Democracy of dissent

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Opinions

“While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of Patriotism,” – Howard Zinn, historian

Dissent, which literally means a sentiment or philosophy of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or an entity (web meaning), is gradually taking roots in the young, Bhutanese democracy. What was erstwhile a blatant act of rebellion today has toned down to an individual’s freedom to express differing or opposing views. An important hallmark of a vibrant democracy, dissent tears down the imaginary wall existing between the ruler and the ruled, the government and the governed.

The proliferation of mainstream media and technological advancement offer citizens to voice dissent in much easier ways than before. Media pluralism and diversity therefore encourages what media theorists call the ‘public sphere’ where diversity of opinions is accommodated from across all walks of life. This space which belongs to the citizenry is the hotbed of political, social, economic, and religious discourse. In other words, this sphere is democracy in words, letters and voices representing a vast canvas of the electorate.

Not necessarily, all opinions are contrary to prevailing ideas and ideologies. But again, it is not true that all the ruling ideas are quintessentially ‘holier than thou.’ That is where disagreement and opposition plays a vital role. Acknowledging what is fair or foul, true or false, good or bad – now depends on not the wisdom of a select few but the larger section of the people, the mass.

Democracy is therefore not just about institutions and structures; it is more of engagement in public debate and discourse on policies and issues that affect the lives of people. The discussions must be a bottom up process that emerges from the base of the democratic structure – the voters.

For instance, the recent tax revision by the government had certain quarters of the society debate on the issue, both for and against. However, there has not been any serious or consistent involvement of a wide range of people in the debates. Many sections of the society are silent, yet grumbling. And many do not understand the effect the tax revision could have on their lives.

On the other side, what a few describe as ‘radical democracy’ the last year’s solidarity walk, a protest peace march, was both heavily criticized and applauded at the same time. The protest garnered both support and ill repute. However, at the core was democracy functioning full throttle with people exercising their rights and expressing their opinions of dissent. Until recently, such acts would tantamount to unpatriotic proportions.

Media must facilitate and foster discussions, not necessarily dissentful discussions, but democratic and participatory ones. Debates to encourage diversity of views and pluralism of opinions will have to take place to strengthen a democratic culture and way of life. In doing so, certain archaic culture deeply embedded in our way of life must evolve with time. Our society must open up and so must the powers that be and their beliefs.

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