Thoughtful authentic dissent is the most potent form of engaged political participation any society that calls itself “free” can embody. When dissent is suppressed, criminalized or considered an act of “sedition,” conformity, docility, servitude and totalitarian rule will not be far behind.
What would it be like to live in a world where dissent was no longer permissible? We appropriately associate the right to dissent with the right of free speech. Dissent is also understood as the most important means through which we can expose injustice. However, in a much more elemental sense, if we no longer had the capacity to dissent, we would inevitably become incapable of experiencing something new, of seeing through deception or of making corrections and broadening our understanding. In fact, at a philosophical level, if we were no longer capable of dissent, a good part of what we describe as “thinking” would gradually be lost to us.
This is not an exaggeration. In a crucial sense, the experience of dissent is inextricably tied to the experience of thinking itself. For the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, “thinking” begins when we are able to pick out or identify things. But we identify only in virtue of the “seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.”* In other words, negation in the form of discriminating, distinguishing, clarifying, comparing, etc. is what makes thinkinghappen. The experience of negation is a sudden grasp that something is not what we once supposed it to be. In this sense, the experience of negation is not itself “negative,” but rather affirmative and productive. When we allow ourselves to experience negation – that this is not that – we are bringing to awareness the limitations and fallibility of our own experience, as well as opening up the possibility of a deeper understanding and more comprehensive knowledge.
If negation makes thinking happen, it also makes dissent possible. Dissent is a way of expressing the experience of negation at a moral and political level of thinking and action. In other words, to be able to dissent against prevailing opinion – to “hold or express opinions that are at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially expressed” – is vital for democracy, and indeed for cultivating the virtue of free and independent thought. No doubt there is a distinction that can be drawn between ersatz forms of dissent grounded in hatred, bigotry or fundamentalist religious or economic doctrine that wish only to silence or censor others, and informed or critical dissent which invites participation and is oriented by a genuine sense of concern for openness and what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt might describe as the desire to bring “something new into the world.” As strange as it may sound, thoughtful and authentic dissent is the most potent form of engaged political participation that any society that calls itself “free” can embody.
If this is right, then it will also be the case that when dissent is suppressed, criminalized or considered an act of “sedition,” conformity, docility, servitude and inevitably totalitarian rule will not be far behind. To live in such a world would be to live as if the experience of critical thinking and reflection no longer mattered. As Arendt might say, this would not so much be the cultivation of stupidity but rather the perpetuation of banality – or, in a word, of thoughtlessness.
Dissent can be realized in many different ways – as religious, moral or political protest; through socio-political movements, civil disobedience or whistleblowing. In all of these cases, to dissent is to break free from or reject the doctrine or the authority of a ruling class or orthodox hegemonic perspective. In particular, dissent as whistleblowing is a crucial democratic check on corporate or governmental misconduct that takes the form of exposing dishonesty, illegal or unethical practices or activities. When the whistleblower is no longer protected under law, when he or she is subjected to criminal prosecution in retaliation for speaking out about wrongdoing, we are left with the hollowed-out shell of what was once the promise of a democratic state.
Witness Edward Snowden. Snowden is one of the most important dissenting voices since Daniel Ellsberg. But, unlike Ellsberg, who also faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, it is very unlikely that the charges against Snowdon will ever be dropped as a result of “gross governmental misconduct or illegal evidence gathering.” Why? Well, simply because eavesdropping and government misconduct are now so ubiquitous and routine, they no longer “offend our sense of justice” in the way they did during the attempted prosecution of Ellsberg.
There are many who now claim that Snowden should have exercised dissent within legal government or corporate approved channels, before transgressing the law or his “oath” of corporate and/or state allegiance. However, governments and corporations relinquish whatever moral, political or legal authority they might have when they determine that citizens no longer have any right to privacy or informed consent regarding what freedoms they are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of “state security.” The paradox of democracy is that one sometimes has to risk personal freedom in order to be free. This is what Mahatma Ghandi, Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of exemplary others have shown us. It is also the risk Edward Snowden took upon himself.
Snowdon knew what he was risking at a personal level. But the fact that he resolved no longer to serve a regime of deception and unfreedom so that American citizens might continue to make free and informed choices, is not merely an act of dissent; it is an act of dissent that is at the same time the realization of the most essential and revolutionary form of thoughtful political engagement – and yes, patriotism – that any citizen can ever realize. It is the sort of act that the framers of the American Constitution would uphold and deem highly praiseworthy. For Snowden and for Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine and a great many others, we can only preserve and defend what a constitution promises when we are able to dissent, resist and expose those who – through fraud, deception and subterfuge – attempt to destroy the freedoms we fight and incessantly struggle to make possible.
If there is anything we Canadians admire, if there is anything that makes the United States “exceptional” in the eyes of the world, it is its history of individual courageous dissent and sacrifice of personal freedom for the sake of freedom and well-being of others. In this sense, it is hard not to see the spirit of dissent that animates the whistleblower Edward Snowden as the attempt to retrieve and breathe new life into an all but forgotten democratic tradition. Yet the sorrowful and tragic irony is that he has been deprived of citizenship as a consequence of actions that placed the highest value on civic engagement and thoughtful deliberation about what it means to be a citizen in a purportedly free country.
If the United States is to retrieve and honor this civic good, if it is to uphold the value of dissent as whistleblowing, then it must not only legally protect all forms of whistleblowing, it must immediately reactivate Snowdon’s citizenship and allow him to return home without fear of criminal reprisal or sanction.
* G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press 1977, p. 10.