The Ends of Dissent? A Dissenting Understanding of Dissent


What is ‘dissent’?

The term ‘dissent’ was first used in sixteenth century England, to refer to the opinions of those Christian sects that would not conform to the Church of England (not just Catholics but many Protestant groups too, e.g., the Dissenters, the Puritans). Needless to say, they were quickly criminalised and hunted, leading to the exodus of Puritans to America. The USA, in this sense, is founded on dissent.

In general, the term refers to opinions or agendas that diverge significantly, often to the point of outright disagreement and opposition, from mainstream opinions and agendas. It is a socio-political act that becomes definitive, not just of the actor(s) (individually or collectively), but of the opinions and agendas that constitute the disagreement, and lead to the act of divergence from, or opposition to, the mainstream. However, to dissent is not necessarily to disconnect: the dissenter need not necessarily break away from the mainstream while diverging from it, or even opposing it. That is, the dissenter does not always become a revolutionary; not all dissent becomes revolution. This is a point of some significance, which we will revisit shortly.

The mainstream in this case is not defined by numerical strength so much as hegemonic power. This means that even a small but powerful minority may decide what constitutes the ‘mainstream’, while a large but diverse and unevenly empowered majority fails to do so, even though they all dissent from it. Thus, a large number of ‘dissenters’ need not necessarily constitute a mainstream in themselves.

Why dissent?

This is actually two questions woven together. These are, firstly, what is significant about this particular form of the expression of disagreement? And secondly, what is it about the kinds of opinions and agendas that leads to this particular form of disagreement?

            Qn One: The significance of this particular form of the expression of disagreement, raised in the first question, is that it marks a non-negotiable, irreconcilable disagreement. Dissent denotes a refusal to engage with the opinions and agendas it disagrees with; the disagreement is not just a critique, it is a denial – of the validity, legitimacy, propriety, perhaps even rationality, of those opinions and agendas. Whatever the issue, the articulation of dissent from it is fundamentally an articulation of denial. However, it is not a denial of the mainstream itself – only of those particular opinions and agendas, and hence of any authority they may claim. It is for this reason that dissent is fundamentally anti-authoritarian, but not necessarily anti-authority (a point worth elaborating, but that must wait for another occasion).

Furthermore, the blanket denial of validity, legitimacy and authority is not always just a one time pronouncement, with little more than symbolic value (even if some may say that often, it is no more than that). It can also become the basis of a concerted and insistent campaign on the denial, calculated to pressure the mainstream to accommodate the opinions and agendas of the dissenters. The more widespread and pervasive that denial and rejection of authority, the more the pressure, and hence the more effective – and possibly even successful – the dissent. And if dissent gets articulated in this fashion on a number of issues simultaneously, against a variety of opinions and agendas formed by the mainstream, then the mainstream begins to fragment under the pressure. This fragmentation charts the transformation of dissent into revolution.

This quality of denial inherent to “Dissent”, here refers to the act, the performance, of denial and rejection, and is shared by all kinds of dissent, everywhere.

            Qn Two: The second question pertains to whether this act is associated with certain kinds of opinions and agendas, i.e., whether there might be something common to all such opinions and agendas that provoke that dissent. This however, appears to be an absurd quest: to try and identify a quality or element common to all opinions and agendas that ever were, are and will be, that would always provoke dissent. The answer lies rather, as with most questions, in the question itself: in brief, all such opinions and agendas that provoke dissent, share the quality of being provocative.

This appears to be a sweeping generalisation, and a rather vague and nebulous one at that. What, after all, does “being provocative”, in a general way, even mean? According to various dictionaries, to “provoke” in general means to cause a reaction (Cambridge), to instigate or incite an action (Collins), to incite to anger (Miriam-Webster), and so on; while the etymological roots of “provoke” (Latin, provocare) denote “call forth” (Collins). All these meanings display the same syntactic structure: an actively causative, inciting or instigating agent, who ‘calls forth’, wittingly or unwittingly; the action perceived as a ‘calling forth’, and its rationale; the passive, but reacting, incited or instigated object of that action, i.e., the subject who perceives that action to be a ‘calling forth’ of a (usually negative) response; and the reaction – in this case, dissent – of those subjects, i.e., the subject-objects of that action.

