Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2016 portrait

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR interview, May 2, 2002.

This insight from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated with me in these weeks since her passing. The social movements in the name of justice that characterize our present moment require us to engage in a deeper reflection on the meaning of dissent and its effectiveness in shaping vocational direction. Dissent, used wisely and with integrity, forces us to clarify the deeply held convictions at the heart of our oppositional response. In the process of that discernment and clarification, we can discover greater purpose and meaning in our life.

Dissent forces us to clearly define and connect with fundamental beliefs, stances and worldviews. For Bible scholar Marcus J. Borg, convictions are “foundational ways of seeing things that are not easily shaken.” His convictions flowed from a reflective stance on personal memories and conversions (intellectual, political and religious) that changed how he saw religious belief and his life. They were developed precisely in response to these conversions. Convictions are formed, then, from a combination of the contexts of our lives and the significant reorientations that influence how we see the world. 

In my own reflective process, this is the most important point: dissent is not just about being in opposition to a perspective. Rather, dissent is fundamentally about putting your feet down clearly in a stance and marking that position as different from the majority opinion. A dissent is not just a disagreement, it is something based on deep ethical principles that are fundamental to how we engage the world.

There is a major difference between an opposition or antagonism based in an uncritical reaction and a disagreement based in a carefully considered divergence of belief and opinion. The first is simplistic and not particularly effective; the second is a more mature expression of divergence from an established position. Dissent lives in another level of commitment since it exists as a fundamental stance. It points to a deep existential conviction of self that has been challenged, and thus, must be opposed as a matter of integrity. By definition, then, a dissent is something done sparingly so that its effect is not blunted from overuse.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds us that dissent is made for the purpose of future generations. A dissent is a community-based project, and thus, is not for oneself alone. Wisely and strategically administered dissent propels forward our efforts to create a more just society. For Ginsburg, a dissent has the capacity to influence social and judicial opinions and form the rational and compassionate basis of a cultural shift or a new law. For example, her dissent in the Supreme Court case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company (2007), influenced Congress to amend existing laws that significantly limited the length of time that a woman could bring a claim of pay discrimination against an employer. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 amended the law to better support the justice claims of working women.

 Dissent embodies a public witness. It is not merely an idea, but a statement or action of opposition based on integrity. As a public stance it can be difficult to hear new perspectives that might lead to a reconsideration of a conviction that could modify an opposing view. In this situation dissent can lead to a rigidity that completely dismisses the position of opponents. A healthy sense of integrity develops as life experiences reorient our fundamental convictions. An unbending understanding of integrity can turn into self-righteousness. Dissent remains open to understand and to dialogue with responsibly argued positions from the other side of a debate. If dissent becomes unyielding then it devolves into an automatic and reactionary contrariness, that serves the dissenter alone, rather than the greater good. Thus, dissent requires a “critical mind and a discerning heart” in order to be effective. It is an invitation to dialogue with the dominant position, with an intent to challenge and persuade those on the other side.

Vocational awareness can reveal itself in an expression of a justice-oriented dissent that is rooted in a discernment of convictions. As educators, helping students reflect on the nature of dissent can assist them in developing a deeper sense of the convictions that undergird and focus their lives. In order to cultivate a dissent that is positive and mature, rather than negative and destructive, students could consider several questions: (1) For what purpose am I dissenting? (2) What do I hope to achieve now? What do I hope to achieve in the future? (3) What are the convictions upon which I am basing my dissent? Where do they come from? Are they still valid? (4) What wisdom does my religious, spiritual or philosophical tradition provide in discerning the ethical stance of the dissent? (5) Whose experience in the debate do I understand, and whose do I need to better understand?

In many ways Ginsburg’s belief that dissenters are “writing not for today, but for tomorrow” mirrors the hope of many educators when we are helping students to reflect upon and develop lives of meaning and purpose. The convictions they discern are to be employed in the service of others towards a more just and sustainable future. Our work aims towards that future when we can more deeply cultivate the wisdom of dissent.

For Further Reading: By this same contributor, see “‘The whispers of the spirit’: discerning meaning in the work of justice” about the legacy of the late John Lewis. See also Esteban Loustaunau’s “Seeking the courage to know what matters,” Jason Stevens’ “Hope, history, and the redress of vocation,” and “Fighting the good fight” (about a NetVUE webinar). “Character and calling in a time of crisis” and this discussion of the virtue of loyalty by Hannah Schell are both also relevant.

Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom. For other blog posts by Kathy, click here.

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