Let’s begin with a story. It’s been a rotten week on a personal level, and another heavy one for the world. The discourses I have been advancing on social media relate to Canadian “polite” racism, international racism, trans/non-binary-inclusivity, and the need for massive economic and institutional reforms to create a safer and more just world. And I suspect all readers here have a general sense of where I fall on all these issues… but perhaps many of you don’t know how much I try to push past my information silos, and listen to people who dissent from my points of view.
It’s upsetting work sometimes, of course. One acquaintance’s posts, for instance, give me insight into what anti-trans/NB groups say about people who hold that gender and sex are different–and it’s not pretty. Some on my “side” of these issues take the approach of blocking / excising anyone who doesn’t believe they should exist, and I absolutely don’t begrudge them the choice to protect their well-being (and sanity) by doing so.
However, my life as an atheist and as a humanist has been highly fortifying in this regard. For one, as an atheist, I have a lot of experience living and working alongside people I vehemently disagree with (and who vehemently disagree with my positions in turn); and for another, as a humanist, I strive to think about ways other than exclusion to improve a society with some 7.8 billion different perspectives. It’s not work I recommend for everyone, but if you’ve the stomach for it, living firmly in your own identities among those who hold different beliefs is one of the most productive ways (according to the research) of changing others’ points of view.
Did I always have the stomach for this work? Good grief, no. I used to be so afraid to share personal IDs, to say nothing of thoughts on Big Issues, that my hands would tremble as I wrote, and again if I received hostile response. I’ve already mentioned here how my first run-in with online trans rights activists and radical feminists (as the latter were called a decade or so back) was a heated affair, with rampant toxicity on both sides–but there have been plenty of other skirmishes in the interim. Even when I started with Patheos, I was overcome by nerves when first receiving bursts of hostility, too.
And then… something happened.
I stopped being afraid of sharing dissenting points of view.
I only realized this, though, once I encountered someone else’s fear of dissent — and specifically, their fear of reprisal for dissent. Which is why, today, I’d like to talk about a critical strategy for overcoming that fear of being “cancelled”:
Namely, by leaning into healthier communities of dissent.
The Backdrop: Fear of Reprisal
Last week, I listened to a friend articulate their fears around U.S. protests. I listened to them criticize public-health officials’ endorsements of the protests as sheer political theatre. (And I disagreed with them that there was only one coherent public-policy determination to be made from the epidemiology data and its demographic breakdowns.) I also listened to them highlight other examples–university resignations over mocking students; the tanking of companies over top-employees’ racism–of what they regarded as an illustration of the thought-police making power grabs in ways as bad or worse than the existing paradigm. I heard them express fear that they would be forced to think and act a certain way, or pilloried for the slightest deviation from activist groupthink.
And while listening, I was struck most of all by how differently my friend and I were reading the same information. When I saw articles in major publications expressing concerns about striking a balance between justice movements and, say, COVID protections and individual agency… I saw the articles’ very existence as proof of a thriving cultural debate. How endangered could a dissenting perspective be if it was being championed in the pages of The Atlantic?
But my friend sees it differently. And I don’t want to get into the specifics of their dissent because I don’t want to misrepresent their point of view–but I do want to reflect on that fear of dissent: why my friend has it, that is, and why I don’t.
Is it because I think I have a perfect record that would withstand the scrutiny of a heated mob of internet strangers?
Or because my ideas are so perfectly in lock-step with the general tide that I’m 100% safe from reproach?
Of course not.
But I think I’ve been helped by a more routine practice of dissent over these last few years–and that has made all the difference, with respect to managing my fear of what might happen if and when I run afoul of dominant points of view.
Personal Sites of Dissent
To be clear about some of my sites of dissent, even as I am firmly ensconced in many left-leaning communities, I don’t at all agree with every activist direction taken by them. I suspect my last essay made this somewhat clear, as I differentiated between progressivism and humanism, but here are a few more examples:
1) I am a queer person who thinks “born this way” is an awful, essentialist slogan, and possibly the worst we could have possibly rallied behind to advance the right for everyone to be safe in their skin and communities.
