Dissent has always been the bedrock of a strong democracy. Opposition is needed as counterbalance. It provides much needed checks and balances. Without it, a state sinks into dictatorial rule where opposing views and voices are stifled, often at the threat of imprisonment or death.
There was this one time when I was at an international airport somewhere in the great expanse that is Earth. Bored out of my wits, I decided to buy a book to while away the time. I chanced upon an old paperback that was sold for a steal. It was a book on management. While I forgot the author’s name, there was one thing that he wrote that made such an impression to me that it has stayed with me all these years. He wrote about his company’s team of ten — ten men and women who helped him run things especially during crunch time. He said that when they had to make a crucial decision, they would designate the so-called Chosen One. This person’s role was to oppose whatever the nine agreed to. He was meant to be the devil’s advocate, the one who would challenge, the one who would raise one annoying question after another. Even as the boss, he encouraged his subordinates to question his decisions. It seems to echo what US President Dwight Eisenhower said at one time, “Never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” The author said that by being comfortable at facing questions and doubt, he was able to clarify his motives, explain his reasons, and make better decisions.
So many moral victories were achieved as a direct result of dissent. Efforts to free India from British colonial rule was led by Mahatma Gandhi who was known for employing civil disobedience. Nelson Mandela united South Africa by deciding to foster racial reconciliation, a move that was so unpopular among his fellow black leaders. Hitler’s fascist agenda weakened when Winston Churchill dissented from popular opinion to pursue peace with his now famous words: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
It truly is a mark of maturity when we are able to handle criticism and disagreement with grace and compassion. In the same breath, it is a sign of political maturity when we are able to disagree agreeably, when we encourage honest dialogue and provide a safe space where there is absolutely no fear to speak our truth. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer, put it so aptly when she wrote in her book, The Friends of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Dissent may be a burden to have to contend with but there is opportunity to grow amid criticism, in opposing views. Sometimes, it is in the tension of opposites where we find answers to questions, solutions to problems, accountability for every action. In the words of US Senator J. William Fulbright, “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith.”