(Online Course) Essay Writing Skills Improvement Programme: Democracy Implies Tolerance of Dissent

Democracy Implies Tolerance of Dissent

‘Democracy’ literally means ‘rule by the demos’ in the ancient Greek word. The term ‘demos’ is generally translated as ‘the people’ and the ‘people’ implies the whole population, particularly the adult population, of a tribe, a territory or a country. The entire population or the collectivity obviously comprises a multitude of indi­viduals as units. It is well-known that no two individuals in a collectivity, mechanical or organic, can be alike, as their needs and aspirations differ even as their physical and mental compositions differ. Naturally, their views, notions, beliefs and habits are not similar and yet the concept and practice of and the rule of/by the people, however disparate, is very much in existence.

Human societies are held together by something more than convenience, calculation or the threat of punishment. There is certainly something in a state’s constitution, especially in democratic states, that is permanent, never to be questioned, and that political institutions must protect and preserve. A democratic constitution is in fact far more than a writing on a piece of paper. It envisages cultural and moral loyalty to certain values. This kind of loyalty or feelings of faithfulness consists in an explicit commitment to the basic ideals that the law of the state incorporates. The power of this meta-juridical ethos reflects on the manner in which procedures work and citizens interact in their daily lives. This principle is the sovereignty of the individual, of each individual, and resulting in the sovereignity of individual political judgment. In practice, by ‘the people’ we mean the majority of the people. As such, in a democracy, whatever the majority decides is carried out by the entire population. This, however, does not mean that the majority is entitled to lord it over the minority. Rather, democracy thrives only on the willing co-operation of the minority and on the protection guaranteed to the rights and freedoms, and tolerance of, if not agreement with, the views and beliefs of the minorities. It leaves much scope for dissent, i.e., there may be people who think differently from official ideas or the ideas of the majority. Dissent is not necessarily a negative concept; it offers an alternative to the prevailing ideas, institutions and system, and exists even in non-democratic systems.

The views of Boris Yeltsin were at one time expressive of dissent from the dominant and established socialist principles in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There was always a dissenting voice against the monarchical form of government in Nepal. In a healthy, working democracy, the voice of the minority is given a full hearing, even if decision is by the majority. Debate and discussion not only clear the air, but also help to bring about a compromise. There is a certain amount of accommodation of even, opposing viewpoints.
Should the positive phenomenon of dissent be sup­pressed, there would be resentment and growing anger. Frustration would lead to a revolt against the established system. And finally there might be a revolution, involving great violence, bloodshed and destruction of all sorts. It is, therefore, better to tolerate expression of dissent, which would provide a ventilation of the different views and pent-up feelings, in the larger interests of democratic set­up. Extremes of dissent can, however, cause havoc in any system, more so in a democracy. As such, it has always been advocated to fix a permissive limit of dissent. In a democracy, people enjoy various kinds of freedom: of economic pursuit, belief (political, religious and others), expression, association, etc. But these freedoms of an individual or group of people are not permitted to cause injury to another individual or the collectivity, or to adversely affect the social or national fabric, Fascism cannot be allowed to take roots, although some people may be tempted to support it on the grounds of dissent or as an alternative system. For if democracy is for the people, dissent that goes against the people in general must he checked. One of the vulnerable aspects of democracy is that its liberality can be taken advantage of by those very people who, in the end, subvert the system by suppressing the voice of dissent if it goes against them.

In the political arena, one can witness dissent on two levels-intra-party and inter-party. Intra-party dissent im­plies that though the party has a corpus of rules and discipline and a particular modus operandi, some party members may put dissenting notes to some of the provisions or may not agree with the style of functioning of the leadership. This dissent has to be accommodated by the leadership, otherwise the party will have an authoritarian image amongst the masses, or may split. At the same time, the dissent should be expressed only on the party platform, not publicly, otherwise the party will be weakened. Simi­larly, democracy permits the establishment and continua­tion of political parties of various hues and views. If the strong suppress the weak, there will come a time when a one-party rule under a dictator would be established. Thus, the democratic structure will collapse. Whenever the po­litical parties in India showed an intolerance of dissent, they themselves broke up or the people were forced to experi­ence a bitter bout of authoritarianism. The Congress Party broke several times (1969,1977) and the authoritarian emergency ruled the country during 1975-77. The dissent in the Congress Party today is appropriately contained because of tolerance. The existence of various parties like Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party Dal, the Communist parties and other national and regional parties clearly manifest the requisite tolerance of different points of view.

People in a democracy have freedom of vocation and economic pursuit to earn their livelihood. And this results in various vocations. Here, too, dissent may appear, more specifically regarding the macro-economic policy. For ex­ample, some may advocate liberalisation, others mixed economy or capitalism while yet others support nationalisation and the socialistic approach. All the dissent­ing views have to be tolerated and given a hearing, even if not entirely accommodated within the official view. It is respect for opposing viewpoints that prompts ministers and official spokesmen to clarify or sometimes even modify policies and programmes, facilitating a wider plan of action. In a democratic society, one group or class may differ in its form and structure from the majority. But the majority should not interfere in that form or structure or resort to value judgements. As human nature has it, every form end composition of a social group is found comfortable by its members and any forcible attempt from outside to alter it would defeat the very objective of democracy. Should a particular group of Kerala or the North-East be asked to change its matrilineal form of family just because it does not conform with “mainstream” practice? Can democracy be valued if anyone tries to impose the social norms of one group upon other groups? ‘Live and let live’ is a basic principle of democracy.

