Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):


And a little destructive criticism from 1959….


Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.


A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…


Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.





12 comments on “Dissent, controversy, & opinion

  1. wanto Esq III says:

    I am not sure that I understand dissent as discourse. It seems to me that discussion is an effort to understand through exchange but that dissent assumes an understanding has already been reached and the dissenters wish to attack that understanding.

    In other words, a dissenter assumes that sufficient discourse has already taken place and that in the event the time has come for action


    • Richard, I agree that perhaps dissent assumes that the time has come for action; but I don’t agree that dissenters wish to attack an understanding. Logical dissenters–and, let’s face it, illogical dissenters because that’s what so many of us turn out to be–wish to express their disagreement with the accepted norm, and perhaps to question and to challenge the accepted norm. A norm is not an “understanding.” It is an assumption or a culturally-accepted behavior or belief, and society may indeed benefit from some challenges to its perceived necessity, truth, or purpose. Dissent can therefore engender discourse.


      • swantsays says:


        How is the dissent offensive going?

        While I am not sure you would want to hear the more serious thoughts I have on the subject, if you are actively pursuing this thread in the classroom I think using the Supreme Court as an example might stimulate the conversation.

        Here, in the highest judicial body of a nation governed by the popular rule of law, we see that “dissent” is mandatory.

        Except in the rare instance of a unanimous decision, those justices that do not agree with the majority decision are required to present their dissent in writing. Therefore, every decision must include a dissent.

        In this event, dissent merely means “minority”. If one justice changes its mind, the dissent can immediately be transformed and now becomes the prevailing opinion from which others can now dissent.

        This view shows dissent in a very mild light; as nothing more than a mere difference of opinion. It functions in this context as a consequent subset of the larger philosophy of “majority rules” and does not suggest a dangerous or difficult path.

        I am sure that you and I share the same view of dissent as a vital element of a free society.
        I am not sure that the above example will be helpful to you in convincing your students to speak out, but it may provide a healthy point of departure while the more serious problems attending dissent await further developments.


      • Class starts Thursday. We shall see.

        I’m not sure we will get all the way through Sunstein’s text, but he does use SCOTUS as one of his examples. Amazingly, despite the stereotype of the rebellious young adult, most freshman students are a bit hesitant to dissent in class (they are wild to do so once out of the classroom doors!). They suspect I might be playing some kind of trick on them, though they learn that I am sincere as the semester goes on.


      • swantsays says:

        what class are you teaching?


      • Basic composition.


  2. Sigrun says:

    Interesting! Looking forward to hear how the students react.


  3. “No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.” -Barbara Ehrenreich


  4. […] method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of […]


  5. […] make a good example of the theory that people tend to do what they think others are doing (see this post for more on conformity and dissent). Which may include not doing what others are not doing, such as going to the […]


  6. […] long it takes to influence large communities and which methods are most likely to be successful. Cass Sunstein notes that most legislation officially becomes the law of the land after the majority of citizens […]


  7. […] book I teach in my freshman composition class, Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent, synthesizes with the election season and with Canetti. Pack behavior, herd behavior, individuality […]



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