You can always tell. It’s the tone of voice when there’s emotion in it. What’s said and sometimes more importantly, not said. Whether it’s just about them or about us too.
Or it’s their buzzwords that tip you off. They’re not here for you or the room but a cause they’ve brought into it. They’re here to tell before listening.
When dissent comes from conviction, the dissenter always stimulates you to consider what you know and believe to be true however self-centered or ideological she sounds.
But her dissent is most effective when it’s generous enough consider what the rest of the group should want—if only it had the information that she's here to provide.
That is: when you’re showing that you care about them too, whatever the costs to you that come from raising your voice in the first place.
1. When Dissent Falls Short
The mob came for Judge Aaron Persky this week, he of the 6-month jail sentence for sexual assault against Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, whom a witness had seen lying on top of a motionless woman sprawled on the ground. For the first time since 1932, a California judge was recalled from office. I understand the #MeToo backlash against the sentence and even how sweet Persky’s blood must have tasted to the mob that came for him, but I wonder how many of the dissenters knew anything other than these three facts: that Turner was a male athlete, from an elite school, who seemed to have gotten off lightly? Why let the remaining facts and circumstances cloud the moral certainty that this judge had protected a rapist?
As it happened, Turner’s sentence didn't come on a whim or from the conclusion "that boys will be boys," but followed the country probation department’s recommendation. Moreover, given the impacts on Turner from the national outrage over his behavior, Persky feared that adding a longer prison term on top of it would have too severe an impact. “Judicial independence” not only shields judges from “the certainties” of public opinion but also gives them the latitude to shape their rulings to the circumstances, including weaknesses in the prosecution’s case against the accused, the personal punishment that Turner had already suffered, and the recommendations of others in the criminal justice system.
What dissenter who voted to recall Persky attempted to see those circumstances through the judge’s eyes before condemning him for his ruling? And if passion made that impossible, which dissenter rejected his ire against one judge in favor of ensuring that California choose better judges going forward--so that he (along with everyone else who depends on the justice system) could have enough confidence in these men and women to leave their independent judgments alone?
How many got beyond their anger to give the rest of us a thought?
A Mob Comes For Justice
Earlier this spring, the mob came for James Levine, who had conducted the world famous orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera since 1971. The Opera claims that it found “credible evidence” that Levine, a giant in the classical music world, preyed on a succession of vulnerable artists who were in his charge over for years. After an investigation, Levine was fired from his post although he denies the accusations and has never been charged with a crime. Dissenters quickly overcame the institution’s qualms about separating itself from Levine, but also aimed to purge Levine’s musical legacy by, for example, ensuring that his live performances are no longer aired on Met Opera Radio and convincing the Kennedy Center to rescind the “lifetime achievement award” it conferred on Levine in 1998. This "denial of contribution" came despite what almost everyone in the classical music world acknowledges: that Levine was one of the greatest conductors of the past 50 years.
These dissenters failed to distinguish between the individual artist's behavior and the legacy of his work—and it’s not just about Levine. Consider Bill Cosby (drugging vulnerable women for sex against his groundbreaking comedy, including “The Cosby Show”) or Chuck Close (disgusting comments to nude, female models against decades of striking visual achievement between the fields of painting and photography).
Writing about Levine and Cosby, about all artists, and maybe about everyone who is flawed but has earned his reputation until revealing his darker side, Terry Teachout said:
“Few of us like to admit it, but most human beings are impossibly complicated, none more so than artists. You can simultaneously be a great comedian and a sexual predator, a great musician and a pedophile. To argue otherwise is to falsify history, and to falsify history is to dynamite the foundations of reality.”
There may be no defense for how these and other artists conducted themselves, and all may richly deserve the sullied reputations they will carry with them, but the dissenters go too far when they try to kill their legacies of achievement. In their desire for that final pound of flesh, who among them gave a thought to how the rest of us—who have been enriched and elevated by their art—would be impacted if their artistic achievements were branded with a scarlet letter or denied to us altogether?
And that's the problem isn't it? If they'd given a thought to how we would have to live with the consequences of their dissent, they might have expressed it differently.
2. When Dissent Serves the Dissenter and the Rest of the Group
Many people (including, I know, some of you) think that Edward Snowden is a traitor who should never be allowed to return, let alone be welcomed back home for what he knows and believes. I didn’t agree with those who condemned him when he first disclosed the U.S. government’s mass surveillance program, and I continue to disagree with those who want to put him in front of a firing squad.
