Wednesday, September 08, 2004

On Dissent

Battles in the ‘culture war’ are often fought and sometimes won on linguistic ground. Linguistic hijacking is a tried-and-true tactic, one sometimes found on the Right, but more often on the Left: a term whose natural habitat is some neutral semantic space is hijacked and piloted toward a Left Coast semantic subspace.

Today’s example is ‘dissent.’ It has two senses, one broad, the other narrow. In its broad usage, to dissent is to withhold assent, or else to differ in opinion. These are not the same, since if I withhold assent from your opinion about X, it does not follow that I hold a different opinion about X: I may suspend judgment by holding no opinion about X. In its narrow usage, to dissent is to withhold assent from the majority opinion, or else to oppose the majority opinion. After all, dissensus is the opposite of consensus, and the consensus is the opinion of the majority. Therefore, strictly speaking, one can dissent only from the majority view. But in most contexts there is no need to be so punctilious.

So much for the verb, ‘to dissent.’ The noun ‘dissent’ applies to dissenting beliefs, i.e., beliefs held by dissenters. It is obvious that the broad/narrow distinction lately explained applies here as well. A dissenting belief or opinion in the broad sense is one opposed to some other belief or opinion. A dissenting belief in the narrow sense is one opposed to some belief held by the majority.

Now the main point to be made is that, whether taken broadly or narrowly, the noun ‘dissent’ cannot be used legitimately to name some independently specified set of beliefs, such as leftist or liberal beliefs. The noun ‘dissent’ cannot be defined extensionally, where an extensional definition of a term is a definition whose definiens is a list of the things to which the term applies. Compare ‘dissent’ with ‘novelist.’ ‘Novelist’ can be defined both intensionally and extensionally. An intensional definition might run: A novelist is an artist who writes prose works of literary fiction the length of which is the greatest of works in the prose fiction genre. Or something like that. (Exercise: look for a counterexample!) An extensional definition of ‘novelist’ would proceed by listing novelists: Kerouac, Pynchon, Bellow, Updike, Gardner. . . . But there is no list of beliefs that could extensionally define ‘dissent’ or ‘dissenting beliefs’ in the way ‘novelist’ can be defined. One can define ‘dissent’ only intensionally: A dissenting belief is one that opposes some other belief, usually the majority belief.
The punch line is that liberals and leftists must not be allowed to use ‘dissent’ to name only their beliefs, thereby abusing a perfectly good word. The same applies to such words as ‘criticism’ and ‘critical.’ There is nothing in the term ‘criticism’ to require that criticism be directed only against the status quo, or those in power. Those who are out of power, but desirous of it, are as open to criticism as anyone. For the members of the Frankfurter Schule to refer to their doctrine as Kritische Theorie is as tendentious and question-begging as it would be for a particular school of thought such as Logical Positivism to refer to its doctrines as philosophy.

Dissent is a good thing and we need more of it. We need dissent against professional activists and agitators; against the fetishizers of dissent; against those who allege that consent is manufactured, as opposed to arising spontaneously by the individual exercise of good judgment; against those who value diversity to the detriment of unity; against those who prefer the BSA (Balkanized States of America) to the USA; against the identity politicians; against the cultural relativists, und so weiter.