2) I am feminized person who thinks “believe women” and gendered STEM toys for tots are simplistic to a dangerous fault. I want an activism in which children are never made to check their gender before engaging in educational activities, and one in which we seek restorative justice by tearing down our reliance on adversarial courts, not by placing women on an entirely inhuman pillar as unimpeachable truth-tellers.
3) I also feel that the catch-phrase “rape culture” is hopelessly myopic and incoherent. We need to be thinking about the broader “entitlement culture” that sickens every branch of our society, and which includes how the state teaches entitlement to male bodies for war; the taking of life through the death penalty; the brutalization and murder of male persons, too, for social deviancy; and the use of whole other states and their peoples for economic gain. Until all of us are free from this overarching social contract, none of us is safe from its consequences.
4) And as a writer? I think demographic-specific content calls are an inferior means to achieve fuller inclusivity in the literary canon, and I won’t participate in them. If a contest or publication is looking for writing only from, say, feminized persons or queer persons, I won’t submit to it.
5) Lastly, being non-binary (a.k.a. I have no inner gender identity), I also deeply dissent from the rhetoric of gender advanced in, say, children’s books by teen trans authors — even as I am so proud of the young authors themselves, for telling the stories of their lives in the way that feels truest to them. It breaks my heart, that is, to read books where a child needs to disclose their inner identity in order to get, say, a haircut, or be able to wear a different set of clothes. I look forward to a world where stories of trans experience don’t need to recapitulate the parents’/communities’ reductive notions of what gender looks like in the world, just for a person to feel safe in their skin.
In short, then… I disagree with a lot of the major bullet points in left-leaning discourse, at least as it’s presented on social media. And yet, I’m not afraid of saying any of these things in my communities. How is that possible?
Well, it’s all about framing.
It’s about knowing what we really talk about when we talk about “speech.”
Dissent as Power, Terrible Power
When did we start to align the notion of “speech” with “monologue” — or worse, “diatribe”? I suspect there’s a full essay to be written just on that curious accord. And yet, on some level we have to know that when we speak it’s always as part of a discourse community: a dialectic involving the tremendous, wondrous messiness of cultural give-and-take. Some folks assert that they are for a position. Others, that they are not. Debate–and democracy, and literature, and the construction of societal history–then ensue!
Some communities, of course, find themselves more deeply entrenched on one side of the dialectic. That’s part of the reason I emphatically outline what secular humanism can be, as a practice distinct from the declaration of one’s atheism. Online atheist communities are, of course, full of dissent. So many sites here, even, are built around a simple principle: Listen to what religious communities are saying, highlight the inanities therein, and write an incisive 500-800 words tearing into them for their absurdity, often with a generous helping of outrage that such persons are allowed anywhere near the voting booth or public office.
(Humanism, conversely, can rally persons across the religious/nonreligious spectrum to advance coherent public-policy debate based on an informed reading of a fuller range of empirical data, from human behavioural sciences and history as much as from evolutionary theory, geology, and cosmology, so as to improve overall human outcomes.)
And plenty of folks, probably including my friend, are similarly used to giving dissent in other spheres, too: spheres, that is, where dissent involves wielding slices of empirical data against statements made from a place of vague feeling and abstract assertion. Spheres where dissent feels as good as fact, and cannot be contested.
Dissent, in other words, is often treated in our culture less as an integral part of constructive discourse, and more as a way of leveraging power over others. It’s often treated as the act of identifying a status quo and seeking to destroy it for personal gain. And considering how merciless many people can be about their own practice of dissent, especially in those spheres where they feel most comfortable articulating it… of course many are going to look at someone else’s dissent (when it has the immense groundswell of, say, the Black Lives Matter movement right now), and tremble a touch, worried about the consequences for their “free speech” and “free association” down the line.
Because to many, this groundswell is power. Someone else’s power. And for those who know how much said power can be used over others… perhaps because they’ve used it in similar fashions themselves… concern is only natural.
It is, however, also exhaustingly destructive, and unnecessary.
What Makes for Healthy Dissent
Here’s a reframing tool, then, that I’d like to extend to you from my own practice.
It’s almost bafflingly simple, but wow, is it ever difficult to implement consistently.
