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The Power of Dissent

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

History has been shaped by the power of dissent. Indeed, the dissenting opinion is the true engine of social progress. It is the dissenting opinion that shatters paradigms, propelling humanity forward. It is the dissenting opinion that challenges the status quo, pushing us beyond our complacency. By its very definition, the dissenting opinion is one that refuses to accept the common, official, or prevailing view; it demands that we abandon what is, in favor of what could be. The power of dissent is what liberated this country from the shackles of segregation; before that, the power of dissent brought women the right to vote; and still before that, the power of dissent sparked the revolution which led to this country’s formation (and indeed, the power of dissent has been the inherent driving force behind every people’s liberation movement). The vehicle of civilization depends upon the fuel of dissent to carry us forward.

That is not to say the dissenting opinion is always correct (factually or morally). However, dissent (properly interpreted as variance from the prevailing view) is the only path to progress. If the status quo can be understood as our current position, all dissenting opinions can be seen as divergent paths emanating from where we stand. Some paths may lead us to a worse position, while others may lead us to somewhere better. But it is only by assessing and ultimately taking one such path, that we may advance beyond where we currently sit. Hence, without these paths, we cannot hope to find ourselves anywhere better. Furthermore, without assessing each of these paths, we have no valid justification for remaining where we are. Presumably, we occupy our current position because we believe it is the best place to be; if we knew of a better place, rationally we would go there. Until we assess all available paths (i.e. all dissenting views) and determine that none lead to a better place, we have no justification for remaining where we are. To put it in more concrete terms,

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” --John Stuart Mill

Without the ability to assess and tolerate dissent, there can be no progress, nor can there be any confidence that the status quo is justified. Of course, the ability to assess dissent is predicated upon the ability of others to express dissent. Hence, we arrive at the topic of this article: free speech. You see, free speech is absolutely necessary if people are to express their dissenting opinions. And, since dissenting opinions are a prerequisite for progress, free speech then is absolutely crucial to any society that hopes to better itself.  Many have said that free speech is indispensable to democracy—more than that, free speech is essential to our progression as a global society.

Having briefly explored the value of free speech, we can now examine whether free speech is under threat in our society. I identify 4 major threats to free speech.

The Citizens United Case

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech applies to associations of individuals, in addition to individual speakers. Corporations are, by definition, associations of individuals. The government is therefore obliged to protect corporations’ free speech. Moreover, the First Amendment prevents the government from discriminating between various associations; in other words, all associations must be afforded the same free speech rights and protections. In practice, this means the government cannot extend free speech rights to some corporations and not others. And since media corporations (i.e. newspapers, TV networks, etc.) enjoy freedom of speech, all other corporations (e.g. oil corporations, tobacco corporations, etc.) must also be granted free speech rights. In short, the government cannot limit an organization’s speech on the basis of corporate identity. If we protect the media’s right to free speech, we must also protect Monsanto’s right to free speech. The last component of this ruling—and undoubtedly the most crucial component—is that spending money is essential to spreading one’s views. In order to get airtime on TV, one must spend money. In order to get ad-space on a newspaper page, one must spend money. Even if one wants to protest in the street, one must purchase certain permits. Your ability to speak is therefore inextricably linked to your capacity to spend. As such, a limit on spending would constitute a limit on speech. Altogether, this means all corporations must be allowed to spend an unlimited sum of money on political speech. The Court’s decision opened the floodgates for corporate political spending. And indeed, corporate spending on campaigns has skyrocketed since the ruling.

Ironically, in its efforts to uphold freedom of speech, the Court has created the single largest threat to free speech. You see, there is a direct correlation between campaign spending and the probability of winning. A recent study by The Atlantic found that, the more a candidate outspends his opponent, the greater his probability of winning. In other words, the difference in spending directly corresponds to the difference in votes. Moreover, The Atlantic found that this correlation is only strengthened in tighter races; that is, the closer the race, the more money matters. And, as landslide elections become increasingly rare, the growing proportion of tight races implies the growing importance of money in politics. Altogether, this means politicians cannot afford to ignore the value of wealthy, corporate contributors. Corporations, recognizing their importance, utilize their unique leverage to influence politicians’ decisions and agendas. Simply put, politicians need money and willingly pander to corporate interests in exchange for campaign contributions. As Barack Obama once said,

“I can’t assume that the money chase didn’t alter me in some ways. …Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means…hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were…expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks”.

And, as each candidate attempts to outspend the other, it creates a spending race. Every election cycle is more expensive than the previous. In effect, this means candidates need to raise more and more money which, in turn, means they become increasingly reliant on the wealthiest segments of our society.

