The lone voice of dissent- finding your voice and using it when others remain silent.
Being the lone voice of dissent can be challenging and uncomfortable. Like the grain of dust that through friction produces a pearl, discomfort almost always accompanies acts of courage.
Dissent begins with discomfort
I know the personal cost of suppression of that inner discomfort that may make you the lone voice of dissent. At two different points in my career, I was called upon to make a choice- loyalty or dissent. In the first case, I chose loyalty which turned out to be misplaced. In the second I chose to speak out and as a consequence had to leave my job in order to remain true to my values.
Cultivate the habit of listening to the discomforts that arise within you when the things being said and done around you violate your sense of what is right. Learn also to respect the lone dissenter in your team, family, community, group of friends. This is a hallmark of courageous self-leadership and leadership of others.
You may be aware of that famous experiment carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Following the horrors of the holocaust, which seemed to suggest that human beings have a natural tendency toward obedience i.e. are drawn toward compliance with those who are in positions of authority.
The context of the experiment was a ‘classroom’. Then a ‘teacher’ was instructed to administer an electric shock to an adult ‘learner’ if they failed to learn a list of words. The shock was fake but the teachers did not know this and followed the instruction even when the shocks were high enough to cause considerable pain. They were not under any external threat or duress either. The results caused a considerable shock at the time and remain controversial.
However, the most important conclusion from this research is that there are mental/emotional habits we can nurture in order to counteract this tendency.
Develop these 4 Protective Habits
- Question the authority’s legitimacy: Just because someone has a role does not make them fit to be followed. The importance and power of ‘followership’ are being emphasised as the symbiotic other of leadership. One cannot exist without the other. Leaders only have impunity if we give it to them.
- Follow your moral compass: Act on your sense of what is right even when you appear to be in a minority. When given an instruction that makes you uncomfortable ask yourself “Is this something I would do on my own initiative?” The answer may well be “No,” because, according to Milgram, moral considerations inform actions that arise from our own will but morals are suspended when we only act in accordance with external commands.
- Don’t give ignore those nagging doubts: Pay attention to even the smallest persistent, nagging doubts. Letting small things go leads to bigger things getting through your moral threshold later. Acquiescence to the commands of a person in authority that are only mildly objectionable is often, as in Milgram’s experiments, the beginning of a step-by-step, escalating process of entrapment. The farther one moves along the continuum of increasingly destructive acts, the harder it is to extract oneself from the commanding authority’s grip because to do so is to confront the fact that the earlier acts of compliance were wrong.
- Find allies: If you are part of a group that has been instructed to carry out actions you find go against your moral grain. Find an ally in the group who shares your perceptions and is willing to join you in opposing the status quo. If this is not possible look for allies beyond the immediate situation and context. Draw on the inspiration of those who you respect and admire, past or present.
It is tremendously difficult to be a lone dissenter. Not only because of the strong human need to belong but also because via the process called pluralistic ignorance – we feel that those who are complying must be in the know about something we must be missing. Therefore, the compliance of others makes the action seem acceptable and leads you to question your own doubts.
In one of Milgram’s experiments, the subject was one of a 3-person teaching team. The other two were allies who refused to continue shocking the victim. Their defiance had a liberating influence on the subjects so that only 10% of them ended up giving the maximum shock.
Now more than ever we need the courage to stand up and be heard.
Where have you been the lone voice of dissent? Do you suppress your inner dissenting voice? Can you hear any lone dissenting voice around you?