Bring “Distinctions” Back into Public Discourse


Christopher W. Love

“[T]he many are not the sort to make distinctions.”

Aristotle said these words more than 2,300 years ago. He was, of course, a philosopher, and philosophers often tend in the other direction–splitting hairs you wouldn’t think could be split, sometimes to a fault.

Though drawing too many distinctions can be a problem, there is an opposite problem in drawing too few. Those who commit the latter paint broad brushstrokes where a finer brush is called for, overlooking crucial differences between this or that point of view. Of the two, this latter problem is worse—and it infects much of our public discourse today.

Distinctions don’t just help us classify; they can have moral significance. Take the difference between an accidental and an intentional wrong, for example. Cadets at my home institution, the U.S. Air Force Academy, must abide by a strict honor code. When a student is alleged to have broken that code, a board of other cadets meets to determine not only whether this student committed said violation but also whether this person intended it. And rightly so. A board refusing to do this would be cruel, not just. Distinctions matter.

Yet when one surveys our public discourse today, one finds a conspicuous lack of such distinctions. “You’re for diversity or you’re not.” Never mind that there are endless forms of diversity (e.g., perspectives, moral frameworks, and yes, race, sex, and orientation), and no one is for all of them.

“You’re for progress or you’re not.” Never mind that progress implies a standard by which to judge progress, that standards are worldview-dependent, and that there are many worldviews on offer today. So which should one choose for assessing progress?

Here’s a favorite of my students: “You’re for vaccinations or you’re not”—where, to fall in the latter camp, implies that one is anti-science and a danger to society. Yet which vaccines? To which children? At what point in their development? And how many during a single doctor’s visit? An exploration of these questions may prove the above implication unfounded.

And last but, for our present moment, not least: “You either love me” (which, in certain circles, means you must celebrate all my decisions and preferences) “or else you hate me and are a bigot.” Yet, if part of what it means to love is “to will the good of the other,” have we no room for alternative conceptions of that good?

To speak of a person’s “good” or flourishing at all, one must draw (consciously or not) on a host of assumptions—from anthropology, science, social science, philosophy, and religion. Is there no way to disagree in good will, when the background questions are so many and complex? President Obama thought there was a way, in his Rose Garden address the day after the Obergefell decision. Based on our public discourse the last four years, you’d hardly have guessed it.

Here, then, are but a few controversial examples. One could quickly find more, ranging from our discourse on abortion to border control to the reasons why people vote as they do. In every case, we must make distinctions—must avoid the dreaded “broad brushstroke”—or risk slandering huge numbers of our neighbors.

If distinctions are as important as I’m suggesting, why don’t we make them more often? Three factors strike me as plausible. The first is convenience. This can be innocent or calculated; one might simply lack the time to explore matters deeply, or one might seek an easy victory, defeating the whole of one’s opposition by putting them all in a single box. I suspect both sorts of convenience occur—though to what extent, no one knows.

A second factor, closely related to the first, is mere ignorance. We may not think it even possible to hold a view for reasons other than we’ve encountered at picket lines or on shameless bumper stickers. After all, in a world where disagreements turn hostile so quickly, one may not want to risk a dialogue with the other side. This breakdown in communication begets a loss of clarity about what others believe and why.

A third reason—perhaps most troubling—is that we may be losing our ability to appreciate complexity at all. Neil Postman foretold this in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argues that we don’t just use our communications media, we are conditioned by them. Thus, the person who consumes a daily diet of tweets and soundbites, headlines and billboards—all of them sorely lacking in their ability to capture nuance—may find that she can no longer think beyond these simple boundaries. Not easily, at any rate.

Well then, suppose one wished to make the effort. Suppose one wanted to reintroduce some healthy distinctions to the public square. Where might one start?

I think a good place to start is by asking questions. In many cases, it isn’t enough to know that one’s neighbor believes something; we need also to know why. Why do you believe X? Why did you vote for this candidate? And why do you act and feel the way you do?

Those who learn to ask such questions may quickly discover that there is more than one trail up the proverbial mountain–at least where “beliefs” are concerned–and some trails are better than others. This insight provides a basis for separating one’s genuine enemies from those with whom one merely disagrees.

In today’s embattled climate, that may be the most important distinction of all.


“Christopher W. Love is an Active Duty officer who teaches philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He writes on civil disagreement and related topics at Chris is also a Colson Fellow from the Class of 2018-2019. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force Academy or the Department of Defense.” 


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