Why Societies Need Dissent

Terrorism and other violence frequently is a consequence of intolerance for dissenting thoughts, according to Cass R. Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor whose analysis concludes that suppression of dissent can result in the absence of facts and other arguments—key factors in effective decision-making. Whether a dramatic debate about public policy or routine deliberations about mundane choices, dissent contributes to small groups and society at large, he writes. Groups of people do better if they cultivate diversity, openness, and even dissent. A truly free society prohibits censorship and enables free expression to occur, continues Sunstein, who studies three phenomena of group dynamics: individuals’ desire to conform to groups, group decision- making, and the tendency for parts of groups to polarize.

Why Societies Need Dissent is somewhat academic, yet readable, blending legal judgments and common sense. Noting that consensus can mean conformity, it blasts “political correctness” and conformists themselves (which he dubs “free riders,” contributing far less than they benefit from society). Provocative in its own type of dissent, it is non- partisan—observing that both Democratic and Republican judges tend to drift to extremist rulings without the checks and balances of opposing opinions.

Dissenters, whether federal jurists or conscientious members of PTAs, are those who resist the pressures to go along at some risk to themselves, Sunstein adds. Their insights can be useful, even vital. He concludes that it is in society’s best interest to discourage conformity and rigidity, and to promote opinions and ideas.