Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On the contrary

In many instances, a contrary opinion is always unpopular. Sometimes it is much easier to be nice and to desist from all critical dissent, or to shun debate at all.

To dissent or to differ, while unpopular, can have a valid purpose. For example, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the U.S. Supreme Court allowed “separate but equal” facilities for black and white Americans, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said that “the Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Justice Harlan’s dissent was not an attempt to change the court’s majority decision, but to arouse public opinion against the majority decision of the court. In 1954, Justice Harlan was vindicated by the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education which unanimously rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine and ruled that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal.

Other famous contrarians like Galileo, Einstein, George Orwell, or the leading lights of the suffragist movement and abolitionists of slavery had dissented from prevailing social norms, and their works continue to be relevant in contemporary society. Those who opposed the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies had enlightened many of us about an unpopular and unjust war. The same thing can be said about the Iraq war, maybe five years down the road.

To dissent or to offer a contrary opinion helps clarify issues and prevents ourselves from being too complacent with the attraction of prevailing values, norms or decisions that oftentimes becomes the most convenient or safe choice for us to take. The smugness of the idea of an absolute truth paralyzes the mind to explore options and, to a degree, stifles creativity. There is a huge market of ideas, from right to left, or all around us. Whether an idea can hold up under scrutiny depends on a lengthy and rigorous process of scepticism and criticism.

Just because it is unpopular does not mean that dissent should be avoided or abhorred. Dissent is vital to the examination of opinions; it is the other important side of dialogue. Aristotle, for example, introduced us to a dialectical discussion of opinions and had shown us how the conflict of two opinions might be resolved through this process. There are always pros and cons to an argument: both are equally important in making the ultimate decision as to what is right and what is not. One side cannot be summarily dismissed without examining its merit over the other. Only after a very thorough and critical examination can we be secure in taking sides.

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