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The Cost of Dissent

Uninformed disagreement inhibits or destroys the very innovation and progress that diversity of opinion is meant to bring about.

· 9 min read
The Cost of Dissent
Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

Diversity can broaden minds and stimulate innovation. But it can also do the opposite. Diversity is a relative good, not an absolute good. It only becomes good when enlisted in the service of higher goods, like truth and justice, or The Good that Plato posited in The Republic. If diversity were an absolute good, then its opposite, homogeneity, would be intrinsically bad. But homogeneity also has value. It promotes mutual understanding among citizens, which promotes peace and harmony. For example, a glance at the top 10 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) reveals that almost all have small, relatively homogenous populations. By contrast, among the 10 lowest countries, many have extreme tribal and language diversity, such as Mali with 79 languages and Mozambique with 40. Many of these countries are plagued by separatist factions and civil unrest. So while diversity may spur innovation, it can also cause division and a particularly fractious kind of dissent, which exacts a cost that Western societies often overlook.

Dissent is essential to societies, if they are to develop and move forward. It has been the engine of some of the most important episodes in recent history, including the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the fall of communism. But there are other virtues besides courage required to stand up and disagree with the prevailing power or wisdom. Virtues like prudence and humility enable us to acknowledge when we are not sufficiently knowledgeable to dissent productively, and to understand that misguided or misinformed dissent has the potential to hurt society.

Wherever possible, dissent should proceed from wisdom, which follows dialogue and deliberation. Uninformed dissent inhibits or destroys the very innovation and progress that diversity of opinion is meant to bring about, turning a society into a Tower of Babel, in which atomized individuals spout mutually unintelligible opinions. Such a situation was described by the early modern Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico in his masterpiece, New Science:

For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure. Thus no matter how great the throng and press of their bodies, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure or caprice. By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men.

Vico found that the disintegration of civilization is a consequence of the malicious abuse of its cultural inheritance, in particular its words, philosophy, and laws. He calls this deliberate abuse the “barbarism of intellect,” one of the primary fora for which is now social media. In an interview with the Financial Times, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that, “Our institutions are malfunctioning because of the way that social media amplifies performance and moralism and mob dynamics, which brings the normal process of dissent to a grinding halt.”

Unlike trolling and anonymous flaming online, earnest and civil disagreement takes courage, says Georgetown political theorist Joshua Mitchell, because it means “risking philosophical death”—daring to confront the possibility that we are wrong. This is one way that we pay off the cost of dissent. Unfortunately, educational institutions today often ignore this advice and treat dissent as an axiomatic and unqualified good. Educators preach only the need to “stand up” and “raise awareness” about issues students only understand in slogans and soundbites. As Stanford’s Thomas Sowell has put it:

I think we’re raising whole generations who regard facts as more or less optional. We have kids in elementary school who are being urged to take stands on political issues, to write letters to congressmen and presidents about nuclear energy. They’re not a decade old, and they’re being thrown these kinds of questions that can absorb the lifetime of a very brilliant and learned man. And they’re being taught that it's important to have views, and they’re not being taught that it's important to know what you’re talking about. It’s important to hear the opposite viewpoint, and more important to learn how to distinguish why viewpoint A and viewpoint B are different, and which one has the most evidence or logic behind it. They disregard that. They hear something, they hear some rhetoric, and they run with it.

Doing the work required to know what you’re talking about is one of the most fundamental ways that we pay the cost of dissent. Without this step, society ignores, explains away, or even approves the effects that ignorant and incontinent dissent has on unity, harmony, peace, and social stability—the rioting and looting that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the January 6th US Capitol invasion, the Stanford Law School shout-down, the trend of getting good professors fired over nothing, the overall decline in civility that has resulted from bickering on social media.

It was not always this way. The American Founders were revolutionaries, but they understood the importance of measured disagreement. The Declaration of Independence states that the US broke from Britain only as a last resort:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was likewise careful to avoid hyperbolic or unsupported claims that would undermine the Civil Rights Movement. He did not call America’s essence systemically racist, he praised America’s “magnificent” founding principles of equality and natural rights to show that racism is un-American. Today, the 1619 Project offers a case study in the sort of facts-optional dissent Sowell describes. By both commission and omission, it peddles a false version of American history to schoolchildren. In the second edition’s introduction, project leader Nikole Hannah Jones dismisses critics who point this out. They are merely reacting, she writes, to the fact that she has “directly challenged the cornerstone of national identity embedded in our public history”—as if framing the project as dissent could turn lies into truth and obviate their cost to society.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson has observed that protecting the freedom of expression is part of a unique Western cultural inheritance that dates back to ancient Greece. Hanson says maintaining a free civilization is extremely difficult, because it is unnatural; the natural pre-civilizational impulse is to reflexively attack anyone who disagrees with our tribal beliefs. Yet today, educational institutions which originated to stretch and elevate minds beyond pre-civilizational tribal impulses are instead encouraging students to regress back to them, through enforced taboos, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. This sends students into the world with little understanding of the cost of dissent, and their obligation to pay it.

