This last week has seen the buildup, delivery and reaction to the President’s annual State of the Union address. The talking heads and politicians of both sides have been going at it like nothing else, so it seems appropriate to spend some time discussing the nature of dissent.
Dissent is disagreement, usually with a policy, attitude, establishment or political party. Dissent is essentially a values statement addressing the perceived rift between reality and the ideal.
Most statements of opposition will either claim that cultural values are not being lived up to or that these values need to be changed. Either way they appeal to an audience’s shared sense of what is right.
Many years ago Gandhi said that “honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.”
The presence of a strong opposition is still an indicator of a political system’s well-being. It is also much more: Dissent gives people the power to force discussion and analysis, according to what they feel is most important.
Debate is at the very heart of the democratic process. It ensures that all groups are heard, even if they don’t get their way.
It also gives a population legitimate ways to promote change. David Hume said that, “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” President Bush alluded to this power last Tuesday when he called on the Egyptian government to “open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism.”
The friendly, or at least peaceful and reasonable, nature of dissent is very important and very neglected.
A protestor may climb the Washington Monument and throw off an exploding Santa Claus as a protest against the self-destructive commercialization of Christmas, but the odds are better than not that his message will be lost in his medium. In the same way most people are likely to dismiss someone who stands up in class and calls the other guy an idiot (unless they agree with him).
Effective dissent needs to appeal to reason. Righteous indignation is fine, but it needs to be within the context of a belief.
It is a cliched, yet true condemnation of our country that the eristic is so effective. It’s tempting to say that getting people riled up is better than nothing, but polarizing a population leads it further from reason and turns the pursuit of truth and rightness into a cheap game of power.
People dissent because they want to exude some influence on the power structures around them. Dissent not focused on reason often ends up being more dangerous than not speaking in the first place.
History is rife with examples of what happens when populations are controlled by their emotions (including fear). Policies based on reason are usually going to result in reasonable actions. The opposite is just as true, if not more so.
No one agrees with everything going on, even if their party and president are in power. As citizens we are obliged to dissent, and to allow others to do the same. By appealing to reason and shared values we can continue to move our country and people forward.
It was also Gandhi who said, “If your heart acquires strength, you will be able to remove blemishes from others without thinking evil of them.”