How has this affected free speech? It has devalued the opinions of ordinary, working-class Americans. If money is a direct determinant of electoral outcomes, the mindset of the politician becomes simple: the more money a donor has, the more their opinion matters. This is evidenced by a recent study from Princeton University, which finds absolutely no correlation between public opinion and the likelihood that Congress will pass a certain bill. The study examined nearly 2,000 public opinion surveys. Poring over these surveys, they asked the question: Is there a correlation between public support for a law, and the probability that such a law is passed? In other words, is Congress more likely to pass a law when more people support it? In a perfectly functioning democracy, there should be a direct correlation between public support and the likelihood that Congress will pass a bill. However, the study tragically found that “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” There is virtually no correlation between the opinions of ordinary Americans and Congressional action. However, the study found a direct correlation between the opinions of America’s wealthiest 10%, and the probability that a law would pass. Hence, while the opinions of working class Americans seem largely irrelevant, the opinions of America’s wealthy seem to have significant influence.

A well-documented phenomenon exists, wherein people who feel voiceless are less likely to express themselves. That is, when people feel their opinion is undervalued, they feel less inclined to share that opinion. Thus, in a society where corporate influence dominates politics and ordinary Americans seem completely irrelevant, it should come as no surprise that many Americans feel discouraged from even voting, let alone attending rallies, protests, or town-halls. In this manner, corporate influence devalues the opinion of the ordinary American, thus making many people less inclined to politically participate. This is a threat to free speech.

I would like to note that I am certainly not anti-corporation. But I am also not a full-fledged, neoliberal, free market capitalist-globalist who has “Bretton Woods for Lyfe” tattooed on his forehead. I think regulation has its place; and campaign finance is one of those places.

Corporations and Education

Corporate influence has permeated more than just electoral politics; it has penetrated our educational institutions, too. As state and federal governments decimate educational budgets, schools are left scrambling for funds to cover basic costs. Many public institutions have operated in a budget deficit for years, accumulating debt in their attempts to remain functioning. Desperately underfunded, these schools have turned to corporate donors for much-needed capital. Often times, universities sign contracts with private corporations; as per these contracts, the corporation provides funding for research and, in exchange, the corporation controls the internal publication review process. In other words, the private company plays a significant role in determining what gets published. Of course, this creates a conflict of interest. There have been many documented cases, wherein researchers uncover findings which are at odds with the interests of their corporate donors (in one such case, a researcher revealed that certain pesticides were highly toxic, but his research was funded by that very same pesticide company). In these instances, corporations (who, thanks to strategic contracts, control the internal review process) will often impose significant barriers to publication. In this manner, the dissemination of knowledge becomes lost in the pursuit of profits. Education is sacrificed on the altar of capitalism. The implications for free speech are obvious. When corporate donors suppress the publication of thoughts and findings, freedom of expression is destroyed.

There are two slightly less obvious impacts on free speech. 1) Corporations tend to direct money towards lucrative areas of research; fields that will yield profitable patents, or academic disciplines that will produce skilled employees for their workforce. Often times, this means funneling money towards science and technology. Rarely do corporations donate massive quantities of money to the humanities; we do not hear stories about Monsanto donating millions to a religious studies department, or Microsoft devoting millions to the study of philosophy. We do, however, see private donors pouring $500 million into STEM education. Tragically, it is the humanities that foster the ability to think critically, write eloquently, and speak publicly. It is the humanities that provide the necessary tools for civic engagement. While STEM equips us with the tools necessary to construct and repair the vehicle of civilization, the humanities provide us with the capacity to steer. Underfunded, the humanities struggle in their mission to elevate public discourse and critical dialogue. 2) the second hidden impact is that professors are often recruited to consult for these private donors. Indeed, many professor serve on the board of private corporations. Speculatively, one could say that drastic educational budget cuts have translated into salary cuts for professors and, in order to supplement their dwindling income, these professors accept positions as consultants for these companies. However, being consultants for these firms, the professors often stand to benefit from the sale of the products they are investigating. They may even hold patents regarding the very commodities they are researching. This leads to self-censorship (the most dangerous censorship of all), as professors hesitate to publish research that may reflect negatively on the products of their private company.

Identity Crisis

In London, they ask "Are you supporting the Tories or Labour?". In the US, we ask "Are you a Republican or a Democrat?". This difference is highlighted in two news articles, one from the UK and one from the US. The UK article reads "man punched in the face by UKIP supporter" while the American article reads "Liberal punches elderly woman". The linguistic difference is subtle but is crucially important; it reflects a fundamental difference in the way Americans think about politics. In America, you are not a Republican-supporter, you are a Republican. We do not ask "are you a Democrat supporter?"; we ask "are you a Democrat?". In other words, your party affiliation is seen as an integral part of your identity. We say "I am a Republican" much in the same way we say "I am a woman" or "I am a teacher" or "I am a mother of 4 children". In essence, we are implying that our party affiliation is as much a part of our identity as our gender, our profession, and our motherhood. This has dangerous implications for political dialogue. If we conflate party affiliation with identity, we begin to interpret arguments against our party as attacks on our person; political jabs become personal insults. This means people are more likely to react emotionally and be hurt personally in political arguments. This contributes to the vitriol and animosity that is suffocating partisan dialogue today.

