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.
The stereotype focuses on one type of dissent, the kind associated with boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, strikes, marches, riots, rebellion, or revolution. The connotations of civil disobedience and violence color dissent in the public eye with a tint of radicalism. The public generally is uncomfortable with, and suspicious of, radicals. From this perspective, dissent is an expression of alienation and hostility.
According to standard dictionary definitions, however, dissent isn’t something abnormal to politics or alien to everyday communication. In its generic sense, dissent is no more or less than the expression of an opinion that differs from prevailing beliefs, attitudes, views, or judgments. It is a withholding of assent, an act of nonconcurrence or a variance of opinion, as in a justice’s dissenting opinion, a legislator’s criticism of existing laws and policies, or an ordinary citizen’s letter to the editor.
Peaceful dissent is the mark of an open society and a healthy democracy where the freedom to speak up and speak out is not suppressed and is even respected. Repressive societies and governments stifle peaceful political dissent, but in a free society the expression of a difference of opinion is part and parcel of everyday life and ordinary citizenship. Dissent strengthens the whole body politic by resisting the rule of a narrow perspective. It should be a commonplace of democracy, something everyday citizens take part in regularly, not a thing to shun or despise.
The tolerance of dissent is not a gift of the state, nor is political dissent the sole province of heroic figures. Its very practice by the citizenry at large is the only real constraint on the war state’s tendency to repress the expression of differing opinions. The possibility of a free and democratic order is determined by the extent to which the public becomes invested, and regularly participates, in a culture of dissent, which holds the conventional wisdom of political elites accountable to the scrutiny of alternative perspectives.
Democracy by dissent is real democracy by everyday citizens living in challenging times and skeptical of simplistic answers to complicated problems.