Have you ever been with people who start talking about a topic where they all agree? The topic might be religion, politics, sport or fashion. The trouble is, you have a different viewpoint. Should you say anything? And if so, what?
Nearly everyone has had this experience. In some families there are rules: “We don’t discuss politics or religion.” The rule might be stated but is often implicit.
Then there are taboo topics. Never mention Aunt Issa. You might not even know why. Did she do something terrible? Don’t ask.
You’re gossiping with your co-workers. They all hate the boss but you actually think the boss is doing a pretty good job. Should you say something or keep quiet?
These are instances where you have a choice about whether to express dissent and, if you do, how to do it. Should you challenge views you think are wrong or dangerous, or keep your mouth shut to maintain the peace? Should you pretend you agree with everyone else when actually you don’t?
These situations can arise in enclaves of political correctness but are more general than what is usually called PC. When you’re with a group of veterans, just try expressing your view that going to war is only for suckers.
Most people have highly developed skills in getting along with others. If this were not the case, there would be disagreements and arguments all the time. If you’re in a shop and an assistant says, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” then it’s polite to agree. If you always say, with a snarl, “What’s so nice about it?” you may not have many friends!
I’ve been aware of these issues for a long time and had my share of experiences in keeping quiet or disagreeing with standard views. In my research, I’ve explored many controversial topics, for example nuclear power, fluoridation and vaccination. I’ve promoted nonviolent alternatives to the military and participatory alternatives to representative government.
Most importantly, since the 1980s I’ve been a supporter of dissidents and whistleblowers. A classic situation is an employee who sees something wrong at work, for example fiddling the books. Speaking out in such situations can be very risky, so often it’s better to say nothing and collect information about wrongdoing. My involvement with whistleblowers made me acutely aware that honesty is not necessarily the best policy. As we will see, this applies to many situations, including everyday interactions and ones not related to employment.
So let’s begin with options for everyday dissent.
Your friends are talking about a sensitive topic. It might be abortion, political parties, immigration or child rearing. Whatever it is, you soon realise that you disagree with what everyone else seems to think. One way to avoid confrontation is to say nothing.
Why would your friends be talking about abortion? Perhaps the issue has been in the news, or one of them tells a personal story about having or not having an abortion. Often you can escape embarrassment by saying nothing. But sometimes this is awkward. What if someone asks, “Have any of you ever had an abortion?” You might shake your head to indicate “No,” but that could be deceptive, as a more accurate response might be “No, but I would have had one if necessary.”
To avoid uncomfortable questions or probing, you can try to change the topic before it becomes too personal. You might say you’re not feeling well and need to leave the room. Or you can say something like “I’m not sure how I’d react in the situation” even if you know for sure.
If you fear being asked a direct question and you don’t like lying or evading, there are several ways to take precautions. Sometimes you can pick your conversation partners, knowing that you agree with their views or that the topic will never arise. You can seek a welcoming community where everyone seems to agree. A campaigning group is often quite safe, for example pro-choice or anti-abortion.
Sometimes, though, it’s not easy to avoid disagreements. In families and workplaces, you may interact with the same people for months or years, even a lifetime.
You may prefer to go along with whatever others are saying. This smooths relationships and usually prevents any backlash from causing offence.
You might be, or become, a chameleon, adapting your views according to what everyone around you appears to think. In one group, you’re opposed to immigration; in another, you support it. You might need to change your behaviour too. Among colleagues who drink and smoke, you join in; among those who abstain, you do too.
Most people are chameleons to some extent. Those who never adapt may be seen as principled but more commonly as inflexible or obnoxious.
There’s another way to go along: lie, either by making false statements or not revealing the truth about what you think. You might have some beliefs that are shocking to others, for example that infanticide is okay in some circumstances or that some groups are genetically superior to others. If the topic comes up, you can readily go along with the consensus.
Lying has a bad reputation, and there are many preachy recommendations to tell the truth. Yet in practice people regularly hide the truth and tell falsehoods, as I learned when investigating lying and activism. In many cases, lying is intended to benefit others or to maintain relationships. Your friend asks, “How do I look in this?” You may prefer to tell a “white lie” and say, “You look good.” If a relative is dying, you might tell her that she has always been loved. Of course, there are also toxic lies, used to hide responsibility for stealing and for cheating in relationships. But we’re not talking about toxic lying, just about getting along with others by going along with what they say.
