Buried deep in the definition of dissent is its legal meaning, “the voicing of a minority opinion.” A court of judges deciding on a legal issue expresses the majority decision and the dissenting opinion. Practically speaking, this dissent is immaterial—it has no bearing on what’s next—but civil society honors dissenters by acknowledging every opinion is important. Silencing any point of view is dangerous because it limits our perspective, and the majority isn’t always right (or is only right presently). Besides, any point of view, even a view most people agree upon, ought to face the burden of justification. A society without dissent is like a person without self-consciousness, prone to act thoughtlessly, blind to alternatives.
Explaining the place and importance of dissent is easy, but living with it isn’t. We often regard the person who expresses misgivings as an annoyance, and, even when the situation compels us to listen to these people, we sometimes feel sorry for them or grant them a chance to speak because doing so is harmless. The formality is easy to obey, really listening nearly impossible. We often assign other motives for the dissenter’s thinking, assuming that he or she must be this or that kind of person to think so aberrantly. “They are so out of touch,” we think, or “How sad to be so stuck in your ways” or “My aren’t they defensive.” Going along and getting along are crucial to the smooth operation of institutions and communities, and nothing is so tiresome as a grain of sand or shoe that might stop the wheels and obstruct what’s already underway. Progress can pause but it cannot stop, and we see resisting the inevitable as a foolish waste of time and energy.
However, dissenters don’t always want to convince us or alter our actions. Sometimes they know where they are and assess their chances more accurately than we think. Often they ask only to be heard without dismissal, condemnation, or character assassination. Typically, we the majority have our say and plenty—we like nothing so much as to revel in our solidarity and optimism, a self-assurance that sometimes edges into self-congratulation. At that point, any sensible person, even the foolish dissenter, can see the future clearly and recognize how futile resistance may be. That someone could be quixotic enough to disagree in those circumstances—even when the majority offers little or no sign of changing course—suggests a deep need for expression. And maybe courage.
Does the dissenter hope to dissuade or cast doubt? Of course, the minority wants just what we do, to win the day… although they suspect they won’t receive the same respect, trust, or credence. Anyone who’s shouted anyone down knows that, when dissenters can’t be dismissed, our next best alternative is to engage in arguments designed to demonstrate our rectitude. Potentially, debates exchange ideas freely and benefit both sides, but they’re seldom fair fights. We have several voices for every dissenting one, and the two sides are never truly equals. Freedom of expression is a good thing for us, not always for others. Dissenters must be debated out of existence, their viewpoints discounted, their perspectives erased.
If we could accept disagreement and live by the intellectual ideal of honoring every point of view, we might be a more open-minded and deliberative species, but perhaps it’s human nature—for both the minority and majority—to desire victory. Dissenters may not change anything. Usually they simply have to go along and do the best they can. Yet it’s the worse sort of bullying to neglect a point of view simply because fewer people hold it. That may be the dissenters’ ultimate message: “Please don’t ask me to equivocate or be silent. I have my own thoughts and feelings and, if you must be true to yours, allow me be true to mine… even though it’s clear you and nearly everyone else believes something is wrong with me that I see matters as I do.”