To what extent is dissent vital for the growth of societies?

Under the relentless heat of the Middle Eastern sun, a man set himself on fire in front of the government building. His intention – to draw attention to the dire financial situation of Tunisian food vendors. His silent dissent catalysed a series of large-scale uprisings – many of them violent – against the leaders of various governments in the Middle East, with the initial purpose of fighting for political reform and societal transformations. Indeed, a phoenix can only rise out of ashes. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many of these countries, with Egypt’s economic decline, then stagnation, and Yemen grappling with the horrors of the civil war. This essay, therefore, argues that dissent, for the most part, is not vital for the growth of societies, and may even lead societies into decline.

In the first place, dissent is extremely unlikely to allow the growth of societies when those in charge turn a blind eye to it. In today’s world, the majority of political and social transformations stem from the introduction or amendment of government policies and principles. For dissent to be essential for growth, it first has to be taken into consideration by policymakers. In Singapore, the annual Pink Dot rally – a manifestation of the criticism of Article 377A, which criminalises gay sex between two men – draws thousands each year, and is a diluted form of political dissent here, where demonstrations are heavily restricted. However, the government has refused to amend or remove the article, citing reasons such as ‘Singapore is not ready’. Thus, apathy of some governments towards dissent marginalises its capacity for social progress. Should the government notice, perhaps there would be a smaller degree of stigmatisation of gay men, especially among those who are more conservative, which translates into social progress of becoming a more accepting society. Thus, dissent cannot be vital for the growth of societies if it means nothing to the key change-makers – the government.

In addition, when dissidents lose sight of their initial purpose, dissent, instead of fuelling societal growth, can catalyse the downfall of societies. Much of political dissent manifests in the form of protests. However, when these protests turn disruptive – when protesters will stop at nothing to achieve their goals –  is when instability will be at its zenith. Currently, the Hong Kong protests have led to significant economic and social instability. A key event was the airport demonstrations, when hundreds of flights had to be cancelled, resulting in astronomical economic losses for Hong Kong, which they have not recovered from. As street protests continue, non-protesters are plagued with fear and paranoia of ending up injured, or worse, dead. When dissent is unrestricted in its severity, it has the potential of tipping societies over, down the slippery slope of decline. Indeed, the miniscule possibility of growth after decline still exists, but the chances are almost next to nothing. After all, this year’s protests shook Hong Kong, still reeling from the undercurrents of political dissent from the 2014 Umbrella Protests, and only time will tell if this dissent has led to any growth in the political, social or economic spheres. Thus, when dissent is uncontrolled, it is extremely difficult for it to fuel the growth of societies.

Furthermore, in the event that dissent is successful in promoting social progress, it is not the most important factor in determining the growth of societies in different realms. Progress can be measured by different indicators, and a common one used to determine a society’s economic growth is the change in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over time.  An essential factor for economic progress, especially for less economically developed countries, is international aid. For example, Ethiopia’s economy has grown 10% per year for the past decade, as it invests most of the international monetary aid it receives into its healthcare and education sectors, generating income and creating jobs. It is unlikely for dissent to be as successful as money itself in promoting economic growth, since it is known, instead, to disrupt economic progress. Therefore, for the economic realm, dissent is largely unnecessary and unimportant for progress.

Nevertheless, this essay acknowledges the power of dissent in notable societal events, when policies are changed and disruption to other aspects of society, like the economy, are kept to a minimum. First-wave feminism, better known as the Women’s Suffrage movement, was a form of dissent against the government’s policies on voting rights in the 20th century. Fortunately, the American government was malleable enough for the policy to be amended without any significant violence to be necessary, which would have disrupted the economy and society. However, it is still largely incorrect to say that dissent is vital for the growth of societies, since these successes are extremely limited. 

In a nutshell, it is predominantly idealistic to say that dissent is vital for the growth of societies, as its success in catalysing societal growth depends on many unpredictable factors. After all, dissent, if uncontrolled, is a beast loosed upon the world, and hopefully we are not foolish enough to allow it to manifest and ravage our lives. 

Chua Wei Ting (19-E3)