Dissent Is An American Necessity
Once again the principle of free speech and the right of citizens to question the actions of their government are being tested. The general feeling seems to be that dissent is dangerous, that critical commentary erodes our unity and diminishes our resolve, that debates over the loss of constitutional rights is somehow a negative to the betterment of the nation. Perhaps such feelings are natural.
The state of our economy. the tensions of unemployment as well as the outrageous larceny of some corporate leaders, indifference of political leaders and the stresses of high costs gas and other necessities can create levels of distress that can be unbearable. The tendency is to close down, circle the wagons, and lash out at all who may question. But real security doesn’t come from stifling debate or muting voices of dissent. In fact, dissent may be what we need most.
Dissent is the antidote for what social-psychologists call “group-think,” the tendency to rush to judgment. (Clearly demonstrated by the recent decisions disguised as thoughtful discussions). Group-think can become a kind of herd mentality. Dissent is a guard against this mentality, a check on the unbridled stampede toward the cliff.
For this reason, as President Eisenhower once reminded us, we should never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion. A democratic society depends on dissent because, at its best, dissent is an act of courage, a real test of patriotism. The ancient Greeks understood this. They used the term, “parrhesia” to refer to speech based on moral principle, voiced by a speaker with the courage to speak the truth in the face of powerful opposition. Such dissent, they believed, represented one of the highest ideals toward which a citizen could aspire.
The American Founders also understood the importance of dissent, which is why they crafted the First Amendment. As the nation evolved, dissent became an important feature in all government institutions and processes, from Congress to the Supreme Court. Even in the executive branch -- the one most feared by the Founders because of its resemblance to monarchy and its tendency toward imperialism – even here our best presidents have welcomed and honored dissent.
Today we see government officials, powerful public figures, even our friends and neighbors asking us to be silent. Once again we are told that protest is bad, that dissent is divisive and un-American. That for the betterment and solidarity of the community we must become silent. But it is not. We must not be misled from a central truth: Free and passionate debate is essential to self-governance.
To dissent, to break from the herd, to question and offer in many cases an alternative position, is to celebrate American democracy with a ferocity that no one should attempt to suppress...unless we let them.