Government programs that were debated and implemented in public generally have broad public input. To make a public program better, new dissent within the governmental process has usually resulted in incremental change for the better. On the other hand, programs that are created and implemented in secret lack the public debate about the risks that are being assumed and the benefits to be gained. When it seems impossible to dissent from a secret program internally because you fear retribution or that no substantive response will be forthcoming, public dissent becomes a moral option. Because Snowden knew about the retribution that “whistle blowers” before him had received and believed that “groupthink” prevented the intelligence community from responding to his concerns, he took his dissent public. Longtime readers will recall that I’ve already posted about Snowden and the dissenters who preceeded him both hereand again.
Snowden’s dissent was about him, because he cared about what he knew and believed and couldn’t remain silent in the face of it. As the scope of these surveillance programs became clear, he realized that his collaboration was morally wrong and that had to speak out about it “for his own sake.” Because of the millions of people impacted, his “confession,” if you will, had to be public: “This is what I have been collaborating in, but in order to live with myself I refuse to do it for one more day.”
At every moment however, Snowden’s dissent was also about the rest of us. He knew that the American public didn’t know the extent to which we were being tracked by the government and thought we should all have an opportunity to strike a different balance between our personal privacy and the nation's security interests. Snowden knew how he wanted this debate to come out, but he also knew that the others affected needed to draw their own conclusions by their acquiescence, agreement or dissent. As a result, Snowden consistently spoke to how his dissent was not only about his own convictions but also about the future he wanted for every American who enjoys the right to privacy.
Despite lacerating criticism from government officials, ridicule and vilification in the press, and President Obama’s dismissal of him as little more than "a hacker,” Snowden never waivered about either the knowledge or the motives that drove his dissent. He never appeared to be anything other than calm, steady and confident. As a result, two years after he released information about the secret government programs, a federal appeals court ruled that they had never been authorized by the Patriot Act and Congress rolled back their power.
Snowden’s dissent enlisted enough principled dissent among Americans that our over-reaching government was challenged and a different balance was struck between individual privacy and national security. Was it the comprehensive balance that Snowden hoped for? No, and Snowden is still convinced that threats to our personal privacy are both pervasive and un-unchecked, not only from the government but also from corporations like Facebook and Google. Indeed, his Twitter feedis full of his continuing dissent. But five years on, Snowden is still speaking the truth as he sees it for his own sake and for ours.
3. Effective Dissent Is About More Than What You Know and Believe
This week’s newsletter follows questions that still dangled from last week’s newsletter and post. Is all consistent dissent valuable for the group? And if so, do the motivations behind it matter?
Charlan Nemeth’s In Defense of Troublemakers gets it right when she argues that every consistent expression of your dissenting convictions causes other members of the group to consider their own convictions and actively explore different ways of solving the problems that you raise. Does it matter that your dissent is motivated by a personal or narrow cultural agenda rather than care for the welfare of others in your group? Is this where the dissenters who challenged Judge Persky, Bill Cosby and James Levine got at least some of it wrong, but Edward Snowden got it right? The conclusion, I think, is that all consistent dissent--even when driven by a lynch mob--stirs something positive in a group, but that broader, less selfish motivations vastly improve the likelihood that the group will pursue durable change for the better.
You raise your voice because what you believe and what you know can’t stay silent any longer. You dissent because you care about being true to yourself and because you care about what will happen to the group if it doesn’t respond to what you’re saying. When you do so, the group will grapple with your knowledge and beliefs even when they don’t agree with them as it tries to find a productive way forward.
But isn’t there one more basis for dissent that is essential if its aim is to propel groups to engage with problems in positive ways?
In addition to your knowledge and experience and what you believe to be true about them, the most productive dissent also contains at least a piece of the future that you are convinced everyone in the group should want. A dissenter’s convictions engage our convictions about what we know and believe, but perhaps neither engage us as much as her hopeful vision about the future we are here to create together.
Edward Snowden was proposing a future that was different from the one he was challenging. When he spoke out, the American people considered their knowledge and experience in light of his and then took several steps with him towards a time when the government safeguarded more of our privacy. On the other hand, when it came to everyone else's future, the mob-driven dissenters created more of a tempest in a teapot than any kind of forward motion.
Productive dissent is a high wire act that never waivers in conveying your knowledge, your beliefs and your vision for a better future. It’s the dissent that has the best chance of making a long-term difference. Given the high costs for every lone dissenter, it’s what everyone who has the courage to raise her dissenting voice should be talking about.
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Have a good week at work! I'll see you next Sunday.
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