By Pratik Desai '17
When faced with a question or a problem, naturally, humans prefer having options. This idea finds a home in the world of finance, where a call option gives an investor the right to purchase some underlying instrument at a specified price in the future. What if we were to consider the notion of public discourse - or even dissent - a call option on the future? The very notion of progress rests upon our ability to take in information, adjudicate accordingly, and disrupt the status quo when it no longer suits our conditions. If silence represents the absence of sufficient currency in the marketplace of change, public dissent naturally represents the price of change.
Living in a society that was founded upon the idea of speaking out, we implicitly value free speech. Americans are fairly used to seeing headlines of protest in the news, though quite often, dismiss the idea of a public outrage. Are we Americans so used to having our futures dictated to us rather than shaped by us?
Recall how our population reacted during Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park, or the “Black Lives Matter” movement originating in Florida. What were arguably opportune moments for the voice of the people to be heard and transformed into actionable changes in social, corporate, and public policy - demonstrations against corporate greed and ignorance - were successfully painted as propaganda, radical demonstrations, or even catch-all “loony protests” (according to Dan Gainor of Fox News).
When Americans are afforded the unique opportunity to disrupt the ineffectiveness of centuries-old institutions, voices concerned about traffic or the inconvenience of walking across sidewalks with protester-filled tents seem to win out. But what does that say about us when our media successfully paints our own as outsiders - and out of inertia or perhaps lethargy, we buy into the message? When did being part of “the 99%” become a scarlet letter? When our friends and neighbors’ lives are often impacted profoundly and adversely by institutions that may have transformed into or been set up to work against them from the very beginning, why do we fail to seize upon outrage to enact true change?
We examine public dissent in order to assess how much people truly value the freedom of expression. Citizens from other countries - in contrast with Americans - are much more sympathetic to the cause of public outcry. Perhaps out of a desire to “fit in” with mainstream society (social pressures) or perhaps out of some Orwellian fear that future employment or academic prospects may be hampered; are Americans content with remaining quiet? A PRR poll cited by The Washington Post found that “63 percent of Americans believe that protests against unfair treatment always make the country better.” Americans value dissent - but they want to do it in a way in which their lives are not adversely impacted elsewhere. Society should ponder what protections could be put in place to assuage such concerns and codify the spirit of free expression.
The next time we hear about a broader societal issue, let us consider the cause of speaking out. Dissent - whether convenient or not, is one of the purest forms of self-expression. As Mohandas Gandhi once said, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
Pratik is a self-described Indophile, provocateur, musician, poet, animal lover, avid volunteer, and tech enthusiast.