12 WHY SOCIETIES NEED DISSENT

Shifts, Shocks, and Law

We should not lament social influences or wish them away. Often they do a great deal of good; they are a prime source of civilized behavior. Much of the time, people do better when they take close account of what others do. Especially if we lack information of our own, we might do best to follow the crowd. Social cohesion is important, and nonconformity or dissent can undermine cohesion. But social influences threaten, much of the time, to lead individuals and institutions in the wrong directions. Dissent can be an important corrective; many groups and institutions have too little of it.28

As we shall see, conformists are free-riders, benefiting from the actions of others without adding anything of their own. To say the least, it is tempting to free-ride. By contrast, dissenters often confer benefits on others, offering information and ideas from which the community gains a great deal. For society, the problem is that potential dissenters often have little incentive to speak out, simply because they would gain nothing from dissenting. As we have seen, they might be punished, sometimes (like Farag Fouda) even killed. Successful groups and organizations need to find ways to reward them.

Consider the fact that when groups become caught up in hatred and violence, it is usually not because of economic deprivation or primordial suspicions; it is more often a product of the informational and reputational influences discussed here." Indeed, unjustified extremism frequently results from a "crippled epistemology," in the form of exposure to a small subset of relevant information, coming mostly from other extremists." But countless people have a crippled epistemology, and similar processes occur in less dramatic forms. Many large-scale shifts within legislatures, bureaucracies, and courts are best explained by reference to social influences. Sometimes a legislature suddenly shows concern for some neglected problem-for example, hazardous waste dumps, domestic abuse, or corporate misconduct. Such sudden concern is often a

13

INTRODUCTION: CONFORMITY AND DISSENT

product of conformity effects, not of real engagement with the problem.

There is a further point. With modest differences in events and circumstances, otherwise similar groups can be led, by social pressures, to dramatically different beliefs and actions. When societies differ or experience large-scale changes over time, the reason often lies in small and sometimes elusive factors. Citizens of France are not much exercised about nuclear power-a serious source of concern in the United States-but not because of large cultural differences between the two nations. It is only because French President Charles DeGaulle, unlike his American counterparts, made a strong commitment to nuclear power. When people identify themselves in ethnic terms, or see themselves as an "us" opposed to some "them," it is usually because of social influences that might well have gone in the other direction.

It follows that many apparently large differences, among societies and over time, have little to do with culture at all. As we shall see, things could easily have been otherwise; and with the right push, major differences can dissipate in a surprisingly short period.