THE RIGHT TO DISSENT by Jack Shallcrass

Jack Shallcrass died on the 13 August, 2014 at the age of 91. Many years earlier in 1965 – he was 42 and I 21 – he spoke at the University of Curious Cove.  His lecture, ‘The Right to Dissent’ greatly influenced my thinking. Its themes of the central role of dissent in a civilised society remain as significant four decades on – even though the context may have changed. As a tribute to Jack I reproduce the lecture as published in the proceedings of that Congress.


Keywords: Education; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;


When I agreed to speak on this subject, I had in mind a more or less impassioned attack on those pressures which inhibit dissent in our society – such things as the increasing demands for conformity, not only within societies but between them; the ever present and often deadening mass media; the widespread fear of being, or appearing to be, different; the need of the young, and the not so young, to retreat into socially pointless rebellion; the relentless growth of one-party government throughout the world, and the depressing sameness of the parties in two-party states; the politicians who ask us to defend and admire democracy and all its values, but deny certain political parties, in particular the Communist Party, access to radio and television during the elections. We should also note the increasing tendency for Cabinet rather than Parliament to make decisions and the incidence of rule by decree.


Free speech used to be advocated on the ground that free discussion would lead to the victory of the most worthy opinion. This belief appears to be losing ground, because of the effect of the many fears which beset us. The result is that truth is one thing, and official truth another. This is a first and most important step on the road to Orwell’s ‘double talk’ and ‘double think’. The forms of free speech and dissent are preserved, but the organs of publicity are open only to the orthodox.


We seem to accept as necessary the security police in our midst. These people, in default of any ready-made spies, spend their time in seeking out and providing information on those whose opinions vary markedly from the accepted. Worse, they do this in secret, so that the person being investigated is seldom, if ever, in a position to answer any charges or allegations made against him. It would be interesting to know how many secret files there are on citizens of this country – files which are used to determine whether or not they may travel, to where they may travel, and whether or not they are considered fit to hold certain positions in the community. The men who gather the information for these files are in the enviable legal position of being judge, jury, prosecutor and, executioner.


We must also note the power of the police, and their increasing efficiency in the daily defence of the establishment. This is to be applauded, except where the power appears to be misused. Even a cursory reading of the Ward case in Britain would indicate. how seriously such power and efficiency may sometimes be prostituted. Someone had to pay for the Profumo affair and Ward was the fall guy.


Think also of the tyranny of the organisations to which. we belong, which increasingly control and determine our actions; the growing number who have professional behaviour clauses; ‘the good union man’ who is in much the same position as the person forced to be ‘the good organisation man’. Whyte’s book, The Organisation Man, is vividly illuminating reading in this area. Along with the power of the organisation grows the power of the official – an official not always trained in or aware of, the obligations of this position. ‘Perhaps the motto of the organisations and of the organisational society should be ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’ – for this is the recurrent demand placed upon those who sail in it.

I had thought to base my talk on some of these factors, and on John Stuart Mill’s rinsing assertion that ‘if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person sera of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than if he had the power would be justified in silencing mankind … we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion: and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still’.


Clearly we offend against this in many respects, and if we treasure our right to be heard then we must accord that right to ,every other person. If it is correct for us to deny any person or section of the community any right, then by change of circumstance it would be correct in denying them to us. But all these things are only the symptoms of our ills and I am more concerned with the causes.


Despite our shortcomings, however, it is, I believe, true that liberty of opinion, the right of dissent, is the basic principle of political and legal institutions in the West. We may not always observe this principle, but it is clearly built into our institutions, but it will remain only so long as we insist that it shall by practising it.


