Former Republican Candidate for House District 35
Comments to City Council by Bruce Baker, Westminster City Council Member, September 12, 2016
American Society says we value difference, diversity and dissent, but it is hard to live up that claim. The very existence of difference and diversity can be viewed as dissent. Dissent, in any form, implies criticism. It is hard to hear. Hearing or seeing dissent can also be offensive to many.
However, don’t we have a better society when we live up to our values?
Three different events in the last two weeks reminded me of this challenge. While dissent is spoken aloud, difference and diversity are silent. They are shown or demonstrated. This silent dissent is a useful strategy when people in power have shut down the conversation.
Now I fully understand that it is awkward when society sees or hears dissent. Often there is an immediate and passionate response to the dissenters. The very raising of a dissenting voice implies guilt.
While dissent is fine in some philosophy or ethics class, in polite and respectful conversations there seems no place for dissent or disagreement. After all, our American Society and culture of today is exceptional. Criticism is at best ungrateful and can be, at worst, destructive.
We all acknowledge the wonderful legacy we have inherited. Some may say we stand at the very pinnacle of perfection and although useful in the past, we have no further need for dissent. Everyone acknowledges that our pilgrim forefathers and revolutionary leaders used dissent to expose, resist and defeat the tyranny of our English Overlords. It was the dissenting abolitionists that formed the unstoppable movement to remove slavery from our nation. It was the dissenting Progressives that led our country to reform labor laws, challenge monopolies and require pure food and drugs. It was dissenting women that led the way for an equal vote for everyone. It was dissenting blacks that led our society to value all our citizens.
Yes sir, we have reach the top. We are the greatest! Is there any reason for anyone to dissent anymore? Remember how dissent implies criticism? We have fixed all the problems. Anyone that suggests otherwise is obviously a “loser”, a malcontent or perhaps an agent of dark forces. What else would possess a person to launch such an insulting attack on America as to dissent?
It is ironic that in a nation that has benefitted so much from dissent that we have a hard time hearing dissent today. I thought we admired the great dissenting opinions from Supreme Court Justices. I find the dissents challenging the Dred Scott and Plessey versus Ferguson decisions to be admirable. I find the dissents by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and Antonin Scalia to be both valuable and thought provoking.
Furthermore, I find the thoughts of John Stuart Mill on this matter of dissent to be profound.
To Paraphrase him he said:
The evil that silencing dissent causes is that it robs the human race, both our generation and future generations. It hurts those people holding a dissenting opinion but it hurts people holding the majority opinion even more.
If the dissenting opinion is correct, we are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging truth for error. If the dissenting opinion is wrong, we are deprived of the benefit of a clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced from it’s collision with error.
So what are the three events that began this chain of thought?
The first event was Colin Kaepernick remaining seated. While the immediate reaction was hot and emotional, the following on reactions have been constructive. Teammates and other individuals within our Society listened to and considered what the silent act of Kaepernick expressed. It appears we may be able re-start a difficult conversation that continuously slips away from public discussion. And this will happen without the media screaming a lie, or black man perishing by the hand of law enforcement or a police officer’s murder. A silent act of different conduct that was recognized and considered.
The second event was the Remembering 9-11. If ever dissent was needed, the attack on 9-11-2001 is the issue. But no dissent was allowed. In the years following, nearly all dissenters to surface have been ridiculed or vilified, their questions excluded from public discussion. The only successful dissenters have been the surviving spouses of victims 9-11. Only they were able to express some dissent from the official story. And clearly, the results of America’s actions since 9-11 have made the world a worse place and put Americans more at risk. We have suffered losses to ourselves multiple times greater than we endured on 9-11. Worse, we have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our quest for revenge. The subject of 9-11 truly needs dissent.
The third event was the story of a stolen car and it’s recovery in Westminster. Well, not so much it’s recovery or it’s destruction, but more of our response to the situation. The City has already done a better job in resolving the situation, but the “dissent” to our policies, as heard on TV and radio, gives this Council the opportunity to consider ideas for improvement. In contrast to the first two events, this is something our Council can accomplish, something we can tweak.
And tweaking the policy is the right word. I do not consider this to be, in John Stuart Mill’s words “a clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced from it’s collision with error”. I see it as an exercise in running better city government.
We certainly don’t have to do anything. We can stand behind governmental immunity. You know ‘Life is rough” and “life is unfair.”
But why do that? Life is rough and life is unfair. Without government, big, strong, mean people would run everything, and quite unfairly. So that is why we have government, to take a little unfairness out of life. We have a “good neighbor policy” because fairness is important to us. Our city takes actions above and beyond what the law requires.
I also must say that I respect dissenters for the benefits they bring. Borrowing from Steven Shiffrin, Dissent fosters community or "engaged association" rather than atomistic individualism, because "dissenters seek converts and colleagues."
The reality that dissenters are often wrong should make it easier for us to hear dissent. Moreover, dissenters are some of the most optimistic and brave among us. Who else would invest such effort with the only reward of improving society?
We do stand at the pinnacle of perfection. However, to keep our balance, we need some humility. And when the fog clears from around our pinnacle, I think we will see that the mountain goes up even higher. We need to invite and embrace dissenters and consider what they have to say. I think this is why we have a public comment period at each City Council meeting. I will always be listening and I hope everyone on this Council continues to listen, too.