The Morality of Dissent
Daily life rarely requires drastic moral decisions, even more rarely the need for an understanding of one’s own ideological beliefs. In times of uncertainty, however, this understanding of a personal foundation is rather helpful. Society is no different; decisions are made and laws are created to remedy daily problems. During difficult situations posing moral questions, however, the answers don’t come as easily and the people are forced to step back and look at the canvas they’ve painted.
The overall color of laws may offer insight into the values of the people of that time period. During the Civil War era, both the northern and southern United States enforced laws that defined an entire ethnicity as nothing more than a possession. In Nazi Germany, the Jewish people were vilified and became the victims of genocide. American xenophobia can be cited on multiple occasions: German internment during WWII, Japanese internment during WWII, significant attempts to associate all of Islam with terrorism.
The enforcement of these laws seems completely foreign to people who aren’t from the era, as the laws were a reflection of the atmosphere (read: paranoia), political world, and money of the time. Slavery in the US dated back two hundred years, so entrenched in tradition and economics that the Founding Fathers dared not directly approach the subject for fear of never passing a Constitution through the Continental Congress. The German people were angry, afraid, and growing desperate, and the political climate was unstable – the perfect recipe for a major ideological overturn. German and Japanese internment were largely the product of American fear of a foreign insurgent, fueled by an incessant propaganda machine. The American post-9/11 war on Muslims, whether intended or merely a coincidence, was likely spawned by fear of an idea which moves people to action; the unforeseen consequence of this, however, is that many Westerners fail to differentiate between Muslim extremists and citizens who happen to be Muslim.
The ability to justify these laws is not equivalent to a moral argument in their defense. The forward thinking and subsequent actions which led humanity out of these dark days, however, are worthy of argument. History benefits those who can see a correlation between past and current events: a strong theme among social or humanitarian movements is that they are rarely popular in mainstream society during their time, or may even themselves be viewed as illegal operations. Examples include the suffragettes, who fought for years to be recognized as legitimate before the public would even listen to their argument. Abolitionists were routinely arrested, blackballed, harassed, or even killed by pro-slavery advocates, in a time when both law and the majority of society were on the side of the offender. Both of these movements faced major opposition, from society in general and the laws which governed it. The suffrage movement alienated some generations and inspired others, but changed the fabric of American society with lectures, speeches, books and conviction. Abolitionists protested peacefully with their words, but broke laws by functioning as safe houses on the Underground Railroad.
The conclusion may be drawn, then, that a modern social or humanitarian movement may be viewed as illegal or immoral at the time of its inception, but the change it effects may be viewed by a future society as positive, and the movement’s actions honorable. Without the suffragettes efforts, women may not have obtained a right to a vote; the feminist movement may not have occurred; and the women’s role in American society may have remained limited. Without abolitionists, slavery may have exploited African Americans for a longer period of time; those who escaped slavery wouldn’t have had a safe haven; and there wouldn’t have been a moral argument for the Civil War – the United States as we know it may not exist.
The power and success of these movements lies in conviction, not in numbers, because conviction is contagious. A recent study suggests that once a committed opinion is held by 10% of a population, it is possible to spread the idea to the majority like a fire to dry grass. Initially, the abolitionists’ ideals were held by only a small number of people, but the passion of individuals and surrounding events such as the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Dred Scott decision, the popularity of Frederick Douglass, and the passage of the fugitive slave act, brought major attention to the abolitionists’ ideas. Even as anti-slavery advocates’ numbers increased organically, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the corresponding secession of the southern states immediately polarized the north and the south. The moral argument against slavery was an easy case against the South. So did abolitionism capture the hearts of the people that President Lincoln believed he could recruit, fight, and win a war based on morals, as he signed the Emancipation Proclamation essentially declared a war on slavery. An idea which originally functioned on the fringe of society became a base of a reformed United States.
10% is a powerful figure.
10% is the estimated participation in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
10% of Americans describe themselves as ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary.’ 10% of the American population watched Glenn Beck’s program while it was on Fox News. Once ideologies become actions, the world will truly begin to change.
The adamant minority is much more powerful than any complacent majority.