A multitude of voices | Pakistan Today

A multitude of voices

Dissent is a powerful tool – if Pakistani lawmakers realise it

In the year 1919, the case of Abrams v. United States came before the US Supreme Court. The said case challenged the convictions of five men of Russian origin, who were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 on the charge of instigating and mustering resistance against the war efforts of USA. Although the Apex court sustained the conviction, one judge – Oliver Wendell Holmes – disagreed with the majority decision and left a dissenting opinion. Initially, the dissenting opinion received strong nation-wide condemnation (as it was against the popular public opinion), nevertheless, after some years and till now, Holmes’s dissenting opinion is hailed as a monument to liberty. Holmes wrote:  “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas, the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get it accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

A quick glance at the world’s history reflects that one thing was common among Socrates, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther (Protestant Reformer), Huey Newton, Galileo Galilei, Martin Luther King Jr (Afro-American activist), John Locke, Margaret Sanger, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara,  i.e.: they all were dissidents. History is replete with instances of dissent bringing forth revolutionary (positive) changes in a society, it  was dissent which, reformed the Arabian Peninsula, led to Independence of United States, ended apartheid in South Africa, brought an end to colonial rule in subcontinent, instigated French Revolution, introduced Magna Carta and ended slavery and racial segregation in USA. Furthermore, dissent has profoundly contributed towards intellectual and scientific development of the world, it was dissent which, located sun at the centre of the universe, pioneered the science of genetics, invented Einstein’s cosmological constant.

The Greek intellectual giant and philosopher, Aristotle, found beauty and balance in diversity, not unity.  Aristotle theorised that an effort to create a state whose citizens are similar might create deep conflicts and divisions within the society. Aristotle’s diversity doctrine, if interpreted in the context of dissent, would mean that unity of thought and ideas adversely affect the growth of scientific, intellectual, legal and political institutions in a society, as diversity brings forth dissenting views which act as a catalyst in the development of a society.

Dissent has played a significant role in reforming in reforming American society. In Brown v. Board of Education 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously adumbrated that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars the states from denying equal protection of the laws to any person within their jurisdiction. This landmark decision in a way over-ruled the decision of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson 1896, wherein the court upheld racial segregation laws for public facilities on the touch stone of Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court gave a completely different verdict after 58 years solely due to the reason that powerful dissenting voices (particularly of Martin Luther) in the 20th century created a powerful public opinion against racial segregation, which inspired the Judges to unanimously rule out racism in public schools.

Dissent, to a great extent, embodies the Idea of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is specifically designed to protect the weak and vulnerable, as the rich and powerful don’t need the government to grant them such rights. It’s not the majority that normally dissents against the ruling elite rather it’s the minority whose unpopular idea needs protection. Therefore, in order to protect their voices, civilised and genuinely democratic societies have constitutionally guarded the right to dissent by introducing the fundamental right of “freedom of expression” in their respective constitutions (for instance, the First Amendment to the Constitution of USA).  Such a right also exists in the constitutions of Pakistan and India; however, due to our weak and decayed institutions, practical manifestation of this right has yet to be seen.

In his book, “Why Societies Need Dissent”, Cass Sunstein averred “Nations are far more likely to prosper, if they welcome dissent and promote openness”. As per his theorisation, those sitting in higher echelons (including but not limited to presidents and lawmakers) are more prone to blunder if they don’t develop and promote a culture of dissent and open discussions within their organisations. He further argues that a free and tolerant society not only forbids the suppression of ideas, but also creates ample opportunities for dissidents to unearth covert truths, expose popular myths and denounce rampant injustices.

The conformists – who oppose dissidents and portray them as egotistical and treacherous – are, in reality, free-riders, selfish and the beneficiaries of the status quo. According to Sunstein, dissidents reject social barriers and perform priceless social functions, often put their own life in danger, they cannot be self-centered or egoists. Socrates death is a living example in front of us. In the year 399 B.C, Socrates was accused by the Athenian Government of corrupting young people with his teachings he was tried and found guilty. However, he was offered the option of abandoning his beliefs or drinking the cup of hemlock. He died eagerly for the principles he treasured. This is what I call a pure form of sacrifice for propagation of a just idea; and it was a dissident (Socrates) who sacrificed for the ultimate truth.

The problem of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan can be aptly evaluated on the yardstick of dissent. As per my humble understanding, extremism (including violence, intolerance and terrorism), often results from the failure to tolerate dissenting views, opinions and thoughts. Furthermore, Zia’s Regime inept policies have created a full crop of generation which considers ideas other than its own not only wrong but also wicked which deserve to be eliminated from the society. Lack of dissent is a major impediment towards attainment of a tolerant, peaceful and developed Pakistan.

The Military-Mullah nexus in the past (especially during the Zia regime) have killed the room for dissent in Pakistan. Anyone who questions the self righteousness, rigidness and vested interests of Mullahs in power is labeled an “infidel” and anyone who questions military’s role as guardian of our ideological boundaries is labeled as a traitor.

Those who dissent are not traitors or anti-national rather they are those people who stand against inequalities of wealth, unreasonable power structures and exploitation of the poor. Dissent is a precious phenomenon, it merits more recognition; it has inherent propensity to counter the injustices that have a habit of exploiting the vulnerable in weak societies.  Dissent normally succeeds in introducing reforms and producing a less unjust society; In addition to that, it satisfies an inherent human desire to be able to struggle for justice. Pakistan can develop at a rapid pace on all fronts, if we can build an environment where dissent is not only tolerated but also valued and encouraged.