Invaluable dissenters in troubled democracies

What is the value of freedom of speech and dissent in a democracy today, and how does it affect the very pillars of this system of governance? These are difficult questions, often leaving us with no answers. T.T. Ram Mohan navigates these tensions in his book:

 We don’t like dissenting voices and we don’t like to express dissent. Authority, in particular, doesn’t like to be questioned or challenged. And people don’t like to challenge or question authority because they know there’s a price to be paid for doing so. We are exhorted by wise men and women to ‘stand up for what is right’ and ‘speak truth to fear’. We are careful not to heed these exhortations. Our survival instincts tell us otherwise. It’s far more rewarding to stay quiet, nod assent or, better still, practice unabashed sycophancy.

 In recent years, we have heard a great deal in India about intolerance and the supposed muffling of dissent on the part of the present government. Governments everywhere do try to stifle or manage dissent in varying degrees and in different ways. But the situation is not very different in other spheres of life, such as the corporate world, the bureaucracy, non-government organizations or even academia.

This is truly a sad state of affairs. Dissent is invaluable. We need dissent, whether in government or in the other institutions of society, in order to ensure accountability of those in authority. Dissent is also vital for generating ideas and solving problems. It is only through the clash of ideas that the best solutions emerge. Herd mentality or ‘group think’, as it is now called, is the surest recipe for mediocrity and underperformance. Institutions must be designed to protect and foster dissent.

Since dissent is all too rare, it’s worth celebrating dissenters. In this book, I profile seven of them from different walks of life. The personalities I have chosen are not necessarily the most famous or the most effective dissenters. The American linguist and intellectual, Noam Chomsky, would have easily qualified. So would the economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. But these are celebrities whose ideas are quite well known. I have chosen to write about individuals whose dissenting ideas may not be known to many. Ideally, I would have liked to meet the individuals in person or at least interview them over the Net. Alas, I had no luck, except with Kancha Ilaiah.

I have not attempted to be comprehensive in my treatment of these personalities and, indeed, lay no claim to being familiar with all of their works. They are all so prolific that whole books could be written about them. Rather, I have focused on some of their works or themes just to capture the flavor of their dissent.

In what ways are these dissenters questioning the mainstream view? What challenges have they mounted to the establishment? How have they managed to shape public perceptions on important issues? These are the questions I have attempted to answer. The impact the dissenters in this book have had is quite modest. Roy has been able to influence policy on large dams and the rehabilitation of displaced individuals. Stone has contributed to the anti-war sentiment in the US and to the conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy. Ilaiah has raised awareness of the inequities in the Hindu order but hasn’t had much luck in stopping the Hindutva juggernaut. U.G. Krishnamurti has got people thinking seriously about spirituality and the pursuit of enlightenment. Varoufakis languishes on the margins of European politics. Irving is a virtual pariah amongst historians and in the mainstream media. Pilger’s journalism thrives mostly on the Net. 

The value of these dissenters is to be judged by positing the counterfactual: If it were not for the likes of them, how would the establishment have behaved? These individuals may not have been able to change the dominant narrative. But they have, at times, been able to apply the brakes on it. That is a valuable contribution.

With the possible exception of Irving, the dissenters in this book have been professionally and financially successful. This suggests that despite the hostility of the establishment, there is room in the market economy for dissent of high quality. Indeed, as I note later, it is the celebrity status of these dissenters that acts as a protective charm and keeps them from being trampled on. The moral in today’s world seems to be that if you want to express serious dissent, make sure that you are rich and famous enough to be able to afford it.

Rebels With a Cause does the difficult work of explaining the real value of dissent, and therefore, a democracy. Read it here.