There’s one unexpected downside to going along with the group, and that is if everyone else is doing the same thing. Then it would be like in a dictatorship where everyone seems to support the regime but actually nearly everyone hates it. If a few people speak out, it can inspire others to join in and even trigger the formation of a powerful opposition movement. How can you figure out whether others are covering up their views?
When I was studying the controversy over the addition of fluorides to public water supplies, I interviewed leading Australian proponents and opponents. It was illuminating to learn about their views, so different from each other on many dimensions. While questioning these partisans, I didn’t need to explain or defend my own views.
Learning by listening can be used in other contexts. Become an inquirer. Your aim is to understand how others think and to probe into their assumptions, viewpoints, commitments and activities. You might ask for their views on Israel-Palestine, sexuality, life after death, UFOs, Donald Trump or the Holocaust — whatever seems topical.
Even if you do have a strong view, you can say that you’re eager to learn from those with different ideas. “I’m against kangaroo culling but would like to hear the evidence and arguments for it.”
Most people are quite willing to talk about their beliefs, especially with someone who is willing to listen. The crucial part here is to listen. As an inquirer, your aim is to listen and learn, not to pass judgement or to persuade. You are like an anthropologist, studying a culture to find out how its members think and behave, even if they are your family, friends and workmates.
They might well ask what you think, in which case you can say you’re an inquirer, without a strong view. I had this experience when my university secretly entered an arrangement to set up a degree funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Many of my colleagues were vehemently opposed to any degree called Western civilisation, especially one funded by the Ramsay Centre, on whose board were prominent conservative politicians Tony Abbott and John Howard. Other colleagues were involved in the degree. Rather than joining either side, I put on my sociologist hat and tried to elucidate the issues. This seems to enable me to keep on good terms with colleagues on both sides of a polarising issue.
To be an effective inquirer, you may genuinely have no strong view or you may be a chameleon, adapting your views to your audience. In either case, it is surprising how tolerant others can be of differing views when you genuinely listen, showing interest and respect.
Shape others’ expectations of your behaviour
A friend of mine, Richard, is predictably provocative. On just about any issue that comes up, he seems to adopt a contrasting perspective, in a manner that makes listeners unsure whether he really supports the view he expounds. It is in a spirit of playful combativeness, jousting with ideas. Once we know how Richard engages, we are not offended. We know he just loves taking a contrary view, often for the sake of it.
Another image is the jester, who takes nothing seriously or, perhaps more accurately, is deadly serious underneath a layer of humour or light-heartedness. Again, after getting used to this style, listeners are less offended than by a more serious disagreement. However, for many people, there are topics that should never be the butt of jokes.
Your image, reputation and social position greatly influence the way others react to your behaviour. In general, they expect you to act just like you usually do. If you’re always polite, then when you start swearing it is more shocking than if you swear in every sentence — and when the habitual foul-mouth suddenly starts talking in a prim and proper manner, we pay attention.
If you want to be able to express challenging ideas, you may be able to prepare the ground by dissenting from orthodoxy in ways that do not upset your regular conversationalists, thereby establishing a reputation as a free thinker, a questioner, a humourist or a provocateur. As you do this, you obtain practice in pushing the boundaries, always being prepared to back off as necessary.
You might think that being provocative is not the real you and that adopting the persona of a clown is fakery. However, there’s nothing wrong with practising a different style with strangers and seeing what happens. If you keep pretending for a few weeks or months, eventually it will become natural.
No more pussyfooting around: you decide to say what you really think and damn the consequences. You speak out regardless of who you’re talking to and who’s listening. Isn’t this what free speech is all about?
Perhaps you think terrorism is overrated as a danger, that all drugs should be legalised, that homeless people should be imprisoned or that crystals have healing powers. In a sympathetic group there’s no problem but in others you may be shunned as a lunatic.
