Dissenting opinions a crucial component of democracy

Over the past week, tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists – largely students – have peacefully protested in Hong Kong. These protesters are expressing their disagreement with the recent Beijing decision that Hong Kong’s political candidates will have to pass approval of a Chinese-controlled nominating committee.

My intent with this column is not to offer my opinion on the reason for the protest. Instead, I want to applaud those activists for expressing their dissent. In a valiant effort to improve their country, these protesters are peacefully fighting against a decision that they think could potentially harm their nation.

I admire those protesters’ passion for their country, and want to encourage similar patriotic passion for those of us who call America home.

Though displaying the American flag outside of your home, saying the pledge of allegiance every day or even donning American-flag themed apparel are obvious demonstrations of patriotism, this particular form of patriotism – dissent – is often overlooked, or, worst yet, demoralized.

Thomas Jefferson, one of my favorite founding fathers, is often credited with declaring that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” indicating that disagreement is crucial to American democracy.

Though a quick online search reveals that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that this quotation originates with Thomas Jefferson, it is established that New York City Mayor John Lindsay used the phrase, and perhaps popularized it, in a speech he delivered at Columbia University in 1969 – an era filled with passionate dissent from multiple political decisions, such as the United State’s military involvement with Vietnam.

Constructive criticism is crucial; it fuels progress. This sentiment can be proved in distinct ways. For example, imagine the last peer-review or workshop you’ve endured as a student. What is the one of the least—helpful response your peers can offer you? Probably something along the lines of a short and shallow “Great job!” Even though your peer is complimenting your work, you know that your draft can be improved. You would have appreciated it if your peer offered their critical response, or really, anything that would give you something to work with.

Of course, the key word in the paragraph above is “constructive.” It is unhelpful, and somewhat annoying, to simply state a negative fact – even if that fact is true. What transforms a negative statement into a constructive critique is, at a minimum, specifically stating why you feel that way, and, preferably, offering a viable alternative. Further, statements backed by substantial thought and research and the willingness to act are the strongest kinds of constructive criticism.

As seemingly logical as this idea is, that being constructive often leads to improvement, I consistently meet resistance when challenging popular viewpoints, especially in the political realm. Often times, my opponents dismiss my arguments as unpatriotic. This leads me to be desperate to distinguish a few key, misleading terms commonly used in modern political debates.

I’ll begin with patriotism. This is an honorable concept, and it generally means showing one’s devotion to their country in some outward way. This demonstration can be in any way one chooses, whether it’s serving in the military or celebrating the Fourth of July. Further, patriotism also entails a willingness to defend one’s country in a time of necessity.

I enjoy being patriotic, and I recognize that patriotism is an essential glue that unites citizens together to sustain a country.

Thus, the backlash I receive from being critical of the United States is often not from those who are patriotic; instead, it is from those that are nationalistic.

Nationalism is closely related to patriotism, and the two are often muddled together, especially in colloquial use or in the media. However, nationalism is a sort of hyper-patriotism, and it generally entails believing one’s country is superior to others. This belief easily leads to arrogance, defensiveness and aggressive behavior to potential threats or countries deemed less superior.

Mark Twain captures the difference between these two concepts well, saying, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

Nationalistic mindsets, those that would blindly support the government whether they deserve it or not, are dangerous. Not only can it lead to overly aggressive behavior – which really leads to a whole other debate about imperialism and world policing – but it also leads to censorship, a defensive act that aims to shut down dissenting voices.

However, just like in all aspects of life, meaningfully dissenting from popular opinion allows for constructive conversations and change. The United States was built on dissent, by those puritans and later, patriots, who spoke up against oppressive religious and monarchial rule.

Courage is certainly required to dissent from popular opinion or from the government, as dissent is often met with accusatory claims of anti-patriotism. However, it is one of the greatest services one can offer their country, for thoughtful criticism and fair debate are the ultimate keys to progress.

State-run Chinese media consistently label Hong Kong’s political opposition “unpatriotic” – a condemnation they use in hopes of discrediting and silencing that opposition. But, that label couldn’t be more misguided. Hundreds of peaceful Hong Kong activists are injured and dozens are hospitalized or jailed for demonstrating, yet they continue to voice their dissent for the sake of their nation – resulting in a truly respectable example of patriotism.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 6th, 2014 and is filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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