On November 17, Dr. Barbara Falk of the Royal Military College of Canada gave a public lecture entitled, “Deliberating Dissent: From Fighting Words to Radical Action”.
It was an introduction to dissent as a mode of political engagement and the historical legacy of dissent. It addressed five questions: 1) What is dissent? 2) What is the relationship between dissent, legal protection for freedom of expression? 3) Why is dissent essential to democracy? 4) Is peaceful dissent more effective than violent dissent? 5) How is dissent different now than in the past?
Dissent is much more specific than resistance. Dissent is not only a differing of opinion, but also the intentional and public performance that makes dissent a political action.
It challenges the status quo and is motivated by a desire to see change. “I think people dissent the world over because they want to change something; they want to change our ideas, our minds, or our institutions,” said Falk.
Movements such as rights based campaigns (LGBTQ+, women’s rights, ending slavery) represent challenges to the status quo and oppressive structures. These dissenting movements are not limited to challenging the state or corporate institutions, but they can be directed at larger endemic social issues.
On the other hand, association with political dissent can represent the withdrawal of consent to the state’s authority by certain constituents. It is a mechanism for enforcing a group’s awareness and dissatisfaction with the political order. The state can be made vulnerable by these challenges to its authority.
Historically there have been numerous examples of dissenters being persecuted by the state. Falk discussed the Trial of Socrates as such an example for the state objecting to Socrates ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. The spread of ideas that challenge the status quo was and is often still deemed a risk to those in power.
Falk argues that it is essential for democratic societies to protect freedom of expression, as dissent is a mechanism for citizens to be fully engaged with politics.
“Effectively, dissent is a double-edged sword: it can enrich democracy but can also fundamentally undermine political order,” said Falk.
In Canada, freedom of expression was only recognized in 1982 with the passing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has had to be fought for in the House of Commons, in 2001, The Anti-Terrorism Act received pushback at the time and was amended to exclude lawful and unlawful dissent.
Falk argues that democracies require competition and debate to be successful. Dissent is one such mechanism for getting this result. And for those who are not politicians, it is an opportunity to engage with the process of political deliberation more to the point than simply voting once every few years.
Falk’s final point addressed the utility of contemporary technologies in dissent movements. The popularity of social media she said has potential as a medium for sharing information, and connecting dissenters transnationally. However, the speed of information can minimize the time needed for analysis to a fault. Falk said, “Greater access to information does not make us smarter: speed means less time for analysis, the Internet has generated as much falsehood.”
The tone was disarmingly hopeful in a space where students are often beaten down with the challenges of affecting change in society.
Peterborough has an active community of activists, and Falk’s advice for them is to learn from the long history of past dissenters, and to spend time on deliberation and analysis.
For those at the lecture, the running slideshow of images behind Dr Falk showed dissenters throughout history. Movements that consistently make the news even today, like the Berlin Wall, Arab Spring and Idle No More, were complemented with photos from lesser-known movements historically like The Weather Underground, and The Velvet Revolution.
In discussions after the lecture, attendees left with ideas for dissent movements to research and learn from.