Consensus on dissent: very marginal

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Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

How do you get a consensus? Bring together 250 pros of disagreement into a single place to talk about the marginilisation of dissent. CarnegieUK (with oD as media sponsor) organised the event to explore the role of civil society in encouraging (or not) a culture of openness and principled dissent. The podcast is available here.

Malcolm Carroll, expert and practitioner of non-violent direct action,
started the event off with a description of the way that private
companies with private police forces armed with civil injunctions can
stop decent people from making their voices heard.

Although dissent is made harder by this sort of social injunctivitis,
Malcolm is convinced that shaping public opinion---shallow,
manipulable, fickle---is a fool's errand; that institutional
engagement can very easily provide only an illusion of power and
change; and that peaceful direct action can change the terms of
debate, as is needed to confront the big questions of environment and
exclusion.

Fran Bennett, thinker and doer in the realm of poverty, inequality and
exclusion, was not so gloomy about institutional engagement. The case
for the abolition of poverty is marginalised, says Fran, because
everyday poverty is depressing and does not fit media narratives;
because the public sees the causes of poverty as being personal (and
moral), not structural, and because governments, who ought to lead on
the issue, instead follow public opinion. (Fran pointed out that when
James Purnell was still responsible for childhood poverty, he took
pride in extolling the government's bravery in making progress on the
issue despite its unpopularity; why, asked Fran, should this be a
matter of macho pride rather than a matter of shame that they had done nothing to change public perceptions of the issue?)

Sunny Hundal was optimistic that blogging and other new media would
de-marginalise dissent. However, he reminded us that dissent in itself
does not determine the ethics of the dissenters: what about the
"birthers" in the US today? Sunny ultimately thought that the
polarised debate as it exists in the USA is a motivator of social
change and prefers that to the deadening, assenting centrism that the BBC's dominance creates in the UK.

Kumi Naidoo closed the discussion from the panel with a passionate
reminder of why dissent is still so necessary. The absence of dissent
does not date just from 9/11; where did the 1989 peace dividend go, he
asked? No significant social change has occurred, he contended,
without decent people being prepared to stand up for their
conscience. Abolitionists, suffragettes, anti-apartheid campaigners
and environmentalists all pre-dated legislative change by
decades. Poverty, exclusion and environment still need this kind of
large-scale social change that only comes about through collective
action.

Kumi, reminding the audience that UK NGOists used to come to South
Africa for 48 hours during the struggle and offer pearls of wisdom about
opposition, thought he would do the same, reminding us what the UK
government was doing to marginalise dissent. He thought that UK civil society, strong as it is, had failed in the following ways:

1. It had too easily become enchanted with a role of service provision and had often become beholden to the State and its interests; (he reminded us of Einstein's bon mot: "all that counts cannot be measured, and not all that can be measured counts" in a plea to resist the corporatisation of NGOs as they grow into service delivery organisations)

2. It had left a perfect storm - of financial, food, energy and environmental crises - go by without providing a serious contribution to alternative solutions

3. It had allowed the UK government to harm the global progress of democracy by its own failure to respect human rights.

The discussion from the floor was varied and complex: consumers' reaction to corporate greenwash; catstrophism versus optimism; how to find the smart levers of power; the culpability of civil society in not doing more to stand up for its own rights; the culture of fear that comes with service delivery; the role of artists in dissent social change has ever happened without the support of artists, commented Kumi); the importance of speaking the truth and having the courage to do so; wit, sexiness and theatre as tools against corpocracy; how to join up our strengths; the privatisation of warfare, and finally, and deeply ... how do we know that our dissenting opinions are right?

For more, visit  http://www.futuresforcivilsociety.org and http://democracy.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/civil_society/burning_issues_for_civil_society/marginalisation_of_dissent