6 WHY SOCIETIES NEED DISSENT
The problem is that widespread conformity deprives the public
of information that it needs to have. Conformists follow others and silence themselves, without disclosing knowledge from which others would benefit. This was the problem with the invasion of the Bay of Pigs; it also produces large losses for members of investment clubs. Hans Christian Andersen's fable "The Emperor's New Clothes" is an ingenious illustration; because everyone follows everyone else, people do not reveal what their eyes plainly perceive. We shall shortly see that ordinary people in scientific experiments behave like the adults in Andersen's tale. When injustice, oppression, and mass violence are able to continue, it is almost always because good people are holding their tongues. For example, Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident, objects that amidst the immense cruelties of Arab governments in the 1990s, "the Arab intellectuals who could have made a difference if they had put their minds to it were silent. "12
There is an ironic point here, one that I shall stress throughout.
Conformists are often thought to be protective of social interests, keeping quiet for the sake of the group. By contrast, dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, embarking on projects of their own. But in an important sense, the opposite is closer to the truth. Much of the time, dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves. If people threaten to blow the whistle on wrongdoing or to disclose facts that contradict an emerging group consensus, they might well be punished. Perhaps they will lose their jobs, face ostracism, or at least have some difficult months.
Sometimes the risks are much higher. Nelson Mandela, one of the great political leaders of the modern era, spent decades in jail because of his opposition to the apartheid regime. Or consider the less well-known tale of Farag Fouda, an Egyptian journalist, critic of Islamic extremism, defender of religious toleration, and among the very first to warn about the dangers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. A week after publicly criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for restricting civil liberties, Fouda, himself a Muslim,
7 INTRODUCTION: CONFORMITY AND DISSENT
was shot to death by Muslim extremists.':' Fouda's work continues to inspire others to understanding and even action. But Fouda paid the ultimate personal price. Healthy societies reduce or even eliminate that price. To take just one example, American courts have forbidden employers from discharging employees who agree to assist the police in ferreting out crime within the company." These decisions are not an attempt to protect disloyal employees but to help the many people who benefit if corporate illegality is disclosed and punished.
I do not suggest that dissent is always helpful. Certainly we do not need to encourage would-be dissenters who are speaking nonsense. The honor roll of famous dissenters includes Galileo, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is a dishonor roll of dissenters, too, including many of history's monsters, such as Hitler, Lenin, defenders of American slavery, and Osama bin Laden. Let us define dissent to mean rejection of the views that most people hold. So defined, dissent cannot possibly be celebrated as such. Sometimes dissenters lead people in bad directions. And when conformists are doing the right thing, there is far less need for dissent. If scientists have reached the correct conclusions about global warming, pseudo-scientists do us no favors in pushing nutty theories of their own. But in many domains, we do not know whether we have converged on the right answer, and group influences might reduce potentially productive disagreement. The phenomenon of "political correctness" on college campuses-squelching those who reject left-wing orthodoxy-is an important and highly publicized illustration." But numerous groups and institutions have orthodoxies of their own, invisible to their members only because acceptance of those orthodoxies seems so widespread that it is taken for granted.
In welI-functioning societies, rights and institutions are designed to reduce the risks that accompany conformity. Freedom of speech is the most obvious example. But consider too the practice, within