The point of significance in this structure is that it indicates the extent to which provocation and dissent are mutual – almost two sides of the same coin. It also clearly shows that perception is crucial to both provocation and dissent – i.e., there can be no dissent without the perception of a provocation; no provocation if it is not perceived as provocation; and significantly, no provocation without a dissenting perception.

The last one may seem a bit cart-before-the-horse-ish: it seems to suggest that the dissent to the provocation must exist before the provocation itself. In actual fact though, it simply reiterates the point that provocation and dissent are not disconnected events, but two facets of the same event – that actions or opinions become discernible as provocations only through the dissenting reaction to them. There may be cases of attempted provocation, with no actual dissent – but the anticipated dissent is sufficient for that action or opinion to structure itself (to be perceived) as a provocation.

This two-part response to the question, ‘Why dissent?’, tells us then that dissent is resorted to as a form of blanket denial of legitimacy and authority, to an action or opinion that is perceived to be provocative of dissent – but without completely separating the dissenters from the provocateurs. In other words, dissent addresses the specific action taken or opinion held by the provocateurs, seeking revocation or change, but without changing the larger body of relations connecting the provocateurs to the dissenters. This is partly a structural effect of the fact that dissent and provocation are basically two facets of the same event; the dissenters need the provocateurs, and vice-versa. But it is partly also because, for dissent to work, the dissenters’ consent must be of some value to those they are dissenting from.

This value is derived directly from that larger body of dissenter-provacateur relations – meaning that, the dissenters, if not the dissenters’ consent, are required for that larger body of relations to be maintained and sustained. Thus, the reason for articulating disagreement as dissent – the answer to the question, ‘Why dissent?’ – lies in the leverage afforded by the value of the dissenters’ and/or their consent, to the larger body of social relations that they share with those they dissent from. Meaning, if you have no value, your dissent has no value, and has little effect in achieving the goal of changing that which you dissent from.

This has far-reaching implications for the politics of dissent.

What Happens with Dissent?

So, what happens when those who are of little or no value to the mainstream of social relations, want to dissent? Worse, what if those who are already perceived as threatening that mainstream, want to dissent from it?

In order to examine how such dissents can play out, we must first understand two very insidious effects of ‘Dissent’ as a definitive socio-political act. Firstly, the act is such that its focus of attention can be shifted away from the reason for the dissent (the opinion or agenda) to the act of dissenting, i.e., to the fact of the dissent itself. This often leads to the mainstream presenting the ‘dissenters’ as riotous, anarchic, blood-thirsty mobs – or, at the very least, as obstructionist and/or irrational. Their act of dissent is seen, and represented, as a challenge to the entire system that upholds the power of the mainstream, and not just to the points of disagreement. Thus, if dissent is a denial of legitimacy, this response to it is not only a denial of the legitimacy of that denial but, by implication, a denial of the legitimacy of the dissenter. This is an important factor: the dissent of the ‘value-less’ can not only be dismissed, it can actively harm them – i.e., there is much more at stake for them when they dissent than the ‘valuable’, whose legitimacy is rarely questioned, even when they choose to dissent (indeed, the dissent of the ‘value-less’ is often marked by the fact that it is less choice than necessity – but that discussion too, must be kept for another time).

How then, can the dissent of the ‘value-less’ gain traction and leverage? When it multiplies; because then, the sheer volume of ‘value-less-ness’ becomes a threat – or at least a hindrance – to the mainstream. This multiplication may be in terms of the number of dissenters to the same issue; or of the number of issues being simultaneously dissented against; or both. The power of dissent to effect change lies either in its moral strength, or its numerical strength, or both: it has no other. But the validity of the former has to be recognised and acknowledged by the mainstream, to be effective, and that recognition and acknowledgment is usually granted only to the ‘valuable’. Even if morality is invoked by the ‘value-less’, it has little transformative effect without numerical strength – which is why the ‘value-less’ have to resort to mass mobilisation, for their dissent to even be cognised.

