The Internet tells me that “to dissent” is to publicly disagree with an official opinion or set of beliefs; to withhold assent; to express an attitude of non-agreement to a prevailing idea or an entity; to refuse to conform to the policies of the state. It is a guiding philosophy of activism; it is the spirit that drives civil disobedience and radicalism; and, at its heart it is the battle for the soul that rages within each one of us every day, in foro conscientiae: before the tribunal of conscience.
It should be of no surprise that bureaucracies, and the governments that surround them, have no love of dissent, whether it is tolerated or not. After all, bureaucracies, whether liberal or conservative, corporate or public, are at their hearts animals of autocracy, and to the bureaucratic mind, dissent is synonymous with anarchy. Yet, dissent is a critical counterbalance to the great wrongs that can occur through mass conformity, when evil it is at its most banal and, therefore, at its greatest potential for destruction. History is quite full of examples where large groups of people, including entire countries, were led down a path of destruction where, at the end, salvation lay in dissent.
It is not an easy thing to be a dissident. It requires great courage to raise one’s head above the herd and seek to travel counter to it. There is a well-known Japanese saying that the nail that sticks up will be hammered down. And to stand in disagreement can be a very dangerous thing, indeed. Yet, there is nothing less human, in my mind, than to thoughtlessly subvert oneself to the dogma of a group mentality; to go with the flow without consideration. It is one thing to make a willful decision to conform; to do so without regard to one’s conscience is to die the coward’s death of a thousand cuts.
Within each of us lies a compass of morality. In some areas, we as a people can come to common agreement as to the direction that this morality lays; in no small manner, arguably, due to the fact that biologically we share common wiring as a species. However, we are also singularly, as a species, endowed with the ability to converse with this internal morality, and to decide our own individual paths. Thus is the essence of the human condition: the internal battle between instinct and reason that defines us all. Thus is the essence of dissent: the externalization of this internal battle when we utter the words “I disagree.” To follow the herd is to be our most animalistic; to demonstrate the temerity to rise above and dare to be hammered down is to express the sincerest adherence to membership within the human race.
This is not to be confused with contrariness, and there is a fundamental difference between the dissident and the contrarian. The contrarian, by nature, is compelled to always take the dissident viewpoint, whereas the dissident takes this viewpoint only when compelled to do so in foro conscientiae. Thus, a dissident chooses to conform or dissent as an outcome of an internal rational discussion, while the contrarian may be acting no less animalistic than the herd mentality he or she professes to reject. As such, the dissident must always strive to reject the slide into contrariness and “crankiness” to which one can so easily be labeled and marginalized. As a dissident, I raise my hand because I choose to do so; I choose to do so for the specific reasons that my conscience compels me to; thus do I place my life and my livelihood at risk; thus do I find the courage to do so.
The times are always tumultuous for dissent, now more than ever. But if we are to regain the balance between the government and the people, if we are to take charge of the destiny of our societies and our species, if we are to make a better life for ourselves and our children, if we are to proactively look towards the future instead of reactively running from it, if we are to continue to rise to the challenges provided to us as intelligent, sentient beings, then we must on occasion stand and make ourselves heard, even if our legs are shaking – especially when our legs are shaking – because to not do so is to disregard and dishonor the great gifts bestowed upon us by those who have courageously done so in the past.