We may not know quite how to define dissent, but we know we don’t like it when we see it. War protests are a case in point. It is not uncommon to perceive such demonstrations, no matter how nonviolent, as inappropriate and unpatriotic, especially when war first breaks out. When Eugene Debs spoke critically of Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned for sedition. The very act of speaking against the administration was treated as subversive.
This is a common attitude, not just a thing of the past. Critics of the U.S. war on terror have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, and even prosecution. As Geoffrey Stone warned in 2004, exploiting a threat to national security is a time-honored strategy of consolidating power by inflating public fears, inflaming patriotism, and condemning critics as disloyal (Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, p. 74).
The negative stereotype of dissent is not well aligned with its dictionary definition or its democratic purpose. (more…)