The New Dissent

In an age of free speech battles and #fakenews, what exactly counts as dissent?

In his fine manifesto Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of Nelson Mandela being visited in prison by South African authorities who had been shaken by growing international condemnation. You’re free to go, they told him, out you get. Except Mandela told them, Look, you don’t have the power to release me. He refused to leave until all the regime’s other political prisoners had been released as well. “At that moment,” Hitchens writes, “it was clear who held the keys.”

Nelson Mandela is one of the great heroes in the annals of dissent. After spending 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa, he was released in 1990. He then negotiated an end to the apartheid system and became his country’s president in 1994. In an absurdly cinematic arc he went from victim to victor, driven by the unquenchable force of his refusal to accept the legitimacy of the racist regime.

From one perspective, Mandela’s story is about dissent as the last refuge of the powerless. And for those of us raised in the bathwater of 1960s counter­culture, it follows a familiar narrative of the hegemonic system being brought to its knees by the lone dissenter speaking truth to power. But as Hitchens’s anecdote suggests, another way of looking at it is to see dissent as itself the exercise of power. Only, what that power amounts to, in whose interests it is exercised and what sorts of actions even count as dissent are more complicated today than in our countercultural romances. In an age of battles over free speech and social media silencing, of the hashtag activism of #blacklivesmatter versus #alllivesmatter, of #nevertrump versus #fakenews, sorting out the powerful from the powerless and determining where authentic dissent lies can be a bit of a trick.

The past few months in Canada have seen a remarkable flare-up of controversies over journalism, activism, cultural appropriation and political correctness. Kicking off what turned into an intense few weeks, in late April the Canadian philosopher Rebecca Tuvel came under attack after Hypatia, the flagship journal for the philosophy of feminism, published her article comparing the transgender identity of Caitlyn Jenner with the transracialism of Rachel Dolezal. An open letter denouncing Hypatia and Tuvel’s article was signed by more than 800 members of the profession, and Tuvel was widely censured by her academic colleagues (with Canadians in the vanguard of the attack) and subjected to threats and defamation for her “epistemic violence” against the trans community.

Debates over free speech and the curbing of dissent churned again in early May after the writer Desmond Cole disrupted a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board. He was told by the Toronto Star, where he was a columnist, that he had broken the paper’s rules against becoming part of the story. Although he was not fired, he was asked to choose between journalism and activism. He chose the latter.

Also that week, longtime Toronto activist Hal Niedzviecki quickly resigned as editor of a small magazine after an editorial he wrote praising cultural appropriation was greeted with anger and dismay by members of the Indigenous community and its allies. Nevertheless, his cause was taken up by former Rogers executive (and erstwhile Maclean’s editor and publisher) Ken Whyte, who jokingly took to Twitter to raise funds for an “appropriation prize.” A number of well-known journalists and editors ponied up some money, including Steve Ladurantaye of the CBC. Ladurantaye was subsequently demoted. The Walrus editor Jonathan Kay, although not offering money, wrote an op-ed for the National Post defending the right to cultural appropriation. He stepped down a few days later.

Surveying the damage in “The Myth of the Lone Genius,” an essay for The Walrus, Paul Barrett took note of the power that communities have to “silence dissent.” “It wasn’t so long ago that alienating Canadians was considered our most Canadian literary trait,” he wrote. “Now it is grounds for cultural excommunication.”

In every one of these cases, each party happily adopted the pose of the principled dissenting voice: Tuvel as well as the academics who went after her; Whyte and Kay and the many Indigenous writers who criticized them. The ensuing debates have certainly made it clear there is no agreement on what constitutes dissent.

But there is one thing we are clear on, and that is that we really, really care about dissent, even if we have no idea what it actually is. A warning sign for everyone came in early April when Pepsi released an ad in which Kendall Jenner abandons a modelling shoot to join a street protest of no clear purpose. As the marchers face off against a line of police, Jenner defuses the situation by walking up to one of the cops and handing him a Pepsi. The ad sparked what is now a stereotyped and almost obligatory social media pile-on. It was followed by the predictable corporate apology and climb-down. (“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a release. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.”) Then they pulled the ad.

Why did the spot make people so crazy? To begin with, it appeared to put a campy, I’m-too-sexy gloss on Black Lives Matter and similar mass movements. And it certainly rekindled old fears about corporations co-opting dissent, using the semiotics of rebellion to sell soft drinks. But, more dangerously for Pepsi, the ad made light of the very idea of dissent, mocking its forms and its symbols, and challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of our culture: that dissent matters.

