Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Place for Dissent in a Democratic Society

The privilege to dissent from the majority is probably the most important Constitutional right in our Democracy. In America you may hurl insults at the President of the United States, publicly campaign against laws passed by Congress, or support any idea, however disagreeable it may be to some, and your right to do this is protected.

We allow and encourage dissent because we know it makes us stronger, it protects us from group-think, and allows the possibility that the majority just may be wrong.

So when I say that to resent and oppose a law arrived at by the democratic process is undemocratic, I have to also say that you have every right to do this. What am I saying then? I guess I'm arguing for having some priorities and picking your spots. If you dissent in every case where the group decision is different than your own, I question this. There is value to the continued functioning of the group and many times this outweighs the value of taking a stand against something you disagree with.

During the Internet boom of the late 1990's I did contract computer programming for ConWay Transportation. On occasion we had meetings with the regional Service Center managers to figure out application functionality. When there was a difference of opinion within the group, the managers had a way of dealing with it: the question was asked "are you willing to die on this hill?" Most of the time the person wasn't willing; when they were we spent a lot of time and resolved the issue. The idea here is that if the group is going to get anything done, they can't have a long drawn out debate whenever there is a disagreement. Some internal screening has to decide which things are important enough to spend a lot of time on. The person was being asked if they thought their issue was important enough, they got to decide, not the group. However, keep in mind that everyone knew how much time we had for the meeting and how much we had to cover. Also, if you were willing to die on every hill people would stop listening to you.

The definition of a group is a collection of different individuals. A group, by nature, is a compromise; you gain the benefit of numbers and shared resources and you give up some individual freedom. The only way to have a group that always does what you think is right is to leave the group.