The Dichotomy of Dissent

By Denise Heap

Dr. Armin Mruck of Towson University recently observed that the stories of those who resisted Hitler during the Shoah remind us of the importance of being idealistic. “I don’t think there’s too many idealistic people in our environment. And it wasn’t just these students [White Rose], there were other resistance groups as well who thought it was worthwhile to put your life on the line. That’s not very popular these days.”

Mruck’s statement generated a fascinating and ongoing debate: What is the proper balance between idealism and realism when one is trying to right a wrong?

This is hardly a new debate. In the 1960s as global student protests raged against the war in Vietnam, Vincent Probst (son of Christoph Probst) and Christian Petry penned a fervent appeal to their generation not to make the same mistakes the White Rose had made, that is, not to be so steeped in idealism that they could not effect real change. That call to action earned them Inge Scholl’s vitriol. Instead of comprehending their message, she perceived it as a slam against the White Rose (defined at the time as her siblings).

But Probst and Petry were right. Change in the 1960s did not come about because people wrote leaflets. Change came about because hundreds of thousands of students and “grown-ups” were willing to march on Washington, because legislators passed laws ending legal racial discrimination, because brave men and women like Abraham Joshua Heschel walked side by side with those whom our society marginalized. Change also came about (and this is harder to wrap one’s head around) because of non-violent – and violent – protest.

In no way does this short essay mean to legitimize violent protest. Rationally, we must adhere to the notion that an eye for an eye makes both of us blind, that burning buildings and bombing army recruiting offices is both illegal and morally wrong. What do we gain from the murder of an innocent, simply to make a political statement?

Although our rational mind tells us this (and it is right), historically we must analyze the great shifts in world history and acknowledge that for better or worse, violent protest often plays a significant role in bringing about lasting change. From the American and French Revolutions, to the military force required to end Hitler’s regime, to the violence that has accompanied the Arab Spring: We cannot escape the role of violence in informed dissent and civil disobedience.

Yet we also see that violence for the sake of violence cannot change things for the better. The riots that followed in the wake of the acquittals in the Rodney King case (April 1992) represented a legitimate protest of a perceived injustice. But those riots were only a gut-wrenching expression of anger, with no focus, no visible intent to change something. Nothing changed for the better. If anything, the lives of the very community that had suffered injustice was harmed by the destruction of property.

Back to the original question: What is the proper balance between idealism and realism when one is trying to right a wrong?

In a perfect world, I believe that change could and should come when thinkers and dreamers (idealists) see an injustice and join with doers (realists) to ‘right the ship’ through legal channels: Passing and enforcing laws that protect everyone in their society, overturning laws that marginalize citizens, opening doors to opportunity for all. But we live in an imperfect world, when too often power rests in the hands of those who use power to protect self-interest, not to work on behalf of the good of the whole.

The only thing that seems clear to me: Real change cannot happen until idealists and dreamers join hands with realists and pragmatists. We need Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. We need Gandhi’s non-violent protests and Indian politicians negotiating with the British. We need Abraham Lincoln’s clear-eyed eloquence defining the ideals of a united America and Abraham Lincoln’s focused determination to make it happen. We need FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and FDR’s decisive action to prevent disaster. We need the beauty of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and the messiness of LBJ’s political maneuvering.

We need the idealism of compassion and we need concrete action.

Talk about this here. What do you think? Do you know of local examples where idealism and realism have joined hands to change your community? Do you have other insights on this topic?


3 responses to “The Dichotomy of Dissent

  1. That is a difficult question to answer…My priest once told me that sloth, one of the deadly sins, was not merely about “laziness;” it was about passiveness as well. I go through my every day life, and people always tell me about corruption infecting our society and about the atrocities of leaders in both the past and the present. When they talk about it, they are filled with such intense flames, but I have noticed…And it is not merely them…It is in me, too…That while we are gravely upset by the wrongdoings going on in this world, we cannot seem to identify a solution to them. It is not that we are so unfeeling towards the world…It just seems that our words stop short of a solution…And, also…I have been thinking about this for a while…But I do not know if it sounds ridiculous or not…But…Perhaps, we do not have to “protest” at all, or go into great detail about building some grand plan to fix the world of all its evilness…I know it sounds silly, but maybe…Gandalf was right when he said that it is not power that keeps the darkness away but the small acts of kindness done by the small people. Maybe, just maybe…We should just begin to start caring for people in the small ways that we can. Make someone smile who is having a bad day and start taking care of all the small problems that we see from day to day. Perhaps, they are the small tunnels that lead into even bigger paths. The world is filled with darkness, but we do not have to count on other people to make the differences for us. I understand that, now. Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking piece. I just hope I did not sound like an idiot with my words.
    Your friend,

  2. Baylee, in no way did you sound like an “idiot” ! Thanks for your careful and positive thoughts on this topic!

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