Unlike the West, the cost of dissent is a constant consideration in dictatorships like China, Russia, and Iran, where citizens are regularly fired or jailed for speaking up. China justifies censorship and outlawing protests with reference to their negative effects on the social harmony and unity deemed critical to progress. But China’s opposition to dissent and insistence on unity come at the expense of individual liberty, and this approach cannot work in a more diverse multicultural state, where dissent is found at every turn.

A reminder of the difficulty of achieving unity in a large and diverse republic comes from Brutus, the author of several Anti-Federalist Papers published in the New York Journal in 1787 during the debates over ratification of the US Constitution. In Brutus I, he called for the Constitution to be rejected in favor of a confederal system. The US population, he argued, was too large and its states too different for a central legislature to represent adequately. Even though the 1790 census reported that the US was 82 percent white, Brutus observed that the 13 states’ interests and ways of life were as diverse as their physical geographies and economies:

The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident.

Brutus argued that congressional debate in a large, diverse republic would be such a cacophony of self-interested demands that no common good would be intelligible. Whatever legislation emerged would be the product of special interests and chance, as “the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents.” The larger the republic, Brutus reasoned, the less homogenous citizens’ interests will be, and the more likely that each legislator would be unwilling or unable to act in the interests of the whole. The cost of dissent would outweigh the benefits.

On the other hand, Brutus argued that citizens’ interests in small republics are more homogeneous, and thus they have less dissent, which gives them the best opportunity for valid representation and liberty: “In a small [republic], the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen.” Brutus did not convince Americans to reject the Constitution, but he did help to ensure the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment devolves any issues not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution downward to lower levels of government (the principle of subsidiarity), allowing states to uphold their individual beliefs and cultures and averting the need for the messy process of coming to a national consensus.

The states’ rights that Brutus fought for are especially relevant today, as philosophical and cultural differences between US states are increasingly in the spotlight. States are sharply at odds on controversial issues like critical theory in schools, abortion, school choice, gun laws, and sanctuary cities. If Brutus was right, then to a certain extent, this is as it should be. And when citizens feel that government policies fundamentally do not represent their beliefs, they calculate whether the cost of dissent is worth it. Stay and try to change things? Or leave for another state or country whose policies are more agreeable?

Offering dissenters an alternative place to go is another way that societies pay the cost of dissent. For hundreds of years, America has offered the freedom to move—something that was much more difficult in aristocratic Europe, where one’s identity and station in life were more fixed according to heredity and geography. In fact, the original 13 Colonies offered escape to European religious dissenters, like the Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Congregationalists, who refused to conform to the doctrines of the Church of England.

Later, the luxury of a vast western frontier provided escape to restless and ambitious souls and underrepresented minorities, whose dissent might otherwise have fomented unrest had they stayed in the East. Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that Americans “daily quit the spots which gave them birth to acquire extensive domains in a remote region. … Fortune has been promised to them somewhere in the West, and to the West they go to find it.” And six million African-Americans unhappy with life in the Jim Crow South expressed their dissent by leaving for the North, Midwest, and West during the Great Migration of the 20th century.

Compared to Brutus’s era, the mobility afforded by modern transportation and Internet job and home searches allows citizens to vote with their feet more easily when their government veers away from their core beliefs. As a result, the number of American expats living overseas is estimated to have doubled from about four million to nine million in the past 15 years. And as Bill Bishop explored in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Americans have been sorting themselves out into more homogenous regions within the US, moving in droves to other states which they perceive to align more with their values:

As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. … Majorities have their beliefs reinforced by seeing and hearing their inclinations locally repeated and enhanced. Self-reinforcing majorities grow larger, while isolated and dispirited minorities shrink. Majorities gain confidence in their opinions, which grow more extreme over time.

Bishop here expresses alarm that the Big Sort is a recipe for a nation of competing echo chambers, where the benefits of diverse opinions are being lost. To an extent, this may be true. But he overlooks the contribution of the Big Sort to paying the cost of dissent.

When a community holds too many fundamentally conflicting value commitments, the project of pursuing a common good—passing laws, providing public education—becomes nearly impossible. As Vico, Haidt, and Brutus each highlighted, diversity of opinion has diminishing returns when it exceeds a certain threshold of manageable dissent. Beyond this threshold, there is no dialogue, no middle ground, and politics becomes less the art of compromise and more a question of which factions have a monopoly on power. Alternatively, there is gridlock, as in 2017, when John McCain gave one of his final speeches to the Senate and said: “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. … We’re getting nothing done.”

Whether there is one-party rule or sclerosis, when dissent is out of control, the innovation that diversity was meant to spur turns to stagnation, and government becomes dysfunctional. So it can be healthy for citizens to sort themselves out into more homogenous geographic regions. It is one way of paying the cost of dissent and making it manageable enough to establish the stability, harmony, and functionality of government that are prerequisite for diversity of opinion, and dissent, to be productive again.

Robert C. Thornett

Robert C. Thornett has taught in seven countries and has written in The Diplomat, The American Mind, American Affairs, Education Next, Modern Diplomacy, Earth Island Journal, and Yale Environment 360.

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