Why is dissent important?

WHY IS DISSENT IMPORTANT?

Dissent has a price - there is danger, the risk of persecution, split societies, maybe even death. But when societies are strongly repressive, there is no other way for a society to start to correct an injustice than through dissent.

WHY FOCUS ON DISSIDENTS?

We feel the self-sacrifice of dissidents deserves to be recognised.

But we also feel that in telling the stories, we are doing four other things:

  • kindling civic virtue

Philosophers from Aristotle to Amartya Sen, Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment, have called for the cultivation of civic virtue. We believe there could be no better way to achieve that end than with these stories. Aung San Suu Kyi read Edith Bone’s autobiography when she was 13; Nelson Mandela, amongst others, was influenced by Gandhi.  

  • highlighting the importance of dissent

These are stories that bring recognition to the legitimacy and importance of dissent. Dissent made the United States independent. Dissent ended apartheid in South Africa – and more, it gave oppressed South Africans during apartheid hope. Through dissent, Copernicus and Galileo put the sun at the centre of our universe. Yet we don’t talk very much about dissent as a valuable phenomenon. It deserves more recognition. This isn’t to say dissent leads us to a perfect world, it is to say that we need it to counter the injustices that have a habit of emerging in our societies.

  • showcasing a great side of humanity
  • giving hope to dissidents themselves

Anatoly Marchenko said: “When I was locked up in Vladimir Prison I was often seized by despair. Hunger, illness, and above all helplessness, the sheer impossibility of struggling against evil, provoked me to the point where I was ready to hurl myself upon my jailers with the sole purpose of being killed. ... One thing alone prevented me, one thing alone gave me the strength to live through that nightmare; the hope that I would eventually come out and tell the whole world what I had seen and experienced.”

AREN’T THE STORIES OF THESE DISSIDENTS WELL-KNOWN ALREADY?

In short, noMany exemplary dissidents are well known locally or nationally. Few, though, are well known internationally, and what we want to do is share the treasures that are their stories across the world. A secondary reason is to preserve their stories within the areas where they are currently well known.

CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT DISSENT'S IMPORTANCE?

Dissent attempts to undermine existing unjust power structures so that something more just (or more truthful) can be put in its place. It is never perfect, not always successful, inherently difficult, and often traumatic, but despite this should be highly valued on two grounds. On a pragmatic level, it can succeed in producing a less unjust society. On a moral level, it satisfies an inherent human desire to be able to struggle for justice.  

Many societies have accepted means, widely available to citizens, through which changes can be made to the way the society operates. It is one way a society develops the rights it values and cherishes. For instance, a parliament might bring in a change from limited to universal suffrage after public discussion about the justice of universal suffrage.

In other societies, the controlling powers do not allow such means of change, and suppress discussion. If people seek to bring change in a peaceful manner, they are often violently repressed. In these circumstances, most people have no official or accepted power. In order to bring a change to remove an injustice, people are forced into dissent – the power of the powerless.

The people who have the courage to take up this power are known as dissidents. They are rarely successful in the short term. Many die without seeing change, or lead lives heavy with suffering. Sometimes, dissidents may not receive the sympathy of much of their society, who prefer to live relatively trouble-free, but un-free lives. Dissent has often led to bloodshed on a large scale, and from there to long periods where society is divided. In some cases, too, dissent leads to a new form of controlling power that itself is highly unjust.

These are grave points against dissent. We do not pretend that dissent is always ultimately successful, nor that it can solve all the world’s problems. But dissent counters the injustices that have a habit of emerging in our societies – it is a means not only of changing, but of restoring. It allows more people to live the ‘good life,’ to flourish.

A look at history shows the importance of dissent. The establishment of the modern English parliamentary system, for instance, involved two profound episodes of dissent – that which produced the Magna Carta, and that which led to the civil war. As a consequence there was a shift to constitutional monarchy and a curtailing of monarchical power. The independence movement in India during and following the Second World War was an almighty period of dissent, largely peaceful, and hugely successful. In the US, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Junior, amongst others, helped bring equal civil rights and social acceptance of members of any race. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid dissidents were essential to bringing an end to the grossly unjust system of apartheid. In Burma, the brave, patient, peaceful struggle of the National League for Democracy and other democracy advocates, with Aung San Suu Kyi as their figurehead, has led at last to the beginning of a peaceful, gradual reestablishment of democracy. The transitions of Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany to their modern ‘free’ forms were also given vitality by dissidents. In many cases in these struggles, dissenters died before seeing change, but society more widely benefitted in the long term.

Even when unsuccessful in many cases dissent has given hope or moral comfort to others within the society, and has inspired courage internationally. The man known as Tank Man, who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, is admired around the world. The White Rose group, who distributed anti-war leaflets in Munich during the Second World War, were discovered and hanged during the war, their activities having little impact on the war. Likewise, the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer publically opposed the Nazi party, but was unsuccessful in shifting public opinion, and was also hanged. Yet Bonhoeffer and the White Rose group still provide comfort to Germans and inspiration more widely.

In still other cases, dissent can push the controlling powers into some degree of reform. While China remains a relatively repressive society, demonstrations over issues such environmental health have led to government reform. 

Dissent is also vital to intellectual progress. As Thomas Kuhn describes, competing scientific theories proposed by intellectual dissidents are often rejected by the established scientific elite until they are no longer deniable.  Examples include Galileo Galilei and Nicolas Copernicus. However, it is not only in science that such intellectual dissidents are important. Much of John Locke’s thinking was counter to the prevailing thought of the time, as was Edmund Burke’s. The history of ideas is unimaginable without dissent.  

In an ideal world there would be no need for political or social dissent – there would be accepted means of change, and activism and public discussion would instigate and help decide on change. The world is not ideal, however – according to the estimate of Freedom House, over half the world lives ‘un-free’ or only ‘partially free’ lives, and even in more free societies, freedoms are often under pressure.