Cultural diversity is a common phenomenon in almost every part of the world; India is no exception. A variety of religion, custom, food habits, dress-styles, languages, dance and other art forms, exists in India. Some of the cultural units are just microscopic minorities and may appear to others as awkward and ridiculous. But we can never hope to keep the national fabric intact by making fun of them. A temple, a mosque, a church and a gurudwara are equally sacred to the respective religions: one cannot stand or fall at the cost of another. Hence, in a democracy positive dissensions should always be tolerated. But the dissenters also should not try to impose themselves on others, that too by resorting to violent means, because that violates democratic norms. As democracy reflects the will and aspirations of the masses by projecting their arguments convincingly, the dissenters should also refrain from demagoguery. Only then can a healthy and true enjoyment of the freedom of expression one of the pillars of democracy-be possible. Given the nature and philosophy of democracy, we can infer that there is something wrong, something missing, in the society or a country that claims to be democratic, but in which dissent is conspicuous by its absence.

The constitutional morality of democratic society also establishes limits for tolerance, pluralism and freedom to dissent. In a constitutional democracy each individual is guaranteed the legal freedom to also challenge its fundamental principles. However, while the constitution defends the right to dissent, citizens and society must be able to and capable of developing civil sentiments that do not destroy the social fabric. Moral limitations of individual freedom and tolerance guaranteed by the democratic constitution are, or should be, intrinsic to the ethos pervading democracy itself. This ethos hinges on the individual as a primary asset and implies an essentially Socratic habit of the mind. At its centre there is the person, not simply as a rational agent moved by preferences, but as an individual who has the right to ask for explanations for the obedience owed to the laws of the state. It is no coincidence that democratic deliberative institutions are organised on the premise of free debate and training the public’s free will and judgement thanks to the free circulation of ideas and pluralism of information, and finally, through freedom of association and the right to express personal opinions. The democratic citizen, on whose vote the legitimacy of the entire political mechanism rests, is called upon to reason using his own brain (and to vote in solitude and as an individual), and associate with others to exchange information and opinions, to change his or her mind and then change it again, if necessary. Finally, the democratic citizen is also called upon to challenge those in power. Democratic deliberating institutions are basically organised so as to gradually educate citizens to understand that they can change their minds and give value to their right to question authorities and ask why they must obey or share or believe, as well as finally rendering accountable those who in their name govern or sit in parliament. 

The sovereignty of individual judgment is the principle that justifies democratic government that is government by debate and it is the fixed point (what people agree to hold “as sacred”) holding together democratic society. As a shared acknowledgement, it is beyond discussion. This is not simply a principle of private morality but a value that provides democracy with its own ethical specificity. Above all, it is not an abstract principle or a metaphysical rule, but is instead the gradual acquisition of civilisation, inherent to human history in its fundamentals and thus capable of becoming deeply rooted in the depths of the psyche as if becoming a moral garment or common sense. 

In democratic society the value of individuality acquires moral legitimacy and judicial codification because of the existence of relationships between individuals as relationships of equality between different people. It is expressed in an ethical form (as feelings of partiality and cooperation) and in a legal form (as the right to individual freedom and political and social equality). Together, these two aspects compose what can be called a democratic moral constitution. In a representative democracy, this moral constitution permeates and orients citizens’ deliberative competence, and simultaneously protects political and legal order from the illiberal inclinations of powerful and arrogant majorities as well as anti-egalitarian inclinations resulting from economic and corporative interests.

As one can easily sense, the individual’s sovereignty and dissent are inseparable within a democratic society. Not only or simply because dissent works in the anti-authoritarian sense or as the majority’s reaction to power; precisely because democratic ethics are of a Socratic kind, self-culture is a public and private virtue for individuals. Since democratic legitimacy is based on consensus (never to be confused with consensualism or conformism), autonomy of judgement and reciprocal respect of ideas, dissent is a constitutive virtue of democracy. Rather than corroding social ideals, as authoritarians and conservatives believe, it strengthens partiality and cooperation between citizens. A free public discussion and dissent strengthens the commitment and beliefs of individuals, because, as everyone knows only too well, we discuss and have a passion for the things we love and to which are linked by bonds deeper than rational assent and principles. Dissent reveals a fundamental loyalty to a country, a society or a community. Even a religious community founded on obedience to dogmas and the hierarchy not open to appeal of an interpretative authority, such as the Catholic Church, very probably prefers active and spiritually vivacious believers to those who are apathetic and passive. 

Dissent mitigates the tendency to cultural uniformity inherent to democratic society and strengthens acceptance of majority rule as a method for making decisions based on the acknowledgment of the equal fallibility of citizens. Having equal rights to review opinions and decisions is the same as acknowledging that no one is infallible and can therefore demand to have irrefutable opinions. It is no coincidence that Albert Hirschman defined the attitude of those attempting to “win an argument rather than... listening and discovering that one can at times learn something from others” as that of someone with a predisposition for authoritarian rather than democratic policies.

Instead, precisely because the measure of democracy lies in opinions and not in the truth, dissent is not an indication of subversion or disharmony; on the contrary it is a sign of humble acknowledgment that every decision can become the object of revision, even that which is accepted and voted by a vast majority. Democracy is the only form of government conceived so as to result in a constant process of amending laws or decisions taken without jeopardizing the stability of civil and legal order. Dissent is hence set within the decision-making process. It is one of its fundamental elements. One can therefore join John Stuart Mill in saying that “formidable evil” is not in “conflict ... between parts of the truth”, but instead in the “quiet suppression of half-truths.” Although the critics of democracy have often emphasised the conformist temptation of the political model, the principle of the individual’s sovereignty does not at all undersign an ideal of a harmonious society, but rather a society that learns how to regulate dissent without using force, using procedures for solving conflict through a free debate.

Go Back To Main Page