The nearly unimpeachable virtue of dissent is central to our self-understanding. Our post-1960s urban folklore is largely populated by heroic loners going their own way, principled rebels refusing to work within the system, alienated or disenfranchised masses taking to the streets, speaking the people’s truth to the illegitimate powers that be.

That trope is now ubiquitous. From the girl with the Occupy sign to the hot-take columnist with a counterintuitive polemic, from the Silicon Valley CEO with his TED talk about disruption to the American president swept to office by a wave of anti-elitist anger, everyone is a dissenter. Compounding the difficulty is that while we claim to celebrate dissent, people who express unacceptable views are now routinely drawn and quartered on social media amid duelling charges of who is silencing whom.

And so we are in a weird situ­ation where even as we venerate dissent as the locomotive of a free society, we cannot begin to agree on what counts as a legitimate example. Is Julian Assange a noble dissenter or a nihilistic sexual predator with a bit too much computer savvy? Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? If Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a beacon of dissent over climate change, where does that leave climate skeptic Bret Stephens?

These are difficult but important questions. They are difficult because we want dissent to line up with our political views or our version of the truth, yet dissent is technically defined by its position, not by its content. And they are important because we place such a high value on dissent. As Hitchens teaches us, the holder of the high ground of principled dissent wields a great deal of power.

The importance of dissent is the central concern of William Kaplan’s new book, Why Dissent Matters: Because Some People See Things the Rest of Us Miss, a series of case studies in the various postures dissent can adopt. These include tales of the voice in the wilderness, of bureaucratic heroes who refuse to simply follow orders, of judges and juries who see that what is legal is not always what is just, and of the mass protesters who take to the streets to engage in the oldest and most effective forms of dissent.

Along the way we are introduced to some familiar figures including Rachel Carson, Frances Kelsey and Steven Truscott. There is an interesting chapter on John F. Kennedy’s use of institutionalized dissent in his decision-making process during the Cuban missile crisis, in light of what he learned after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy took a cue from the Israeli notion of the “tenth man” and installed a devil’s advocate position in his decision-making apparatus.

Kaplan’s book also has a short and unfortunately one-sided chapter on the suppression of dissent under Stephen Harper, and there are two long looks at recent mass protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement. (Full disclosure, in case it is needed: at Kaplan’s request I read the chapter on mass protests before publication and offered suggestions for clarifying and strengthening the argument.)

The big message Kaplan wants us to take away from his book is that dissent matters because “some people see things the rest of us miss.” Whether it is an exercise of power that needs to be justified, a consensus that needs to be challenged or an injustice that needs to be rectified, Kaplan argues, “our world has been saved by authentic dissenters: people who have been attacked, bullied, ostracized, jailed, and sometimes, when all is over, celebrated. We need to know what they know.”

This is absolutely correct. But by focusing on standard examples, in retelling familiar stories of successful and righteous dissent, Kaplan avoids the hard cases that are causing us so much grief today. How can we distinguish the visionaries, those who see things the rest of us do not, from the regular cranks? Who are “the rest of us”? What sort of behaviour counts as dissent? By whom? In what form? Against what? To which ends?

Classic cases of dissent are easy to identify. Giordano Bruno was an Italian philosopher who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600 for heresies that included heliocentrism and the belief in multiple worlds. Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience inspired both Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience, which helped win independence for India, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in America. There are the Soviet and Eastern Bloc dissidents who struggled to work, live, even think, inside a totalitarian state: Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn; Václav Havel and Natan Sharansky. Then there are the anonymous heroes such as Watergate’s Deep Throat or the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square.

We celebrate these figures because their stories are so clear. They involve individuals or groups who risked everything to speak hard truths in the name of principles of justice, freedom and equality. Dissent, then, involves some sort of risk, an oppositional dynamic to power, and an adherence to an unassailable moral principle. Break it down like that and you do start to see why it has become such an impossible concept—the moment more than one party has power and two competing unassailable principles come into play, it gets complicated. And the 1960s helped bring about both those ­scenarios.

By the end of the 1960s, the profound insight that effective dissent can turn the tables and put power in the hands of the powerless was elevated into an entire theory of society, called the critique of mass society. It came with a corresponding theory of dissent, which we can call the myth of counterculture, and it marked the mainstreaming of non-conformity as the default political pose.

In reaction to the growing middle class, the rise of mass production of consumer goods and the development of a sophisticated marketing industry in the 1950s, social commentators developed the critique of mass society. The basic idea is that the capitalist economy is part of a more generalized and self-reinforcing culture of repression, which includes mass institutions such as schools, hospitals, the military and the government. Because the proper functioning of the system relies above all on conformity among the masses, individuals who resist the pressure to conform therefore subvert the system, and aid in its overthrow.

