The Curious Dynamics of Dissent
Last weekend was interesting enough to me because of two things: First, I watched The Dark Knight Rises, and second, I was (desperately) reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angel of Our Nature, a 600-page behemoth book with unbelievably SMALL typeface.
Now, the two seem to have absolutely nothing in common. One is a summer blockbuster about the caped crusader, the final of a trilogy. The other is a book about the decline of violence among mankind (no, seriously, contrary to what many think, violence among humans has been on the decline – and Steven Pinker used loads and loads of data to back his assertion). But I did something that managed to connect the two.
That is, when I thought that TDKR was disappointing, and when I decided to express it on my blog.
Now, I was under pressure when I reviewed TDKR on the blog. I realized that I held a minority position, since I had seen like millions of praises and positive for the movie. Am I wrong to have a dissenting opinion? But I decided, oh what the heck, this is my honest opinion, and wrote it anyway (for the review, click here).
And then something interesting happened.
I started to get comments. Almost like statements of relief, actually, that went along something like, “And I thought I was the only one who think it’s bad”. Or “I can’t be the only one”. In short, many people seemed relief upon reading my review, that they were not alone to think TDKR was not all it was hyped to be. It is as if they had gotten support to express their own dissenting opinion after reading another’s.
And here is the connection with Steven Pinker’s book. On the same day, I was reading about the mystery of the silence of the Germans when Nazi came to power and started to commit attrocities. Surely not all Germans at that time were hungry for war and annihilation of the Jews – so why the silence? This is where Steven Pinker shed some light on the curious dynamics of dissent. It turns out that although people may hold righteous principles internally, they may express a contradictory position, not necessarily because of fear of harm, but simply because they think they are ‘alone’.
An interesting study was quoted in the book. Researchers prepared three cups of wine for a fake ‘wine tasting’. All cups actually contained the same wine, but the third cup was mixed with vinegar – obviously giving it a terrible taste. The subject was brought in with several other fake respondents who were actually actors. They were then asked to rate the wine. The actors have been instructed to praise the vinegar-laced wine, and researchers wanted to see how the real subject would respond. Guess what – the poor subject followed suit, giving the highest score for the vinegar-wine, even though he was in complete freedom to vote differently. Having a different opinion by himself, surrounded by different opinion, was enough to make the subject deny his true feeling.
But then the experiment got more interesting. In a different set, one of the actors were instructed to openly praise the RIGHT wine, and then everybody was asked to evaluate each other’s ability to assess the wine. And suddenly, the real subject agreed with that one actor that the vinegar wine was indeed horrible. All it takes is one expressed dissent, to help nudge someone to stay true to his beliefs.
So what happened in Germany in the late 1930s and 40s? Perhaps, dissenting voice had never got the chance to reach wider audience. Remember, it was the time without internet and Twitter. And once the Nazi was in power, media was put under strict control and censorship. Germans who disagreed with the Nazi ways thought they were alone, that everybody else approved of the Nazi, and to have dissenting opinion means they were wrong.
And this brings back the importance of freedom of speech. And why people must not give up protesting against human rights violation in this country. Because when the voice of humanity gradually goes out, people will start to think it is alright to persecute the minority, or to discriminate others based on their religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
I will never be tired of quoting Edmund Burke: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Perhaps, there is even a more basic version to this: All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to SAY nothing. If you think you see evil in the society, do not stay silent. Speak up. Tweet it. Blog about it. Say it to your friends. And let other good people know, that they are not alone.
(and to those who think The Dark Knight Rises is overrated, yeah, you are definitely NOT alone :D)