But unfortunately there now seems to be a marked lack of passion or conviction about this basic assumption. It appears to havebecome a habit rather than a conviction, a fossil rather than a living organism. When one talks of freedom of opinion, liberty, the right of dissent, the most common response is a slight embarrassment. One’s friends talk soothingly, as though to a demented child, or, worse, say, ‘Oh yes – but of course we must be realistic.’ God preserve me from the realists, for they always do the greatest harm to their fellows, and eventually to themselves. It’s almost as though we have begun to doubt the validity of many of our renaissance and post-renaissance beliefs – as though we are beginning to doubt ourselves as individuals, and to edge back towards or rush frantically from the sheltering womb of the tribe.


This is in direct contrast to the optimism and confidence of the 19th century, which was very sure of itself and its values. It not only had a long line of brilliant scientific discovery which culminated in the reassuring pledge of perpetuity given by Darwin and Spencer, but even God seemed clearly on the side of liberalism and progress. Though the 20th century does have an afterglow of this confidence in socialism and communism, even they appear to have doubts as this century ages – we seem to be waiting for new thought, for new ways ahead – unsure of where we stand, or where to go. Our world, in many respects, is one of doubt.


Jung said, ‘Along the great highroads of the world everything seems desolate and worn’. Kehler: ‘Everything is in flux, everything open to question. Everything is involved in perpetual change and dissolution.’ Tillich: ‘The anxiety in present western civilisation is similar to the mental climate of Europe during the decline and fall of Rome and the waning of the Middle Ages.’ ‘We feel as though history has slipped from our hands and that the world is being borne on by a great wave.’


We think of Eliot’s Hollow Men, of Grosz’s Stick Men, and Capek’s Engineer Prokop, of Ionesco’s Individual seeking to preserve the dignity of self in a world of stampeding rhinoceroses; of Camus, who sees man’s future like that of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll back again, in a journey without arrival; and of Sartre, Pinter, and Eliot, who see us trapped in our individualism, unable to communicate with our fellows, or to think beyond our on immediate needs; and finally Erich Fromm, who sees us as having escaped the most obvious restraints of the mediaeval world, but also as having lost its beliefs without adequate replacement. This has given us a great deal of personal freedom, but we have been unable to develop the social, political and economic institutions necessary to growing ‘individuation’, or the recognition of the responsibility which grows in direct proportion to individual freedom. He sees us as being individuals and societies without a cause or sense of purpose. This was ‘one of the cries of the angry young men of postwar Britain – ‘there are no more causes’. This is the society which John Betjeman described as a cotton wool society – no bones, no skeleton, no point.


In spite of these opinions it was fashionable in some quarters during the middle 1900s to talk about the Second Elizabethan Age, as though the name itself would bring back the glory. Such talk was a wistful echo of the greatness of our imperial and artistic past, but in a different and more important sense there is a great deal of truth in the parallel. The Elizabethans were poised between a mediaeval corporate experience, and modern individualism, while we appear to be reversing the pattern because of an electronic technology which would seem to render individualism obsolete and to make some sort of corporate interdependence mandatory. The printed word which arrived as part of the renaissance was one of the prime factors in the growth of our attitudes to the individual – a person and a book meant a complete break with the past, where a book had been read aloud by the teacher to his scholars. Printing gave all individuals access to books, as individuals. But the electronic age and the mass media is taking us away from the printed traditions back to an oral tradition. It is possible now for the bulk of the human race to share the same experience at the same time, through television – and literacy is insignificant in this sharing. All extensions of our senses – the alphabet, the radio, television etc. – are closed systems. They cannot translate from one to the other. Only our consciousness can do this. But in the electric age the instantaneous nature of communication is a critical factor, because it has brought us to a world-wide sharing of experience similar to tribal communication.


The consequences of this are not easy to see, except that there seems little doubt that there will be inevitable development towards corporate societies, that we will have to develop many new institutions as a result and that there will be even greater pressures on us to conformity.


This is why I think we pay only lip service to the right of dissent, and why we lack passion and conviction about it. We are in a twilight period when the past is becoming blurred and the future as yet has no clearly defined outline. We therefore doubt the old truths, but, having none to replace them, we hold to them from force of habit. This is why freedom of opinion and general political liberty may be the late flowering of a declining capitalist society. Our democratic freedoms have grown out of the fight for economic freedom in a growing laissez-faire capitalism just as most principles have grown out of expedience. There is a real danger that the freedoms will disappear as the faces which produced them decay. This is why we may already be an interesting museum piece.


