Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The power of dissent

At certain times in history, sometimes protracted events have occurred that demonstrated the power of dissent – that (as far as we know) uniquely human capacity to express strong disagreement with some or other aspect of the political, social or cultural status quo, whether this is done peacefully or, in some cases, violently, in a manner that could (and sometimes did) result in revolutionary conflict. (At the outset I should note that I am not here using the term, ‘dissent’, in the very specific philosophical sense employed by philosopher Jacques Rancière.)

Think of the slave revolt against the might of Rome, led by the slave gladiator Spartacus around 73-72 BCE, or any number of rebellions and revolutions in the course of history, including the French Revolution that started with the storming of the notorious prison, the Bastille, in 1789, as well as, some time before that, the American Revolution that erupted in 1775, having been triggered by the so-called Boston Tea Party in 1773. Add to this the American Civil War of the late 19th century, related to northern dissent surrounding the practice of slavery. When, in the early 16th century, Martin Luther distanced himself from what he saw as malpractices within the Roman Catholic Church of his time, it was another case of dissent, which gave rise to a different kind of religion within Christian ranks.

These are only a few instances, among the most visible ones (given the sustained, violent conflict involved), to which could be added many others if one scoured history for examples. Here in South Africa the protest and resistance against the practice of apartheid, which took many forms, from literary and philosophical dissent, to peaceful resistance, to guerrilla warfare against the apartheid authorities, are a further instantiation of dissent. When Frantz Fanon resisted the colonial authorities in Algeria, in word and deed, it was dissent. What one witnesses in Britain at present, in the shape of citizens protesting against Brexit, is also a sign of dissent. And what one witnesses within the ranks of the ANC in South Africa at present, when some brave members of the ruling party speak out against what they see as corrupt and power-hungry practices on the part of other members, also deserves the name of dissent.

It is true, of course, that dissent need not appear in such publicly conspicuous ways; it manifests itself in households, virtually on a daily basis, where subordinated women engage in dissent – sometimes silently, at other times vociferously – regarding the patriarchal oppression they experience (sometimes literally) at the hands of their husbands or partners. As Foucault has pointed out, before (some) women gained institutional power through emancipation, they always had the sexual power of their bodies to resist those who dominated them; that, too, is dissent. Today, in excessively patriarchal countries – such as Saudi Arabia – where the emancipation of women is but a distant, albeit beckoning, ideal, dissent assumes many guises, such as a woman openly driving a car in a courageous demonstration of independence.

It should already be apparent from the above that dissent, although not always recognised as such, is ubiquitous, and everyone who reflects about this would probably be able to pinpoint a manifestation of it in their own lives. Personally I recall several instances of dissent on the part of some members of the university faculty and senate in which I have served, for example, in the face of motions that seemed to some of us unacceptable for various reasons.

In the work of one of the most (justly) celebrated novelists of the 20th century, John Fowles, who died not so long ago, one encounters the following thoughtful reflection on the seldom acknowledged value of dissent (A Maggot, Vintage 1996, Kindle edition, Epilogue, location 9209): “Dissent is a universal human phenomenon, yet that of Northern Europe and America is, I suspect, our most precious legacy to the world. We associate it especially with religion, since all new religion begins in dissent, that is, in a refusal to believe what those in power would have us believe – what they would command and oblige us, in all ways from totalitarian tyranny and brutal force to media manipulation and cultural hegemony, to believe. But in essence it is an eternal biological or evolutionary mechanism, not something that was needed once, merely to meet the chance of an earlier society, when religious belief was the great metaphor, and would-be conforming matrix, for many things beside religion. It is needed always, and in our own age more than ever before.”

The novel from the epilogue of which this is taken – and which I cannot discuss at length here – is an astonishing hybrid: part quasi-historical, part science-fiction. The excerpt from the epilogue, above, makes sense against the backdrop of its subject matter as well as the era in which it is set, namely early eighteenth-century England. The fictional narrative ends with an account of the birth of someone who was destined to become an historical person of note – Ann Lee, who was also known as Mother Ann, the leader of the so-called Shakers (so called because of their ecstatic dance-shaking, which can be regarded as a kind of sublimation in Freudian terms), who dissented from orthodox religious conventions in the belief that these were misguided, and that a new, radically different religious practice was called for.

Fowles’s marvellous historical reconstruction of socially stratified, oppressive 18th-century English society in A Maggot provides the context within which the phenomenon of Ann Lee – a female religious leader at a time when women were still regarded as naturally and constitutionally inferior to men – may be understood as the embodiment of dissent. The extremity of her dissent, and that of the Shakers, can be gauged from their rejection of sexual intercourse between men and women, including man and wife (which is probably what led to their denunciation of marriage in the end). It is as if Lee’s disgust with the extant world of 18th-century England found its expression in the refusal to support the reproduction of the human race in a world that she and her followers considered degraded, and hence unworthy of perpetuation.

What I would like to stress here, however, is Fowles’s allusion (in the excerpt, above), on the basis of his reference to religious dissent of the kind encountered on the part of Ann Lee, to the very nature of dissent, namely: “…a refusal to believe what those in power would have us believe – what they would command and oblige us, in all ways from totalitarian tyranny and brutal force to media manipulation and cultural hegemony, to believe”. This allusion makes the relevance of A Maggot for the present era in which we live conspicuously significant, to say the least.

Regarding “media manipulation” we face a constant barrage of images and other means of persuasion from the mainstream media that supposedly testifies to the fact that we live in a world where ‘human rights’ are prioritised, but side by side with images of celebrity and other elites’ affluence, one cannot ignore the images of abject poverty and destitution that populate our screens, usually in relation to some humanitarian effort to alleviate social and economic suffering. In other words, human societies the world over are marked by ostensibly ineradicable inequality. This resonates with Fowles’s words (also from the epilogue): “In so much else we have developed immeasurably from the eighteenth century; [but] with their central plain question – what morality justifies the flagrant injustice and inequality of human society? – we have not progressed one inch.”

Hence the time is, as always throughout history, ripe for informed dissent in the face of such inequality and the injustice that it signifies. There is a huge difference between a world where certain countries, with high GDP figures, can claim that their citizens (at least the wealthy) enjoy a ‘good quality of life’, and a world where one could claim that social and economic justice prevails. That is but a distant ideal – for some.

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