why express a dissent?

One of the things people do in meetings and other discussions is to express dissenting opinions even though they know they will not be persuasive. They say some version of, “For the record, I think …”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll exclude situations in which these statements are really meant for an external audience, such as the broader public or future members of the same group. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once wrote that a judicial dissent is “an appeal … to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” Here I will focus on statements that are only heard by the rest of the group in real time, when there is no chance of persuading the others–for instance, after the decision has been made.

As it happens, I almost never make such statements. Perhaps because of the privileged or comfortable role I usually play in discussions, I usually feel it would be unhelpful to express dissents unless I can persuade. Otherwise, I keep any concerns to myself. And I think that is right.

However, I would sometimes defend the expression of dissent even when it’s not pragmatically effective–even when it cannot change opinions. I think it navigates usefully among the three options that Albert O. Hirschman identified for people who disagree with a group to which they belong: “exit,” “voice,” or “loyalty.

In Hirschman’s great book, “exit” means leaving the group or the institution, thus preserving your freedom and possibly disciplining the group by removing your contributions to it. “Voice” means trying to persuade the group to change. And “loyalty” means going along with the group because it has sufficient value to you.

To express a dissent is a little different from all three. It’s a version of loyalty, but with a dollop of resistance. It’s a use of one’s voice, but not “voice” in the sense of attempting to persuade. And it involves exiting–not from the group, but from the decision.

I would compare what Tommie Shelby has called “impure dissent.” He interprets rap artists who write intentionally offensive lyrics (including violent and misogynistic ideas) as saying: I do not endorse the racist society that I must belong to. I have no hope for revolutionary change. I cannot exit. My voice will not persuade white people (or perhaps anyone) to reform this society. I am going to do what the system allows, such as selling my music for money. Yet my lyrics express my dissent. They express that I do not endorse what I am part of.

Shelby contrasts “voice as influence, which is aimed at altering the status quo, with voice as symbolic expression, which is not primarily concerned with its impact on those in power.” For him, objective injustice provides an ethical justification for the symbolic expression in rap. Rappers’ impure dissent is justified because they are oppressed.

I agree with his argument and would generalize it to some people who are not oppressed. Expressing symbolic dissent without exiting may be appropriate for anyone who is simply outvoted. Of course, you can do this in a polite way if you are not oppressed. You can avoid burning bridges. In essence, you are making a contribution to the group by not leaving it, but you are asking for that contribution to be recognized. And you are retaining self-respect by clarifying that your will is not reflected in this particular collective decision.

To do this too much or too easily can be self-indulgent and can put unreasonable burdens on the group. But sometimes symbolic dissent enriches the group by clarifying that its members are demonstrating loyalty despite disagreements, by setting a precedent for other people to disagree and differ, or by simply informing everyone that some members are unhappy.

More generally, I believe that we do many productive and appropriate things when we talk in groups, and making proposals with reasons is only one of those things. Many of our speech-acts are ways of keeping the group together so that it has enough social capital to act, thereby making the discussion worthwhile in the first place. I would classify symbolic dissent as one kind of speech that may–when used appropriately–contribute to the maintenance of a group that can then do what its members decide.

See also: do we deliberate to reach consensus? (with an example from Italian fascism); du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; and the question of sacrifice in politics

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.