In a democracy, the power of the people is transferred to the state. But, this power can be withdrawn, if individual rights are not protected.

In addition, in modern society, in one way or another, all social institutions function as government. (They govern the behavior of individuals.) Dissent therefore applies to every such institution.

The need for dissent derives from personal responsibility. If society’s leaders fail, we must confront them. We must force them to change, or remove them from power.

More broadly, dissent is linked to the idea that democracy is a forum of competing ideas. But, for this forum to function properly, and enable the selection of the best ideas, the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and association must be protected.

Dissent is essential in democracy. Social leaders must not only accept that it is required, they should actively and publicly encourage it. Leaders who do not do this, who only tolerate dissent, who view it as a necessary evil, do not really understand democracy.

Of course, government does have an innate tendency to quell dissent, which is not that difficult to understand. Dissent amounts to criticism, and no one likes to be criticized.

Any time a society has rebels the government should question why this is the case, rather than reflexively seek to eliminate them. It must not become defensive and engage in the repression of dissidents. We do not need to be protected from our social critics; instead, they are the forces that maintain vitality and prevent stagnation.

It is worth recalling that the best response to criticism is to acknowledge the complaint, and then take some time to think about it. Immediate reactions are almost always emotional, and generally do nothing to improve the situation.

Dissent manifests itself in different forms, from protest, to civil disobedience, to open revolution. The level of dissent in turn reflects the underlying motivation: the specific grievance that the people hold. Is it merely disagreement, over government policy, or are groups in the society subject to discrimination and repression?

For example, civil disobedience occurs when people take a stand against an unjust law, or the unjust application of a law. In such cases they feel compelled to challenge the law, and many people often get arrested as a result. Indeed, to accomplish change people have to get arrested; the law is too rigid to allow it otherwise. The perfect illustration of this was the civil rights movement in the United States. This clearly demonstrated that in an inflexible and intolerant society, nothing would change if change were not demanded, with this sacrifice.

Dissent in an organized sense is activism. The world has seen a huge increase in the number of activists and their related organizations, and this is an extremely positive development. More and more people are shaking off their complacency and instead working to improve things, including by holding society’s leaders to account.

The starting point of activism is ethics, since it is not a positive development if it does not rise above the ethics of those it seeks to change. In other words, the means of activism must be as ethically supportable as its ends.

The prerequisite for activism is that you must know your cause; specifically, what problem is your concern, why it is your concern, and how it needs to be addressed. In addition, your focus should be on costs, on who incurs, and who pays, social and environmental costs. Through such an emphasis, activists prioritize, by confronting those problems that represent the greatest costs, both present and potential (for instance, from global warming).

Dissent, when organized as activism, can create great pressure for change. This in turn commonly leads to a reaction from society, which itself can take many different forms.

Social institutions, particularly governments and corporations, but with the clear allegiance and connivance of the media, do their best to ridicule and demonize activists. For the first, activists are portrayed as the lunatic fringe, as radicals. But in response to this, we should consider how the definition of “radical” has changed. Thirty years ago supporting the earth – defending the environment – was considered radical. Now, it is accepted not only as normal, but necessary. The radicals of thirty years ago were actually visionaries.

In addition, activists are ignored. They are censored out of the public consciousness. But, if they succeed in getting their voices heard, against all institutional attempts to smother them, they are demonized. The public is told that activists are terrorists.

The reason for such extreme profiling is that it is used to justify police repression of dissent. As writer Andrew Rowell has noted, activists can be considered enemies of the state, rather than just protestors. They can be spied on, infiltrated, provoked to commit illegal acts, and suppressed with violence. In the worst cases, activists are arrested, on false charges, and even killed.

The people have a right to protest. It is unacceptable to limit this in any way, other than for truly criminal acts. For example, in some countries officials try to restrict demonstrations to “free speech” zones, as if freedom of expression were not a right but a government-granted privilege.

Dissent and activism incorporate the idea of reform, that social institutions, with proper motivation, can be convinced to change themselves. While this may hold in a democracy, it is insufficient in a dictatorship. To accomplish change in a dictatorship, to democracy, rebellion is required.

In concept, rebellion is simple. It means you will not do what you are told to do. In practice, though, it is always difficult. Rebels in conflict situations risk their lives, and their families, for their beliefs. Real rebellion requires that you take chances, and expose yourself to danger.

An additional factor that complicates things is that rebellion can also be false, or misdirected. In conflict situations false rebellion is rebellion meant only to achieve power, but which is presented as a fight for social justice. With victory, the rebels renounce their stated aims and instead become the next group of dictators. As for misdirected rebellion, this occurs when rebels undermine their ethical foundation by engaging in terrorism or by colluding with criminals. For instance, many of the individuals who fought colonial powers around the world, particularly in the decades following World War II, were false rebels. When their nations achieved independence they consolidated their power, often by using force against their former allies, and then established autocracies.

More than two billion people on the planet are the subjects of political dictatorship, and they are all being controlled with extreme measures up to and including violence. In some of these countries pacifism and non-violence will work, they will be effective against the violence and dictatorship, but in others they will not. In such cases the people must fight force with force, in other words, with armed revolution.

However, it is essential to recognize that violence is only justifiable in self-defense, and against clear and immediate threats. Many rebels do in fact become terrorists, when they ignore this prohibition. In such places as Israel and Palestine, society has degraded to such an extent that everyone on the opposing side, even anyone who just happens to be visiting the opposing side, is considered the enemy and an acceptable target. This extends to the elderly, children, and even tourists. There is no such thing as a non-combatant. In such places people, perhaps without even realizing it, come to accept the idea of collective guilt and collective punishment, which is perhaps as unethical as it is possible for humans to be.

This also illustrates that if you are trapped in a situation where you must rebel, it is essential to keep emotion out of it. Your rebellion may be driven by hate, or rage, over what has happened to you, over what people have done to you, but when you do rebel you should suppress these emotions. Guiding your rebellion with reason will make it much more likely to succeed, and much less likely to be misdirected.

© Roland O. Watson 2008