The right of dissent, or, if you prefer, the right to be wrong, is surely fundamental to the existence of a democratic society. That’s the right that went first in every nation that stumbled down the trail toward totalitarianism.”
― Edward R. Murrow
There is rather a lot of dissent happening in Canada these days as more and more Canadians stand up for the things that are important to them, things they believe necessary to democracy. This article began as a comment I made in the Montreal Gazette about the Printemps 2015 anti-austerity dissent currently underway in Quebec.
People often complain about protesters. A protest march or a picket line might impede our ability to get where we are going or even to make a living. Dissent can be inconvenient. Dissent can be annoying. And yet, dissent is crucial to democracy.
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”
The most famous and admired examples of dissent inconvenienced a lot of people. Because without dissent, there is no possibility of change. In 1960 the black Americans who occupied the Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro affected workers trying to make a living by occupying the space and preventing their business from being done.
Mahatma Gandhi chose to challenge the British Government in India so many of his actions were equally illegal. He certainly irritated and annoyed a lot of people, ordinary people who were no doubt prevented from getting where they were going, or maybe going to work; people happy with, or maybe just resigned to the status quo. And, of course, the British occupiers.
The point of dissent is to affect the general population, because the point is to achieve change that the people in power — whether schools, businesses, society or governments have resisted making. If the public has been complacent and allowed the perpetuation of the injustice, dissenters believe it necessary to wake it up.
An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Dissent is the physical or intellectual realization of opposition to a prevailing idea or entity that the dissenters strongly disagree with. You might not agree with what they are doing, you might not agree that whatever they are challenging is unjust, but they do. In the 1960’s, the Americans who believed racial segregation was both important and necessary very strongly disagreed with the young people who challenged the idea. Indeed, the very idea of a black President was unthinkable at the time. But the young people persisted, sometimes breaking laws and being arrested, jailed and even killed, but they succeeded in their goal, and so the idea of racial segregation is neither prevalent nor openly practised.
Sometimes dissent stays within the law, but if change is summarily dismissed, if the manifestation of dissent is ignored, sometimes dissent strays into the realm of civil disobedience, particularly when lawful means of protest fail to raise the attention of the public to help make the change the dissenters are looking for.
Around the world suffragettes embarrassed and inconvenienced a lot of people. Sometimes breaking laws, sometimes even risking their lives and liberty. But they persisted, in the face of societal opposition, even from other women. But the prevailing idea that women were the property of men was overturned. And so today Canadian women are legal persons who even have the right to vote in elections.
Window-breaking, when Englishmen do it, is regarded as honest expression of political opinion. Window-breaking, when Englishwomen do it, is treated as a crime.”
― Emmeline Pankhurst
And yet one persons rights end where another’s begin. This is why dissenters who cross the line into illegal behaviour risk legal consequences. Some suffragettes held hunger strikes while incarcerated, because the idea they were trying to change was that important to them. Even today when environmentalists chain themselves to fences, they are aware they may be arrested and/or incarcerated. Even today when protesters gather in protests, they are aware they are risking physical harm.
Benjamin Franklin advised, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority” and Martin Luther King counselled his followers that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And yet here in Canada, our right to dissent is threatened by Bill C-51. In spite of cross Canada protest, and cross party objections, the Harper Government has chosen to proceed with Bill C-51, a law which will surely suppress both free speech and dissent.
And dissent is crucial to democracy.
Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
― Frederick Douglass