Here is my suggestion: we often treat politics in the same way we treat sports. In fact, CNN's own President has admitted that CNN's political panels are modeled after ESPN's sports panels. Van Jones argues with pundits over politics, the same way Shaq and Kenny Smith argue over basketball. Instead of Cleveland vs Warriors, it's Republicans vs Democrats. In CNN President’s own words, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way”. The Republicans and Democrats are two teams, battling on the political playing field, scoring votes instead of points, landing seats instead of titles, managed by Speakers and Whips instead of coaches and trainers. All one needs to do is watch any of the promotional ads for the recent presidential debates. Complete with dramatic music, black and white slow motion clips of candidates staring intensely into the camera, a montage of both candidates talking shit about each is virtually identical to UFC promos before fights. Don't believe me? Watch this.

But if we insist on treating politics like sports, why not treat voters like sports fans? You never ask someone "Are you a Boston Celtic?". You say "Are you a Celtics fan?". And when someone says your team is garbage, you might be a little upset, but you don't interpret them as saying "you are a horrible person". And in fact, if we talked about politics the same way we talked about sports (i.e. actually comparing stats to objectively determine who's player/team was better, watching the rankings and games with peaked interest, meticulously keeping track of players' records, flicking through old highlight footage in an attempt to understand the dynamics and strategy of the team, watching post-game interviews to understand each player's views and ideas, and getting together with friends to watch competitions), we would be a more engaged society and political discourse would be thriving. If we are going to let the news media turn politics into a sports spectacle, we might as well embrace the positive aspects of it, as well.

The Trump Issue

The current administration is waging a war against democracy, and in this effort, is seeking to undermine one of democracy's core tenets: free speech. After President Trump was elected, disillusioned voters gathered online to organize inauguration-day protests. was one of the online forums used by these protesters. In the aftermath of these political protests, the Department of Justice has launched a formal investigation and has issued a warrant, demanding that hand over all information. This information would include the IP addresses of all 1.4 million people who visited the site. In effect, it would allow the DoJ to develop a comprehensive list of all the site's visitors, the exact location of the exact computer from which these people accessed the website, the time at which they accessed the website, etc. Essentially, it is a list of political dissidents. The Department of Justice is gathering the information of all the people who protested against Trump. If this doesn't feel like an Orwellian attack on free speech and freedom of association, I suggest you read some Orwell, then Google the definition of free speech, then re-read what I just wrote. Let us not forget that a woman is currently being criminally charged for LAUGHING at the Attorney General's hearing. And we have a President who respects the right of white nationalists to protest, but does not respect the right of NFL players to kneel peacefully during the national anthem. This is the same President who discredits the free press on a daily basis and attempts to undermine the credibility of critical journalists by insisting their stories are full of lies. The same President who offered to pay the legal bills of anyone who would punch a protester at his rallies. The same President who said nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag, unless they are willing to serve jail time as punishment (for the record, I do not support burning the flag, but I do support people's right to do so), and the same President who said the press is the “enemy of the people”, and the same President who opposes net neutrality. It does not matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican (or, perhaps more appropriately, a Democrat-supporter or a Republican-supporter); if you care about our system of governance and value the power of dissent, you must be appalled by the President’s actions.


Indeed, free speech is under threat on all fronts. In our universities and across our nation, free speech is imperiled by corporate political power, private influence in our educational institutions, the conflation of party affiliation and personal identity, and the democracy-shattering actions of our current President. There are countless other threats to free speech that I have not yet mentioned. For example, much to the chagrin of my fellow liberals, I have not fully embraced all aspects of political correctness—PC culture (in its most extreme form) represents another threat to free speech, as it can prohibit the possibility of difficult dialogues. Yet another threat comes from social media—once hailed as a revolutionary platform for exchanging ideas, its algorithms now funnel users into political echo chambers and ideological silos where we only interact with people of similar opinions. Another threat comes in the form of our pro-growth economic mentality, which values GDP maximization over everything—it is this mentality that leads us to view science, engineering, and mathematics as noble, legitimate arts while we pejoratively dismiss the humanities as ‘soft sciences’; but without the humanities, there can be no understanding of politics, rights, freedoms, social responsibilities, justice, ethics, and all the other things which form the basis of civic engagement. Indeed, STEM in the absence of humanities produces a workforce of technical laborers, not conscious citizens and turns America into a factory rather than a democracy. It would be imprudent to tackle all of these additional threats at length, given that this blog has already exceeded the number of pages appropriate for a digestible online read. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there is no shortage of threats to free speech. Altogether, this highlights the needs for a Hackworth Fellowship and, more broadly, for free speech programs across the nation.

Oct 13, 2017

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