Written By Rishima Mall, Red & Black Contributing Writer
Dissent at its simplest is an act of disagreement. I may choose to dissent in my English class when I share a differing interpretation of a poem. However, even at its simplest, dissent is a choice that humans must actively make. I actively choose to dissent after considering all possibilities and potential consequences, because I have confidence in my truth.
Dissent is not synonymous with protest. It is when dissent evolves from an act of disagreement to an act of defiance does it give birth to protest, revolution, and social change.
Dissent in the context of protest and social change is the choice to defy. It may be the choice to go against the social norm of the day, to rebel against what we perceive as oppression, or to simply make a statement about society. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was better known as “the Great Dissenter” for her scorching legal dissents. She was not a protester or activist in the strictest sense of the word. She was simply firm in her beliefs and did not hesitate to express them. Her dissents could have stayed as acts of simple disagreement with her fellow justices, but due to the manner and time period in which it was expressed, her legal dissents became words of defiance and inspiration for liberal advocacy.
The right to dissent is crucial to maintaining a free society, where everyone’s voices are heard. But more often than not, it is when we do not have the right to dissent that an act of dissent truly becomes powerful.
Many disagreed or dissented with Jim Crow segregation. But why was it Rosa Park’s “dissent” that sparked a protest, a movement across a nation? The laws of her time did not grant Rosa Parks the right to express her dissent to her white bus driver or the cops that came to arrest her, and yet she dissented. Rosa Park’s dissent was not just an expression of her difference in opinion. It was an expression of that disagreement in direct defiance to the Jim Crow society and the Government that set off Montgomery Bus Boycotts. One act of dissent – in this case, Park’s – can launch a movement that has the ability to change the social fabric of an entire nation.
When we watch the news about the war in Ukraine, it is the singular acts of Ukrainian dissent, defiance, and protest that truly capture our attention, rather than the military battles. It is by hearing the individual stories of Ukrainian defiance in the face of oppression do we affirm our faith in the cause of Ukrainian freedom. The Ukrainian soldier on Snake Island who responded to calls for surrender with the message “Russian warship go F***k yourself” lost the battle, but his one act of defiance continues to inspire the Ukrainian people, as well the millions protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His single act of dissent has become a rallying cry for the cause of Ukrainian freedom.
Ultimately, while dissent has the power to invigorate and inspire protest, it is only a continued and sustained protest that has the power to result in tangible change just as we saw with the Civil Rights Movement which spanned decades, or the Ukrainian Resistance which continues to remain strong.
Protest is the expression of dissent. Protest is the fruit of dissent, and channels the emotion of that dissent. When a Tunisian shopkeeper chose to self-immolate himself, it was his final and only act of defiance or dissent against a regime that had humiliated him and robbed him of everything. However, his final act of defiance spoke to the frustration of the people and galvanized them to act against their government. His act of self-immolation inspired nationwide protests triggering a revolution, and ultimately incited the Arab Spring. However, Tunisia had been under an autocracy for decades prior to his death, so why did one man’s death change everything?
"Ultimately, while dissent has the power to invigorate and inspire protest, it is only a continued and sustained protest that has the power to result in tangible change"
It is a fact that humans are not comfortable with change. Society will remain satisfied with the status quo until that one individual decides enough is enough, and are willing to face the consequences of expressing of their defiance. Only then will society protest as a whole, and only then can we achieve true social change.
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