Viewpoint: The importance of dissent


Articles accounting the saga of Chen Guancheng, a blind Chinese activist, have filled newspapers across the country for the past two weeks. On April 22, Chen made the more than 300-mile trek from his small village where he had been under house arrest for two years to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

More than seven years ago, Chen, living in a rural Chinese village, protested the abuses of local officials who abducted local women and subjected them to forced abortions — some within days of their due dates — in an extreme effort to enforce China’s one-child policy. Officials placed Chen under house arrest, charged him with committing property damage, barred his lawyers from the trial and sentenced him to 51 months in prison.

After his “release” in 2010, the government placed him under house arrest and cut off his communication with the outside world.

Censorship and human rights violations against political dissidents are nothing new in China or across the globe. For centuries, members of society have risen up and confronted governments and cultural practices they saw as unjust. Gandhi went on hunger strikes in India to protest imperial rule, Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for equality and Nelson Mandela spoke out against apartheid.

Lately, my personal reading has revolved around two polar ends of humanity — the tales of atrocities so repugnant they shake our faith in humanity and the individuals who, through their courage and strength, restore that faith.

Both exist as mysterious outliers of the human condition.

On the one end, how could anyone participate is such acts of horror such as those seen in the concentration camps, in Cambodia and Rwanda, to name a few?

On the other end, how did those who fought back find the courage to rebel against such odds when so few did?

Atrocities remind us that civilized society and order are fragile and easily shattered when power corrupts. Sadly, a twisted, group mentality or ideology can easily override our better natures.

However, better natures can rise above and out of horrid experiences.

The tales of humanitarians and dissidents inspire us because they reflect what we wish we would all do in such a situation — they saw injustice and spoke up. In short, they remind us of our humanity.

It can be easy to dismiss injustice because it is far away or simply because it is so prevalent we don’t recognize it.

Iris Chang, author of “The Rape of Nanking,” wrote, “Apparently some quirk in human nature allows even the most unspeakable acts of evil to become banal within minutes, provided that they occur far enough away to pose no personal threat.”

Most of us will never be in a war zone. Many of us will not have the means or time to travel to such areas as aid workers. Our lives may not be directly affected by injustice, but one can make a profound impact simply with remembrance.

The phrase goes, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” There can be great power in a collective remembrance of atrocities and ensuring we do not view those actions as “banal.” No matter how many times we learn of the Holocaust or the massacres in Bosnia, we should feel shock. Such scars in human history serve as constant reminders of the importance of protecting our fragile better nature.

Sometimes we passively walk past injustice simply because it is so prevalent we don’t recognize it.

This is why the voice of dissent is so important. Dissenters often see the injustices we pass because they are the norm. Abolitionists spoke out against the accepted practice of slavery. Civil rights activists spoke out against accepted Jim Crow laws.

The most important injustices to speak out against are those we don’t see — those generally accepted. Only by hearing dissenting views do we discover the truth and/or confirm and improve what knowledge we already have.

John Stuart Mills wrote in “On Liberty” each voice and opinion has the right to be shared, whether we agree with it or not: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In 2006, Chen told Time magazine, “Someone has to fight for people with no voice. I guess that person is me.”

Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer born in a poverty-stricken village in rural China; yet, he has become an advocate for those without a voice.

Chang also wrote, “Please believe in the power of one. One person can make an enormous difference in the world. One person — actually, one idea — can start a war, or end one or subvert an entire power structure. … You as one individual can change millions of lives. Think big. Do not limit your vision and do not ever compromise your dreams or ideals.”

One person can make a difference, no matter how obscure their origins


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