On Dissent

Ronald K. Collins and David M. Skover


What is dissent? What distinguishes it from disagreement? Can violence be part of legitimate dissent? Can groups dissent, or is true dissent always an individual act?

These are some of the key questions asked in Collins and Skover’s On Dissent: Its Meaning in America, an engrossing discussion that ably unpacks the contents of dissent — and the intents of those who engage in it, and of the powerful forces that are enjoined to tolerate it.

“Tolerate” is perhaps the wrong word, for, as the authors write at the end of the book, “dissent is not a privilege granted by the powerful many to the powerless few; it is a practice honored by the polity because our society cannot thrive without it.” For Collins and Skover, and for the framers of the American Constitution, dissent “is what legitimates democratic governance; it is the seal affixed to the social contract.”

On Dissent focuses on the legal definitions and status of dissent, but it is not a law school text book. The authors adopt a straightforward but engaging approach to their subject. They frame each question clearly, identifying the key issues the question raises. This introduction is followed by the annotated commentary of a panel of legal, constitutional, and social scholars. At the end of each discussion, Collins and Skover re-summarize the question and present their understanding of the best answers.

The scholars who participate in the book’s discussions are an impressive group, ranging from legal and constitutional experts to expert dissenters like Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and Howard Zinn.

It’s chiefly because of this panel of experts that On Dissent deserves and should acquire a readership beyond that smallish group of us who think that taking two hundred pages fully to define a single word sounds like a good time.

Here’s the main content of the book, in much less than two hundred pages.

Dissent is reasonably considered to have three core attrributes. It is intentional, critical, and public. If you have gone out of your way to make a public protest, you’re acting like a dissenter.

As well, the word “dissent” implies disagreement with a group of which the dissenter is a member. To boo the visitors and root for the home team is not dissent.

Violent protest creates all sorts of problems for a definition of “dissent,” at least in public opinion. The authors note that “there is, roughly speaking, a reverse proportionality between the quantity and quality of violence associated with conduct and our willingness to label that conduct as dissent.”

Combining this last observation with the implication of membership, Collins and Skover write that “there is a logical difference between the reformer’s intentional public criticism and the revolutionary’s violent action to subvert the government. The reformer seeks to remain within and preserve the government, whereas the revolutionary stands outside and aims to overthrow it.”

It’s obvious that individuals can express dissent with the beliefs, policies, and/or actions of a collective (any kind of group with sufficient definition for those characteristics to be identified and expressed) of which they are members. But can collective entities themselves dissent? The authors’ answer is a qualified “yes,” ithe group’s public dissenters are authorized (in some way or other) to represent the group, and if that dissent expresses the collective objectives of the group. Thus, anti-war and pro-environment coalitions, as well as more organized entities like the Council of Catholic Bishops of America and the NRA, can express real dissent.

And corporations can dissent, too — especially with recent Supreme Court decisions that treat corporations as persons for the purposes of free speech. I don’t happen to agree with this characterization of corporations, but at least the authors raise the key question: “Can dissent endure when collective intent and purpose appear to be tied to profit making?”

Near the end of the book, the focus changes. Having done the work of defining dissent, Collins and Skover turn approvingly to the reasons behind the American Constitution’s defense of dissent. The First Amendment “safeguards the speech of those who refute our creeds, reject our values, renounce our government, and even repudiate our very way of life.” This view of free speech, which the authors call a ” uniquely American principle,”protects the voice of the other.”

Indeed, “the First Amendment sometimes converts illegal action into lawful action; it transforms what was seen as anarchy into what may be viewed as democratic engagement; and it reconfigures the relationship between society and its critics.”

On Dissent is a thoughtful and instructive book. It’s too bad that those in seats of power who would benefit most from reading it are the least likely to bother doing so.

4 thoughts on “On Dissent

  1. Interesting ideas! I wonder if the authors ever discuss or consider in their work the quality of dissent, and the purpose of dissent? Dissent may well be characterized by an intentionality, a public nature, and a critical nature. But if dissent consists only or even primarily of these things, what function does it serve other than a pointless outlet for personal frustration?

    It seems to me that dissent for dissent’s sake is not a social good. Dissent is a methodology, a tool whose end is social change. Because it has as its end some political goal, shouldn’t a discussion of dissent review this, I guess, teleological aspect? And further, shouldn’t dissent be evaluated in light of the social change for which it advocates?

    Dissent by civil rights protesters in the 60s is, I think beyond a doubt, of a different quality than dissent by Neo-Nazis in the present day. Do the authors account for these types of differences? Should they?

    • Must dissent “serve a purpose” to be real? No. To be meaningful? I think so, but merely standing up and being counted always achieves at least two things — asserting one’s own identity, and reminding the majority that agreement and consensus are not in themselves absolute.

      As far as the difference between 60s civil rights protesters (of whom I was one) and today’s neo-Nazis (one of whom I am not) goes, the authors point out that moral, social, or political approval is precisely what dissent does not require. I think that they would see the distinction you make between them a question of social and personal morality, not a question of the nature of dissent, and I would agree.

      The authors emphasize that the more objectionable, even odious, the dissenting position, the more that dissent tests the limits of our commitment to the idea of free speech. The question of what limits, if any, should be put on dissent is always a complex one.

      I would argue that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is never dissent at all. Setting fire to an American flag at an Army recruiting station is always dissent. Leaking the truth about NSA surveillance? More difficult. Leaking the surveillance itself? More difficult still.

      • Fair enough. I do agree that dissent in itself is probably the best example of a full expression of civil liberty. Of course the more anti-majoritarian or odious the view, the more society must strain to accept that dissent as some kind of justified expression.

        Nonetheless, and on a more general level, I’m wary of the idea that dissent can function for its own sake, or for the egos of the dissenters themselves.

  2. Pingback: What it Means to Dissent in America - Critical Margins

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