Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

The necessity of dissent

I watched a movie a while back about a communist Russia where comrades were required to denounce one another in order to get ahead. If everyone was denouncing someone, you had to get on the bandwagon, lest you were next. Dissent was not allowed, at least not in the communism this movie chose to portray. Even when it was necessary, and even when agreeing with the majority meant doing something wrong. The point was that unity was more important than truth.

I believe the best thing that can happen to a person is to have someone disagree with them. You learn more about yourself, your privilege, position, and perspective when someone says that the view you hold, or the idea you’re promoting, is wrong. You won’t always change your views but you are required to think about the logic of holding them, and what it means to you to cling to them.

Often, when you are in a social movement, dissent is not very well-handled. Take feminism for example (not the only or best example by any means, but as a feminist this is the movement I feel most comfortable discussing). Like many social movements, there are a wide range of positions to occupy within feminism. You can be a sex-positive radical, or a conservative. You can think that pole dancing is empowering or oppressive or somewhere in between. You can love Naomi Wolf or bell hooks or Taylor Swift or BeyoncĂ© or all or none of these. You can be for transgender rights and the rights of gender minorities, or against them. These are all allowed in the general theory of things — feminists can argue and disagree and debate the topics and they will do so with passion. Each type of feminist is likely to believe that the idea she holds is the right idea.

Things get sticky in social or political movements when unity is needed — times like when laws need to be reviewed, budgets allocated, or decisions made. These are times when nuance can be lost. Often times, it is the one who speaks last or loudest whose position is supported. There is something about a loud voice in a quiet hall, or over a microphone to a receptive audience that can erase the memories of all those who heard alternatives.

That’s not to say that people are mind-washed, or unable to think for themselves once in a crowd. It’s just to say that to stand up at the end of a rousing speech in favour of one position, with the intention of being the sole voice of dissent amidst the roar of the revolutionary is both a terrifying and necessary act.

When a movement or organisation or political party claims a monopoly on the thought and understanding of its members it should be viewed as problematic. When people stand up in defence of indefensible acts because to step back and stay silent, or to say something different would mean exclusion, this should immediately be a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. A movement cannot operate successfully with a fractured membership, of course. But it cannot continue its legitimacy unless it invites criticism, grapples with it, and is able to tolerate dissent. Unity is not more important than truth.

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