Casting a new light on freedom of speech

Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass R. Sunstein
BY DORGE RAJAH

Book Title: Why Societies Need Dissent
ISBN: 9780674017689
Author: Cass R. Sunstein
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication Year: 2005
Price: RM97.20

Censorship, then, is what the law of free speech is fundamentally designed to prevent.

— Professor Cass R. Suntein

Dissent and opinions are loosely related. It is easier to conform to the majority so as not to be seen as a troublemaker especially during group decision-making. It is also built in as part of human nature.

This book discusses social influences on individual behaviour and the risk of error stemming from conformity.

It lets the reader pay attention to three phenomena: Firstly, individual conformity to erroneous positions held by group members; informational and reputational cascades; and group polarisation, by which individuals end up in a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation tendencies.

Secondly, applications include legal precedent; terrorism; the effects of largely unenforced law; jury behaviour; judicial behaviour on panels; free speech; and affirmative action.

Thirdly, new data, discussing how judicial votes are affected by judicial colleagues, attests to the pervasiveness of conformity and group polarisation.

Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests the importance of individual disclosure and dissent to prevent errors by a wide range of social groups.

Author Cass Sunstein.

Professor Cass R. Sunstein shows that organisations and nations are far more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness.

Attacking “political correctness” in all forms, Sunstein demonstrates that corporations, legislatures, even presidents are likely to blunder if they do not cultivate a culture of candour and disclosure.

He shows that unjustified extremism often results from failure to tolerate dissenting views.

The tragedy is that blunders and cruelties could be avoided if people spoke out.

Sunstein casts new light on freedom of speech, showing that a free society not only forbids censorship but also provides public spaces for dissenters to expose widely held myths and pervasive injustices.

Understanding the need for dissent illuminates countless social debates, including those over affirmative action in higher education, because diversity is indispensable to learning.

Dissenters are often portrayed as selfish and disloyal, but Sunstein shows that those who reject pressures imposed by others perform valuable social functions, often at their own expense.

This is true for dissenters in boardrooms, churches, unions, and academia. It is also true during times of war and peace.

Drawing on a wealth of experimental studies on group dynamics and decision-making, Sunstein develops the argument that group decision-making is shaped by two easily understood traits.

First, a lot of times it makes very good sense to use what others think as an effort-saving heuristic in developing our own opinions. Second, we are members of societies, both large and small, and we naturally desire their good opinion of ourselves.

Those two very human traits can, however, have disastrous effects on group decisions by stifling dissent. Dissent unheard is information not considered by the group. Decisions made on the basis of incomplete information have a higher probability of being incorrect.

Sunstein points out that a paradox is involved. Social benefactors are not necessarily those who adhere to the group line. Theirs, in fact, is a selfish approach that may sacrifice providing relevant information for the sake of avoiding effort or maintaining others’ good will. The true social benefactor may be the one who breaks with the group, even in the face of the group’s ill-will, and provides information that will benefit the group’s decision.

Three phenomena derive from those two traits to make dissent less likely and, therefore, even more valuable to society. First, those needs for a heuristic and good will can lead to conformity even when conformity may be opposed to society’s interests.

A second phenomenon is termed a social cascade. These can occur as people follow the lead of opinion-setters and then others follow the followers. For example, a clothing brand becomes what every teenager must wear or how a certain restaurant can become the hot place to be seen.

Those following the leaders can fail to disclose relevant private information about the clothing brand or the restaurant that would make either less appealing for society. The third phenomenon is group polarisation that occurs as the members come under the joint influence of their common group membership and beliefs. Collective decisions made under those influences can become more extreme than the position of any individual member of the group.

So, the ability of groups to get the information they need to make good decisions is not merely a function of the law’s regulation of government censorship. Self-censorship can occur from group pressure and, thus, the ability of those groups to have the best information for decisions is predicated not only on the law but also on a culture of free expression that can provide a countervailing force to the human tendencies to reduce decisional effort and to conform.

Sunstein does not suggest dissent is always helpful and can lead one into bad directions. It does however, allow for more disclosure that could lead to better governance.

Honour roll of famous dissenters include, Galileo, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi while the dishonour roll includes Hitler, Lenin and Osama bin Laden.

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