But principles are no less sacred because they may be near the end of their universal acceptance. ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions, and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes the civilised man from the barbarian.’ The principle of dissent is well founded in tradition, but there are even more pressing reasons for it in the contemporary world, despite the possible changes already referred to.


The first of these concerns you, now, and will concern you more as you grow older. This is the principle of academic freedom, which is no more than the duty to protect the right of heresy. Freedom for the expression of someone’s wrong idea secures freedom for the expression of my right idea. Error is essential to the finding of truth. What we know depends equally on knowing what is and what is not the case. Hence, the futility of enforced orthodoxy – for we can only know if its view is right if we also know other views. Thus civil liberties exist only insofar as they are lived, and academic freedom is the frontier of civil and all other liberties.


It was Nietzsche who said that intellectual courage is shown not by forming certain convictions, but by being prepared to test them – truth is an endless process. This is doubly true in a world committed to science, because science is more than anything else an attitude of mind which doubts everything until it is proven, and is always willing to change in the face of new evidence. It recognises and works from the principle of uncertainty and believes, therefore, that all facts, all opinion, and all evidence, must be heard.


Freedom of opinion in politics is analogous to this scepticism in science, and acts in the same way, fermenting change. It is for this reason that the established tend to fear and choke freedom of opinion and dissent, because change may well mean the end of their brief moment of truth and power, and here we are back to our problem of avenues of dissent.


Throughout much of the liberal era, or perhaps one could even say the renaissance era, we have thought of the individual as being the basic unit of society, and have tried to define his rights. Thus, in the more blatantly individualistic societies, there has been much reverence for. the sort of rugged individualism which happily, now appears to be going out of political and social fashion. But people still think of, and talk about. the individual and his rights – and seldom about his obligations. One of the great capitalist development was clearly the sort of rugged individualism typified by the Carnegies and Billy the Kid – the only obligations they had were to themselves. But it seems very clear. to me that rights must always carry, at least an equal proportion of obligations.


We in the West are prone to think that individuals can have no rights or no freedom, in a corporate society, whereas it is clear that there are many societies which demand much from their members but give a great deal in return. Further, we too often confuse the form for the substance. Thus, there are many who vote once every three or four years and think they have rights and freedom – but the vote without the accompanying acceptance of social and political obligations is an empty gift. We are chasing a shadow so long as we pursue rights for purely selfish ends.


Perhaps the gravest political and social irresponsibility is the expression of one’s own will and the pursuit of one’s own ends without reference to the problem facing the sovereign community. I also believe that international responsibility may be measured between communities in the same way.


We are to a degree political romantics in that we seek ready-made formulae and the easy answer. As always, we run the risk of measuring by the obvious – by such things as the vote, the number of political parties, what the laws may say – and while these are of vital importance the strength of a community can eventually be measured only by the commitment of the people in it to the things in which they believe.


Man only seems able to escape this sort of selfishness, however, if he can see a greater purpose. In the past this has ranged from divine to imperial purposes. Perhaps our biggest single problem is our lack of purpose. We are against many things but what are we for? Our ‘anti’ foreign policy leads us into odd situations and gives us some strange allies.


The theory of democracy has always carried the clear implication of what political scientists call ‘the natural light’. This I take to be a guiding sense of good, which may be absolute. Where this has been present the forms of the society have been guided to a central point, causing the various forces of the community to converge and to produce a pattern within which the members found security. But if the natural light disappears or weakens, there is in theory a very real danger that the forces of the community will pursue their independent paths and diverge, producing dissociation and eventual chaos.


