On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

  • Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover
  • 200 pp.
  • Cambridge University Press

Two professors of constitutional law tease out the meaning of dissent.

Author Ronald K.L. Collins, a frequent contributor to the Independent and a member of our Board of Directors, will be appearing at Politics and Prose on August 1, 2013, at 7p.m

Can there be a sentient person who does not know that “dissent” means to express opinions different from those commonly held, different from orthodoxy or the prevailing view? Well, the authors disagree. In their view, more is required, much more, and they challenge us to think about the dimensions of dissent.

What could be so complicated about the subject that it needs 200 pages from two already fully employed professors of constitutional law, Ronald K.L. Collins of the University of Washington and David M. Skover of the Seattle University School of Law? Actually, their text is only 144 smallish pages. The rest is endnotes, a bibliography and “Informationis Personae,” a list of 22 contemporary sources. Quotes from these sources are juxtaposed throughout the book, a fetching form of group dynamics the authors employ to present contrasting viewpoints.

To calibrate readers for the Socratic dialogue style that will follow, the authors “tease out” three irreducible characteristics of dissent: 1) a meaningful intention 2) to criticize openly 3) in public. From there, they parse many forms of dissent: judicial opinions and political activism, competing religious orthodoxies, the high schooler suspended for wearing an armband to protest the Vietnam War, sign-waving movements on campuses, union and management differences, the guy in the park with signboards and whistleblowers, although not enough is said in this book about that last category.

To plumb the meaning of dissent is not an exercise for intellectual satisfaction. “[D]issent is like air — we breathe it without noticing it, and its invisibility belies its importance. This is a curious — indeed unfortunate — state of affairs. For if we talk about dissent without giving it any ideational content or without appreciating how we actually use the word, we cannot really know what to value or what to safeguard.”

The center of On Dissent tackles that most troublesome type of dissenter, the disobedient, who range from those respectfully civil but nonetheless engaged in illegal acts, to those who roar rudely, to mass marchers and on to people engaged in the “vagaries of violence.”

Must dissent have a moral or persuasive element to make it legitimate? Can destruction of property or persons ever properly be treated as dissent? Is it valid dissent to storm a draft office, steal its records and burn them out in the parking lot? (To state the authors’ conclusion on this point without the thoughtful reasoning that precedes it is to do their analysis an injustice to which not even law professors should be subjected.) How about the neo-Nazis who promote protests in heavily Jewish neighborhoods? The crowds in the park and along the streets at Occupy Wall Street?

“We endure dissent precisely because we value freedom,” the authors tell us. Not surprisingly, the concluding chapter titled “Dissent and the Law’s Parameters” begins: “Without dissent the First Amendment would be meaningless. If the Constitution protected no more than speech with which we agreed, there would be nothing in need of protection. The unorthodox, the nonconformist, the outcast and their like give vital life to the First Amendment.”

Judicial dissents are calculated dissonance, acceptable and encouraged ways of registering disagreement, sometimes quite vituperatively, with the majority view du jour. They are a summons to the future, a clarion call to rethinking when a different time allows. So, it must be said, are all the other kinds of dissenting opinions. Political speech, religious speech, the moral responsibility some feel to speak out against the unjust — those are the voices of “the other.”

When we cannot agree, we owe it to ourselves to learn to disagree as best we can. At its core, dissent is an invitation for us to think about the other side(s). That is no small thing in a time when talking points trump rationale, when confrontation means saying it louder, when the mainstream media covers complex issues with an ostensible balance of “he said/she said” that gives short shrift to the facts and the merits.

As high school debaters in Minnesota in the 1950s, we couldn’t get on the bus to competitions until we could state the other side of the case persuasively, even more convincingly than our opposition. We were charged not only to present our own best case but also to see that the issues were joined, to give the matter its best exercise.

That was then. Today, the platform of the dominant political party in the second most populous state in the nation declares that it “oppose[s] the teaching of ... critical thinking skills and similar programs ... which have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” Now that is a state where you’ve got to be carefully taught.

“Without dissent, consent is meaningless.” We owe it to ourselves to listen to dissenters. They have much to teach us.

This is a fine book. It is not hard reading; it is tough thinking. It should be required reading for school board members and other public officials and for everyone who wants to continue to learn.

Tom Phillips retired many years ago from the practice of law and politics. He had fine law professors and the good fortune to work for the general counsel of a communications company who believed in protecting speech.


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