What happens depends a lot on how you behave and on the circumstances. If you’re polite, soft-spoken and have a smile, others are far more likely to respond favourably, even if they don’t agree. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how you say it. You may regret speaking out.
Assume that you care about an issue and want to get others to think differently about it. Before questioning the dominant viewpoint or attitude — dominant within the group you’re in, that is — it’s worth doing some preparation. You might have done this already, but there’s nothing like taking your time and putting in some effort. After all, a lot could be at stake. You might lose a friend or a job. Maybe the stakes are smaller, but you don’t know for sure. I draw here on what I’ve learned from whistleblowers.
Check the social environment. Is there a general feeling of tolerance? Do others encourage debate and disagreement? Or do you sense fear and hostility? Are you aware of toxic behaviours, including shouting, undermining and malicious gossip? Does anyone behave in an authoritarian manner, seeking to dominate others, especially those who step out of line?
One of the most useful bits of information is about what happens to others who speak out. How are they treated? If you never see anyone questioning dominant views, that might be a sign to be wary.
Assess your vulnerability. The more you have to lose, the more careful you need to be. In some jobs, even a minor break from orthodoxy can make the difference in terms of promotions or opportunities. Are you willing to risk your job? Relationships are also crucially important. How will you cope if someone close to you decides to cut you off?
If you have fallback options, for example other jobs or a wealth of relationships, then you are better able to take risks. Indeed, sometimes speaking your mind may help clarify who you really want to spend your time with.
Develop your skills. Verbal skills can be very useful in presenting a challenging idea without suffering too many adverse consequences. You might read Suzette Haden Elgin’s classic book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, or one of her many later books, and practise her recommended ways of dealing with attacks. Or you could draw on ideas about effective communication and negotiation in George Thompson’s Verbal Judo or Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference. Practising their recommended methods may enable you to maintain relationships and memberships that otherwise would collapse.
However, in some circumstances verbal skills can’t help. If you offend a close friend who then cuts you off and does not return messages, even the best skills are inadequate.
Learn backfire techniques. If others treat you badly because of your views, sometimes you can use their attacks against them, in other words make them backfire. If your boss repeatedly shouts abuse at you, a powerful response is to reveal this to others, for example by making a recording and circulating it. Your co-workers, or the boss’s boss, might be more appalled at the abuse and shouting than at your views, especially if you respond calmly and rationally.
Be aware that by exposing abuse, you are raising the stakes dramatically. Your attackers might regret being seen as intolerant and aggressive. On the other hand, you need to be prepared to be fired or sued. A lot depends on the circumstances and the wider system of power.
Develop a strategy. Rather than dealing with challenges as they arise, plan ahead. If you’re going to reveal your sexuality or political or religious views to a group you think will be hostile, get advice from trusted others. Develop your communication skills. Anticipate likely reactions and prepare for them by practising with someone you trust. Have friends test the waters by asking questions.
You need an exit strategy. If worse comes to worst and you are ostracised or defamed, with relationships and career in jeopardy, have plans for what happens afterwards. This includes ensuring financial survival and obtaining emotional support.
If all this seems too much to handle, then reconsider your plans. Maybe it’s better for you and everyone else to avoid sensitive topics, or to lie with confidence.
Dissent can be powerful in stimulating others to reconsider their assumptions and viewpoints. But only sometimes. It’s worthwhile to try to figure out when and how to challenge orthodoxy.
It’s also worthwhile to think of times when your view is the dominant one. How do you respond when someone questions your deepest assumptions? Would you welcome having a discussion or do you join in attempts to silence the dissenter? Do you try to change the topic when a sensitive issue arises? Are you tempted to terminate a relationship with someone when you learn about their contrary political or religious views?
Assuming you’d like to enable dialogue rather than shut down those who disagree, it’s useful to consider your options in advance, and be prepared. This includes being prepared to intervene when others try to discourage dissent.
And what if no one ever disagrees with you? That might be a cause for worry. Maybe you’re living in a bubble or others are afraid of how you’ll respond. If others never disagree with you, perhaps you should disagree with them!
For helpful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Isla MacGregor, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Majken Sørensen, Melinda Waterman — and “Richard.”