This is also the reason why the liberal exhortation – that dissenters should not resort to demonstrations and mass mobilisations, but should appeal to reason, and win their case through discussion and debate in the appropriate institutional mechanisms, like courts and tribunals – is profoundly misplaced, if not disingenuous. Such mechanisms are not separate from the mainstream – indeed, they are crucial to the exercise and maintenance of its dominance as the mainstream. As importantly, such a perception demands that the moral position adopted by the dissenters be legally justifiable and maintainable – and that too within the terms of a jurisprudential framework designed to justify and maintain the state as the ultimate moral authority. It is to confuse morality with law, and vice-versa.

This is precisely the confusion that M K Gandhi drew attention to, in his famous court defence, where he insisted on the moral legitimacy of his politics, but demanded that he be punished by the English court for breaking the law. In Gandhi’s moral framework, to be punished for breaking the law is as important as breaking the law – i.e., the moral authority of the law, and by extension the state, is supreme. This famous incident is an outstanding example of how dissent rarely separates from the mainstream, even when it offers a critique. At best, it can offer a kind of ‘course-correction’ to the political trajectories of the mainstream.

This would explain why, in the Indian case, the administrative structures, methods and protocols of the colonial state continued almost unchanged into the postcolonial one. Nor were there any dramatic socio-cultural changes: caste, communal and gender violence continued apace; as did poverty and corruption. The dissent of the nationalist movement had not brought revolution, only a ‘course-correction’ – here, mainly in the fact that the state was now run by Indians, and ostensibly for Indians. The Indian nationalist movement exemplifies how dissent can appear to be revolutionary change, by multiplying into a number of dissents on a number of issues, thereby stressing the state to the point of complete inefficacy and unviability. However, it falls short of being revolutionary because it did not change the way in which the Indian state – designed by the British as an apparatus of imperial conquest and colonial rule – was either conceived or operated. The Indian Constitution certainly introduced many important safeguards, not least among them being the specification of the Indian state as a socialist, secular, democratic and republican one; but the moment these safeguards are violated or challenged in any way, especially by the state itself – as for instance in the current controversy over citizenship, or more recently, the manner in which the new farm laws were brought into effect – the underlying colonial and imperial character of the deep state stands revealed.

This brings us to the second insidious effect of “dissent” as a socio-political act, viz. that, when dissent is represented as anarchic, irrational, etc., the reason(s) for the dissent – its rationale and justification – are also represented through the same lens of anarchy and irrationality, through which the act of dissent is itself perceived. They cease to function as explanations for the particular dissent and are instead seen to justify dissent in general. This permits the dissenters and the justifications of their dissent to be dismissed, or worse, criminalised. This response implicitly acknowledges the state’s apprehension of the potential for dissent to morph into revolution, and its attempts to preempt that, because, not only does this response impact on the strength and efficacy of the dissent, it also hinders and delegitimises any attempt to build that justification into a campaign – i.e., it strives to contain and isolate that dissent.

These insidious effects of dissent, as an act perceived in isolation, unfortunately also amplify each other; by mutually focusing on the act and fact of dissent, both the mainstream and its dissenters reinforce the fact of dissent rather than the reasons for it.

For dissent to truly transform into revolutionary change, it has to deny the legitimacy of that deep state in toto: which means it has to reject the mainstream juridical processes altogether, and not just mainstream morality, and/or efficiency. It bears reiterating that these juridical processes are ostensibly autonomous, but in actual fact work almost entirely to protect the power and authority of the state – without which, it might be added, these processes themselves lose their legitimacy and authority. In order for dissent to transform into a genuinely revolutionary transformative force, therefore, it not only needs numerical strength and a recognisably strong moral case, it requires a political case for resorting to the form of “dissent” as outright denial of the state itself – and a central part of that political case is that, it must be able to offer an alternative conception of the state that is viable, desirable, and amelioratory of the problems and challenges raised by the dissenting forces.

The foundations for the imagination, conception and realisation of that state already exist, in the form of the Indian Constitution. Whatever its shortcomings, the challenge right now appears to be to protect that foundation itself, which seems to be under imminent threat. But that larger challenge – of working towards a genuinely secular, socialist, democratic republic – must not be forgotten, because only by promoting that goal, that idea of the nation and state, and by charting a credible and realisable course to it, can a genuinely new India emerge.

Prem Kumar Vijayan, Asst Prof., Dept of English, Hindu College, Delhi University



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