In this scenario, the best way to resist the culture is to form a counterculture. If the Man wants you to live in a cookie-cutter suburban home, then you should shack up in a dingy urban loft with no running water. If Madison Avenue tries to sell you the latest Buick, you can resist by getting around in a Volkswagen Bug. If corporate radio tries to force Top 40 music down your throat, you need to get hip to the latest sounds from the underground. And so on.

This theory asserted an enormously powerful grip on the imagination of the left during the 1960s, and it is now the default template for how we think about society. The consequence is that we find ourselves worshipping individualism in virtually any form and praising it as dissent. It isn’t just the usual mix of artists, musicians and writers; pretty much any rule breaker gets a pass.

It is hard to overstate just how profoundly this is baked into the way we think about the world. The message of pretty much every movie for kids—Zootopia, Moana, Kung Fu Panda (to pick three recent ones)—is “be yourself,” and this lesson is repeated and reinforced at every opportunity. While the bleeding edge of countercultural rebellion used to be found in music, the beating heart of non-conformity today is located in Silicon Valley, where the cult of disruption is just a techno-lustful take on the basic template.

So, for going on 50 years now, rebellious nonconformity masquerading as dissent has been installed as the operating system of the West. And it has without a doubt had a number of beneficial consequences, not least of which is that it has kept things from getting stagnant. Whatever its other effects, the counterculture has proven to be a fantastic mechanism for generating novel forms of culture and technology. In addition, it has made everyone extremely comfortable with most forms of symbolic dissent: we tend not to get too wound up when someone denounces the government or burns a flag or dunks a religious symbol in a jar of urine and calls it art.

But one major consequence of fetishizing dissent is that we have come to hold abiding concerns over authenticity. One of the fatal indulgences of the counterculture was to deal with the worries over co-optation by becoming increasingly radical, in what amounted to an arms race of dissent, and to see anyone who breaks any rule, for any reason, as engaging in an act of resistance. The result is that we now have trouble distinguishing between the dissenters to whom we need to listen, on the one hand, and the criminals and cranks, the irrational or morally bankrupt on the other. It is symptomatic of the fundamental problem with any general celebration of dissent for its own sake: if you have no way to distinguish “good” dissent from its toxic forms, you are going to have trouble dealing with reactionary or deeply antisocial behaviour.

This tendency was lampooned mercilessly by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 piece about hanging out at a party at Leonard Bernstein’s with members of the Black Panthers. Yet although the term he coined for it, “radical chic,” became part of our vernacular, the lessons buried in that great bit of social satire never really took hold.

One lesson lies in the partisan assumption. A major outcome of the supreme dominance of countercultural thinking is the belief that dissent is, almost by definition, a dominion of the left. The tendency is understandable for a few reasons. First, to the extent that conservatism is understood as defending order, tradition and hierarchy, then anything that serves to undermine these is going to be seen as anti-conservative. Furthermore, one of the most justly celebrated successes of dissent of the second half of the 20th century was the civil rights movement, whose credentials are unimpeachably liberal.

But there is nothing intrinsically left-wing or progressive about dissent. Political power can be wielded equally by the left or the right. The left is as guilty as the right, if not more so, of demanding ideological correctness. Science can serve peace or it can serve war, and war itself can be waged in the name of left-wing or right-wing goals. Things are complicated, and to give just one example, recall the confusion and anger on the American left when it turned out that Solzhenitsyn was a reactionary crank.

This leads to a related point, which is that there is no necessary connection between dissent and truth. Activists, dissidents, protesters and other anti-authoritarians like to portray themselves as speaking truth to power, but that is just self-serving. A dissenting voice might be right, certainly, but simply diverging from a consensus or orthodoxy is no more likely to be true, on its own merits, than is the consensus itself.

This is a problem that William Kaplan clearly recognizes in his chapter on dissenting judges and juries. He wants to laud the capacity of a jury to simply refuse to enforce an unjust law. And he is right: in the proper circumstances, jury nullification is the final safety valve of the legal system, upholding principles of natural justice against the inflexible demands of positive law. A jury that flat out refuses to convict someone who is clearly guilty under the law can be a powerful defender of what Kaplan calls “community values.”

But what are we to make of the case of O.J. Simpson, one of the most egregious examples of misguided jury activism in living memory? There is no question he murdered his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. But when the defence was able to turn the case into a referendum on racism in the Los Angeles Police Department and systemic racism in America at large, with the suggestion that Simpson was framed, the jurors (nine of whom were black) were given all the excuses they needed to let him off. It was payback of sorts for the acquittal, by a mostly white jury, of the LAPD cops who were filmed beating Rodney King a few years earlier. Kaplan has no way of handling this kind of dissent except to concede that community values and justice are not always the same thing.

