On the Morality of Dissent

On the Morality of Dissent

 “I want you to get MAD. You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being goddamit! My life has meaning!’

…I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

~ Howard Beale

[See the video clip]


A long, long time ago, Shakespeare wrote:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

A question with which I struggle on an almost daily basis.

As I have mentioned before, I am driven by the inordinate waste of human potential in typical “knowledge-work” businesses – waste, in large part, due to what Rightshifting calls the “Analytic Mindset“.

I don’t know who discovered water,
but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish

~ Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980),
media critic & writer

The Analytic mindset is so ubiquitous, pervasive and common-place that, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, I don’t know who discovered the Analytic Mindset, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an Analytic thinker (which is most of the planet’s population).

Planting Trees

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” ~ Nelson Henderson

I wish to see things change, and I do what I can to plant seedlings under which, in time, folks may take some shade. In working towards common goals alongside other folks, conflict is inevitable, particularly when world-views collide. And like Patrick Lencioni I believe that positive conflict is essential in making progress.

I do not enjoy conflict, hence I am conflicted. One might fairly call that cognitive dissonance. :}

The truth is never pure and rarely simple – Oscar Wilde

Nevertheless, I take heart from the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in particular:

The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I also try to keep in mind the principles of tolerance, equanimity and mutual learning implicit in Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive, which I have reinterpreted more generally as:
Regardless of what is said, I understand and truly believe that everyone is doing the best they can, given what they know, how they see the world, the handicaps of their experiences, and the situation at hand.

If You See Buddha On the Road, Kill Him

Given the oft-repeated suggestion that

“Folks should think for themselves, in context”

then dissent seems not only inevitable, but

’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

I for one applaud folks who stick their necks out and share the way they see the world, however differently that might be, just so long as it doesn’t get personal.

In summary, I believe we all have a duty to dissent. Compliance and conformation merely lends support to the status quo.

What do you think?

– Bob

See Also

Dare to Disagree (blog post)


  1. James Marwood said:

    I agree. I have colleagues whose mantra is ‘keep your head down and bill’. I find that hard to conscience. We have to struggle to make things better, to point out flaws where we see them. That is the real value of what we do, not the clever methodologies or latest thinking.

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. You might also like one of my old posts: “The Teflon Consultants”.

      – Bob

  2. I believe we have a duty to try to effect positive change.

    Sometimes the way to do that is to rage loudly against the entire “system” & draw people’s attention to the big problems. Sometimes the way is to speak more quietly & help people make small changes that can be a foundation for addressing the larger problems. Sometimes you need to infiltrate the system, understand it and find ways to change it from within.

    Finding the right way is a combination of who you are and what abilities you have, what support you have, and the nature of the system you’re trying to change. It also depends on your energy — there’s a lot to rage against & it’s easy to get burnt out, so you need to choose your battles.

    So when I see someone who’s keeping their head down, I first ask myself whether they are simply accepting the status quo, or whether maybe they’re infiltrating the system, or making small changes that I can’t see, or fighting some bigger battle elsewhere.

    Personally, I’m bad at rage. It drains my energy very rapidly. So I tend to adopt quieter approaches. But that’s just me.

    (I did a talk on “what system are we trying to fix?” at Manchester Free Software last year that looked at this question in the context of free versus proprietary software.)


    • Hi Graham,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I think there’s a place for all the different variants of response you mention. Context has a part to play, too, of course. Many folks seem to think that displays of emotion are unprofessional. Personally I think that absence of emotion is a sign of a lack of humanity. And after all, we now know much more about why people choose to do things – and emotion plays a central role, much more so than logic. Overall, I find it best to know one’s audience before choosing one’s communications approach. Do you grok Social Styles?

      – Bob

  3. Reblogged this on OlafLewitz and commented:
    About the Analytic Mindset and Positive Conflict. I like that post.

  4. You can’t NOT communicate . Unless you are a brilliant actor, that you think differently will always leak out to people around you. Another cliche, communication is what the other person hears – not what you say. So how do you avoid being seen purely as a trouble maker or a discontent? In environments where asking “why” is trouble making, as opposed to an essential sense-making activity, someone with mental models already out of sync will be quickly identified and without any positive action on their behalf.
    Coincidently, i did something on this subject, then found this post. Please note I haven’t yet typed the post “6,000 reasons why you should touch systems thinking”.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. The “out of sync” thing is something I write and speak about a lot. Most often under the heading of “organisational cognitive dissonance”. i.e. People that think differently to the rest, that ask questions, that dissent, generally cause much discomfort for the rest. Actually, the cause is the (invisible) dissonance caused by the clash of mindsets and idea-frames.Often, however, the “messenger” gets shot because the source of the discomfort gets attributed to them (truly a Fundamental Attribution Error).

      – Bob

  5. Thank you for sharing this post. Goes straight to a huge problem in the education discourse which I tend to follow. The under appreciated fact is the disagreeing creates real stress not only in what it might mean about our selves. Much more common and pernicious I think is the avoidance of wanting to hurt someone else’s feelings. Most often the it’s framed as about “not looking silly” .

    In fact I think it comes from a positive human emotion – not wanting to make someone else feel bad. Works similarly in every bubble think situation.

    Curious if you see the same in your work.

  6. I definitely do not think people should avoid conflicts if they are for a higher purpose – understanding the Other, creating together or simply clarifying a stand.

    Being silent on things that matter is not being neutral at all. The very absence of one’s voice is an implicit adherence to the status quo.

    On the other hand, one has to make the difference between a rebel and a trouble-maker.

    Good post.

  7. bradford653 said:

    The problem that I see is as soon as you disagree with someone, particularly with a view they hold dear, even if it’s one that’s been built up as a result of the dogma of others, they take it personally. You needn’t call their mother ugly, you need only challenge their world view, and then it becomes personal. This is the challenge I face almost daily in attempting to provoke novel thought in people through the insane things that come out of my mouth.

    And this is fine, I accept my lot in life.

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