Yes, I hold all the opinions I do — about lousy slogans and campaigns, about activism that I find counterintuitive, about narratives that I find completely antithetical to my own experience of the world — firmly, and openly.
But I also identify the people whose overarching aims, whose aspirational quests with their different points of view, slogans, activism, and narratives, are more or less the same… and I lean in to our similarities.
I strive to build consensus, that is — knowing full well that consensus is not the same as universal agreement. (How could one ever hope for universal agreement?)
I look for the people who also want to live in a more just society, even if they’re using different means to get there. I look for the people who emphatically state that treating every human being as born with equal dignity, and as deserving of every opportunity to grow from their experiences, should be a top societal concern.
And then I speak not only of my own opinions, but also about the discursive landscape in which I utter them. I am 100% clear, that is, about how differing perspectives share space in the conversation of our cultural moment. I am 100% clear, too, that I am not threatened by other people’s points of view, nor of other people’s disagreements from experience sets I can never possibly know as well as my own.
For instance: I don’t think demographic-specific submissions calls are an ideal path to justice within my writing communities, so I don’t submit to them — but I also don’t criticize those who do, let alone the magazines themselves for doing what they think is right to achieve our shared aims. I celebrate, rather, people acting on a similar desire to see a more just world, and I encourage more people to act with these aims in mind.
Will our activisms one day converge? Maybe!
But what matters more is that we defuse this notion of dissent as power — power to attack, power to oppress, power to destroy — and return it to the much more constructive domain of… simple affirmation that our shared cultural conversation is going strong.
The Obvious Caveat
The key to this strategy, of course, lies in identifying who shares one’s overarching aims, and how far one needs to deviate from normative discursive practice to lose my support in pursuit of those aims. For instance, someone who thinks that assassination is necessary to achieve social justice… in my books has lost the thread.
(I also think the death penalty is too swift and useless a punishment for the Hitlers of the world, and that the murdering of tyrants is merely the offering up of scapegoats when whole systems were complicit in these crimes, so the argument-from-genocidal-dictators won’t sway me on this accord.)
And so this is where, as a humanist, my firm divide between existential humanism and nihilism comes into play. Religious and secular nihilists alike are not interested in human dignity. They have no interest in improving humanity’s lot on whole — either because they have bought into the idea that humanity is deplorable and deserving of suffering; or because they see no point to caring about others during their fleeting time alive.
When I dissent from them, I dissent firmly and openly… and I do not seek common ground, even as I hope that by example I can live in such a way as to make them doubt their philosophies, given time. I do not try to find a middle-ground with those who see only some (if any) human lives as of value.
But with everyone else… anyone with whom I see that shared aspirations exist… I highlight our shared goals, and honour others’ efforts to achieve the same. I celebrate the industrious nature in my fellow human beings, and when I speak plainly of how some forms of industry seem counterproductive to me, I don’t do so in a way that strives to attack, shame, or otherwise drive persons from the collaborative landscape.
And in this way, I find it far easier to keep the conversation open, inclusive, and strong.
Yeah, Okay, But…
So, what happens if others don’t feel the same, and they call me out for a view I hold? Accuse me of acts of hatred toward other members of the shared discourse? Can’t stand that I’m not on board with their forms of activism?
Simple. I hold firm to what matters most: our shared aspirations. I listen to the rest of the landscape. I take seriously the charge of communal harm that someone has bothered to take the time and mental energy to lay before me. I thank them for engaging with me in it, because the sheer fact of engagement is itself a sign that I am still seen as part of that community, with a set of responsibilities to the whole.
What happens next depends, of course, on the nature of that charge — after all, maybe I am in the wrong! Maybe I have a massive discursive growth-spurt ahead of me!
But I am not afraid of those moments of correction. Not anymore. Not now that I have made a conscious effort to refuse to see dissent as intrinsically a site of adversarial combat, and for the wielding of power over others.
Seen instead as part of a conversation as dynamic and messy as the humans who inhabit it, how can we afford not to practise more — and better — forms of dissent? When we treat “speech” as a thriving discourse of multitudinous voices — never perfectly aligned, but at least imperfectly striving in the same direction — collaborative dissent becomes an essential part (if not the most essential part) of keeping our movements going strong.