So what is dissent, in the end?

Let’s start by saying that dissent is a position taken against an authoritative consensus, whether it takes the form of political power, religious orthodoxy, scientific or medical expertise, ideological correctness, bureaucratic rule following, judicial pronouncement, group conformity or what have you. The dissenting action can take various forms, including explicit disagreement with official or received views, an attempt at exercising countervailing power, a refusal to follow orders or conspicuous displays of non-conformity. Sometimes, as in the case of Frances Kelsey, the thalidomide whistleblower, dissent amounts to simply doing one’s job properly.

Second, there must be a reason to believe that the authoritative consensus is in some sense illegitimate. This might be because the authority itself is illegitimate (e.g., a dictatorship), or it might involve an abuse of power. Finally, what makes dissent effective is its being directed against a power structure that is inherently brittle, unbalanced or rotten with internal contradictions. Dissent is threatening to illegitimate forms of authority because it exposes the established consensus as the sham that it is.

This is where Kaplan has it exactly right: the reason to listen to dissenters is that humans are fallible, and we become especially fallible when we reason in groups or in other circumstances that exacerbate our native cognitive biases. Where you stand affects what you see, and we are better served by having input from as many different standpoints as possible. A culture that privileges dissent is like a body with a healthy immune system: it generates so many diverse antibodies that it is prepared to meet just about any threat head on.

At this stage the celebration of dissent may start to look like little more than an endorsement of freedom of speech. Recall John Stuart Mill’s argument in On Liberty for why we should never suppress speech, however offensive it might seem to the authoritative consensus. First, the offending speech might be true, or contain part of the truth. But second, even if we know the received view to be absolutely true, it will always benefit from being challenged and contested; we will never go wrong reminding ourselves of why we believe what we do.

But free speech is only half of it. What drives dissent as a political force is something Nelson Mandela knew in his bones: that dissent is a form of political power. For Mandela, it was the power of the moral high ground, of the rot at the core of the apartheid state and the knowledge that the world’s opinion was increasingly on his side. In the case of Frances Kelsey, it was the power of the process—her certainty that whatever the truth was about thalidomide, the company’s documentation was not in order. For leaders of mass protest such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., it was the power of the mass of humanity itself to shame the authorities and force the state to reveal its true face.

But the moral and political power of dissent is clearest when it is brought to bear against an authority that is unambiguously oppressive or illegitimate. This is a big part of the reason the whole world loves people such as Ai Weiwei and Aung San Suu Kyi—they are dissenters from the old school. It was surely easier to ­dissent in times where there was one voice of power and you were talking back to it; Kaplan’s idea that some people see things the rest of us miss is a harder one to see your way through when there is not a monolithic “rest of us.”

And so our confusion about dissent is partly a result of the abundance and plurality of voices, but also the proliferation of authoritative nodes of consensus and power. That is why we experience the odd spectacle of both Steve Ladurantaye and the Indigenous writers he allegedly insulted being portrayed as powerless. This is why both Rebecca Tuvel and the feminist scholars and members of the trans community see themselves as victims of an intellectual hegemony.

The social media mob of which we have heard so much about, in particular, is a curious form of dissent, because its explicit objective is often to suppress speech. This is when a group that sees itself as on the margins—that is, part of the self-described dissenting class—joins together to silence, suppress or censure a voice because it is seen as part of the authority or the orthodoxy.

But, again, it must be stressed that there is nothing inherently partisan about this. The “ctrl-left” and the “alt-right” are both happy to silence their opponents using any means necessary, although they differ in their preferred tactics. The right uses things like rape threats, racist memes and releasing people’s home addresses, while the left mostly likes to get people fired.

The era of networked protest has given the people unprecedented power of spontaneous organization, but it has the virtue of clarifying what is at stake. When an ad hoc and unaccountable mob can ruin someone’s career and reputation and bring threats upon their family in the space of hours or even minutes, where does the real power lie? Where lies the oppression?

There is a kind of power emerging here, even when it is a sort of à la carte jihad of drive-by indignation. And if there is an authority, even if it is only a moral authority, it would benefit enormously from scrutiny, from a critical eye, from dissenting views.

The powerless have become powerful in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. How we manage these shifting coalitions, spontaneous alliances and newly empowered communities while remaining true to our faith in the virtue of the dissenting voice, in all its power and glory, is going to be one of the great challenges of our time.