasonable to negotiate with. Yet they did have to say that they couldn’t water it down too much for fear of the purists in their group (and of course, they didn’t want to water it down too much, so the purist agitation was a big help).

I also had an easy time explaining the two categories to the purists as the basis of the dispute. It was a little harder to get across to them why it was better to have both schools of thought rather than everybody going with just theirs.

The proposal did pass in the Council, so there was a step taken in the right direction. But all of us agreed this wasn’t the final thing we wanted to achieve. That came later with a major media exposé of the torture situation, which suddenly put everything in a new light. That exposé happened, of course, in part through the continued activism of the purists, yet the APA Council was more open to it because they had taken the previous step.

In the case of the pro-life movement, the American Life Lobby – now changed to the American Life League – split off from the National Right to Life Committee early on for this very reason: NRLC was willing to make legislative compromises to get legislation passed, and ALL was only willing to tolerate entirely good legislation. There’s a reason they changed from Lobby to League; they do better at the tasks that purists are good at.

  • “reform” vs. “root cause”

 There is a parable of the people of a village who awake to find babies floating in their nearby river. They immediately help the babies, pull them out, dry and clothe and feed and shelter them. This happens day after day. Finally one person decides to go up along the river to find out why on earth all these babies are being thrown in.

This parable is often told as an explanation of a radical approach – that is, one that goes to the root. The babies are obviously better off not being placed in danger than they are being rescued.

Still, while the person is searching for the root cause, the babies are still in desperate need of immediate assistance.

What if the person can’t find the root cause? Or can find it, but can’t do anything once found? Or can do something, but it takes a long time? Or gets it done, only to find that another cause of babies being thrown in the river pops up somewhere else?

Both approaches are therefore needed. Reforms and immediate aid not only help right away, but the assertive example that people care about this problem may end up being part of the root-cause solution, since apathy is likely to be part of what causes the problem. Incremental steps toward the ultimate solution may also be more workable than trying to get it in one fell swoop; still, it’s important to keep the root causes in mind rather than merely tinker.

  • the “street” people vs. the “straight” people

Nonviolent “street” people argue it’s immoral to wait for normal legal channels rather than taking direct action immediately. “Straight” people believe respectability is crucial to success.

This isn’t a strict division. Both groups attend legal demonstrations. Those who may engage in civil disobedience might still lobby for a certain bill.

Still, there are usually tensions, as those desperate for respectability think those who opt for the priority of urgency are hurting the movement, and vice versa.

Again, these two perspectives provide for a more holistic movement. Those in the street who communicate urgency can be ignored if seen as crazy and not respectable. Those who are respectable can be ignored because the issue isn’t understood as urgent. Both together can bring about a greater likelihood of being listened to.

I remember a time when I was inside, attending a state convention of the National Organization for Women, when a large group of pro-lifers showed up outside.  They were yelling “Stop the killing now!” as a chant. Since the other NOW conference attenders knew I had a pro-life feminist position, they came up to me to explain how they weren’t in favor of killing, and I was able to dialog with them reasonably. Without me, the folks outside would have been dismissed entirely. Without them, I would have been regarded as an eccentric and dismissed entirely. We got so much more done because both of us were there.

  • the “old-timers” vs. the “newcomers”

 Newcomers are obviously crucial to a movement. A movement can’t grow without them. They also bring in fresh new ideas, enthusiasm, and help avoid ruts.

Old-timers are also crucial. They have experience of what does and doesn’t work, and of what has happened before.

Newcomers who are brimming with new-found enthusiasm may also have the impression that nothing has gone on before. They weren’t there when it happened. They may think the movement wasn’t doing successful things because it hasn’t been all the way successful yet. The contempt for the experience and accumulated wisdom of those who have been working hard for years can be very painful to the targets of the contempt. (I speak from personal experience.)

  • the “single-issue” vs. the “everything’s connected”

 A focus on a single issue has greater clarity. It allows more people to work on a problem, since widely divergent views on other issues don’t matter.

A focus on multiple related issues has greater coherence. It allows for a greater sense of community among people who are concerned with inter-relationships in a larger context: various peace issues, feminism, civil rights, anti-poverty, and so on. The consistent life ethic, of course, excels in this way of thinking.

The different approaches are useful in different contexts. Because there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, some discernment about what’s called for in specific situations is helpful.

We in the Consistent Life Network take the multi-issue approach as a matter of organizational mission. That doesn’t mean that individual blog posts or items in the newsletter can’t be focused on a single issue. Many of our sympathizers and member groups are focused on a single issue, and we encourage that – for those situations in which it’s the most helpful.


We all take first one side and then the other when it comes to newcomers and old-timers, but on everything else, some people will firmly decide on one side rather than the other. If we’re more conscious of how these can actually all fit together, we can stop having frustrations that we do one way while other people do another. We have to, because these differing perspectives are bound to show up, as demonstrated by the observation that they practically always have.

But they also don’t have to be clear distinctions. I, for one, commonly find myself on either side in each of these, depending on the circumstance. Individuals can always choose one, the other, or both, with some discernment.


For more of our posts on similar topics, see: 

Pondering Justice 

Win-Lose is a Mirage

Specialization or Generalization? The Many Ways of Following the Consistent Life Ethic



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