There are people who doubt the ability of the liberal democracies to maintain themselves, because their natural light is a waning force. Perhaps the dominant factor in modern Western history is the decline of religious faith in the West, for with this decline goes the loss of form and pattern and the increasing possibility of dissociation and divergence. This is what Sartre has called ‘the modern tragedy’, and why he says that what is wanted is a new fight.


The same tendency to divergence and chaos is of course present in the physical world. The second law of thermodynamics is concerned with the natural tendency of systems to move from states of order to states of disorder. This is known as entropy. Man, however, has succeeded in bringing large areas of local order out of this chaos. Perhaps this is what prompted Teilihard de Chardin to declare that evolution had now produced in man an intelligence which is great enough to give future evolution a conscious guiding hand, that man is now capable of taking command of the torrent of biological evolution which has produced him, and of directing the flow where he will. This could perhaps be summed up in what has been called the thermodynamic imperative, which is that man should always fight to increase order.


The Hedonist, who seeks only pleasure, says ‘jump on the entropy wagon and enjoy the ride’. But the man conscious of the responsibilities of his intelligence says, ‘I must work to create order and pattern’. Civilisations have grown in proportion to their success in challenging their environments and creating order. Just as the artist brings order and pattern to emotional experience, political man must bring it to his social and political life.


I find it difficult to understand how the Hedonist and the rugged individualist can live only for themselves and their moment of time, and not be moved and excited by man’s present position on the crest of the evolutionary wave, with the intelligence to see from whence he came and the ability to determine where he may go.


This is possible only if human intelligence and the tools it has created are fully used, and, most important, it can only be done by open minded men prepared to try and test all possibilities. This requires the, freest exchange of ideas and opinions and we have few discernible institutions to ensure this.


There are many questions which remain. Just how far can a community tolerate differing shades of opinion and belief? Is there a limit? Can’ we live without the natural light, and still retain some of the democratic virtues? Can we, as a race, live in a pointless and purposeless universe and still find something in which we can believe? Are our minds sufficiently flexible, or can they be made so, to be able to live in a world where nothing is sure, except that nothing is sure? Can we accept the responsibilities of our intelligence and create order, or must we continue jumping on the entropy bandwagon and rushing madly on like latter day Garderene swine? Can we bring ourselves to accept the scientific attitude in daily life, or are we still socially and personally so immature that our lives must continue to be largely consumed by hate, prejudice, and fear?


I think that we have almost reached the stage, and in certain communities we have already reached it, where it is possible for man to free himself from the productive machine and to begin developing himself as a person and not as a were producer and consumer. This being so, we must drastically revise the content and aims of our education systems which are still to some extent based on the thinking of a static world, and to a considerable extent on the needs and thinking of a commercial world. We may need to think much more of what happens to the human mind, and much less about the volume of facts we can cram into it.


Whether one’s answers to my questions are pessimistic or optimistic, it seems clear to me that very great changes are taking place at such a rate that we can only sense them, and one of the few things that I am sure about is that we must develop institutions and attitudes which will utilise the resources of the human mind to keep pace with them, and this means all human minds. I am equally certain that one of the few ways in which our minds keep alert is by having constantly to sharpen themselves on other and different minds. For this reason alone, the right to dissent is one ofour most precious gifts.


Bertrand Russell said that when he was at University there were men more intelligent than he, but where they gave up when they left university he thrived on contention and his mind has continued to grow. This is the most important single duty of education and of all those who would be educated – to keep growing.


It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, ‘I think it is required of a man that he should share the action and passion of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived’. The action and passion of our times is clear – keep on speaking out not just for sake of speaking but because you have something to say and you may then be judged to have lived.


But on balance I am rather pessimistic about it all. Though I think that in theory enlightened, independent and responsible citizenry has great influence; and while I have much faith in the possibilities of education, I am deeply impressed by the power of the ‘establishment’ to sustain itself through its immense and growing authority and its control of the mass media which enables us to isolate or eliminate contrary views. How to control this, how to see that the scientific attitude is. observed at all levels, how to see that the right to dissent is preserved is perhaps our insoluble problem.