Is Dissent Necessary?


By Sheikh Attar & Palvi Singh Ghokrokta

Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) said Descartes stating that the very act of doubting one’s existence served as proof of one’s mind,  supporting the assertion of an underlying  thinking entity i.e. one’s self.

Perfection per se is a utopian concept. From a person to an ideology to a society everything has its drawbacks and imperfections.

Like a biological being, a society evolves progressively, from one stage to another seeking to achieve the pinnacle of perfection, which can ironically never be attained.

It is pertinent to note that this gap between perfection and reality and the ensuing endeavour to bridge it, is the pull factor that facilitates societal progression vital to human civilisations. Wherever there is anything short of perfection it ipso facto provides for fertile ground for dissent to germinate. Given that Dissent is the exploratory tool that helps unearth this gap and pave the way forward, its importance cannot be overstated.

From Socrates to Galileo to Chomsky dissenters have shown exemplary courage in standing up against status quo, incurring great personal losses, while society has ultimately reaped the fruits of their toil.

After all, if it was not for dissent we would still be bound by the shackles of the Apartheid system, the world would not be free from the iron like grip of colonization and mighty imperialistic powers wouldn’t have bitten the dust.

The absence of dissent is therefore disastrous for a society. To substantiate, consider the concept of “groupthink” by Irving Janis. Groupthink occurs when a group accords primacy to its concerns leading to unanimity. No one expresses a dissenting opinion because each person believes it would undermine the cohesion of the group. This in turn leads decision makers to make irrational and uncritical decisions, which can snowball into major fiascos. Wars and armed conflicts in recent times like in Iraq, Vietnam etc being classic examples. Dissent acts as a bulwark against such majoritarian tendencies.

Having established why dissent is necessary, the next question is what constitutes the boundary of the dissent, if any? The question is relevant considering the present curbs on expressing dissent world over, particularly on the right to speech and expression.


Should the constitution of the country be allowed to define the contours of dissent, as under the state system?

While it is true that constitutional limits form the plinth of social law and order it is also true that the seeds of dissent are a pre-requisite for a holistic growth of societies.

Equally, though securing a consensus propels cohesion, helping  disparate elements co-exist, often States  to maintain respective  interests, resort to placing unjust curbs even violence on people, clearly contradicting what is otherwise a right action, pleading majoritarian constitutional ideals like sovereignty or nationalism in their defence.

Adhering purely to constitutional legality as a means of administering society may constitute a travesty of justice, endangering even defeating the very ends it wishes to serve.

An apt illustration of this dichotomy are the country specific constitutions that emphasise territorial sovereignty, even allowing for acts of state terrorism, as opposed to the UN’s constitution that casts a duty on citizens to stand up against crimes of the state.

The question is not only which one to follow but more importantly can human will and free thinking be made wholly subservient to lofty laws and legal principles?

Consider the example of a traffic violation, it may be legally incorrect to violate red light but if in a situation it is necessary to stop a person on the other side in committing a crime like stabbing someone, will violating traffic lights still constitute illegal activity. In strictly legal terms it might but it seems a clear contradiction to morality.

If monarchical governments were shown the door, seen largely as being arbitrary even tyrannical due to the absence of civil liberties and egalitarian laws – are today’s state structures, not eroding that very fabric, by resorting to draconian measures citing legal imperatives? They may maintain the veneer of legality but have long lost the high moral ground.


So is it morality that should define the boundary of the dissent? Morals as we know are of a dynamic disposition and vary from society to society. Further they can be problematic in that even totally discriminating and unjust morals may enjoy social backing.

A stark example would be that of the slavery system. Justified on moral and religious grounds, the slave masters acted on the premise that they were well within their right to own and treat fellow humans like chattel. In hindsight we realize how abhorrent and contrary to humanitarian principles this system was. Even its social acceptance couldn’t conceal its barbarity and this is precisely why dissenting against its legal and moral sanctity was absolutely essential.

Had it not been for dissenters like Malcom X,Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela etc spearheading minority opinion movements, we would still be struggling to free ourselves from human bondage. It would therefore be safe to conclude that social acceptance of a morally unjust act does not make it sacrosanct and immune from all criticism.


Perhaps moving from an outward seeking to an inward looking approach – with an honest appraisal of basic human nature rather than the social structures surrounding, holds the answer.

Where human intelligence facilitates the ability to discern the merits and demerits of their surroundings – instincts compel humans to put in order their state of disequilibrium, with the overwhelming desire to restore equilibrium in order to be at peace. When contradictory attitudes or a disconnect between human values and actions arise it triggers a state of ‘cognitive dissonance’, the unrest persisting till reconciled.

As is widely known, basic human urges complete with their tendencies of skepticism, a critical mindset and creative thinking carry evolutionary besides the obvious species survival significance. These traits coupled with the inherent desire for productive creations and the need to satisfy one’s intellect and self esteem provides a conducive push for humans to come out of their comfort cocoons.

This helps them to resist the arbitrariness of the environment and motivates them to shape it for their own good. The environment in question may be a religious, an economic, a cultural or a political system. This is probably where the dissent originates, imbibed in the very fabric of humans and necessary for their survival and growth.

To go a step further, not only is dissent necessary but it also natural. Considering the subjectivity of perfection as an ideal, dissent can fall within the ambit of its definition. After all, the ideal is itself an idealistic concept. If Caesar’s wife must be above all suspicion, perfection must be above all sacrality.

As a natural corollary, in our quest for it we must constantly question, challenge, reinvent and rediscover established notions and norms. Like science welcomes rather rewards dissent, our society must also encourage and inculcate a critical outlook. As a parting shot, it would serve us well to take a leaf out of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s book, who said that one needs to be ‘pessimistic by intellect and optimistic by will’.



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