If we grant that the definition of dissent is the holding of a belief that is contrary to the prevailing ideology, then it’s not particularly difficult to categorize instances of such dissent.
A good metric to measure it by is the magnitude of social penalties paid for by expressing potentially dissident beliefs. Can you lose your position at a company that you yourself started over the beliefs that you express? You are probably engaging in genuine dissent. This happened to Brendan Eich at Mozilla when he donated $1,000 to an advocacy organization that had Barack Obama’s 2008 opinion on traditional marriage. Something similar happened to Pax Dickinson for making crude and heterodox tweets about women in tech.
However crude the boundaries are, it should be easy to see what cannot belong in the category. It’s hard to think of a situation where holding left-wing beliefs, no matter how left-wing they are, would get someone removed from an an organization that is not itself expressly right-wing.
I can, however, think of examples where lefties didn’t get shitcanned. In 2001, Ward Churchill, a UC Boulder professor, literally argued that financial workers killed in the 9/11 attacks had it coming. Adam Kotsko, another academic, had similar sentiments about the Charlie Hebdo attacks: the people at the newspaper were insensitive to Muslims and therefore deserved to die.
“Can it get you fired?” is by no means a necessary element when looking to categorize something as dissent, but it’s a pretty good barometer for the climate of official ideology; that is, the underpinnings of polite culture that we’re expected believe. Both of these men, of course, made waves. There was a lot of outcry, and Kotsko eventually deleted his Twitter account, but neither of them suffered real material setbacks. Unpopularity is not dissent. I don’t suffer consequences for thinking that Drake is a bad rapper.
So it’s clear that official ideology is not democratic: right-wingers get fired for expressing even mainstream opinions, left-wingers do no get fired for expressing universally revolting opinions. Most Americans probably do not want gay marriage, but that belief system doesn’t use the ideological assumptions that it is supposed to. Churchill’s 9/11 apologia, however, was underpinned by the belief that there is Wall Street imperialism in the third world and that it such a thing is bad. This is firmly in line with with the ideological assumptions of powerful cultural institutions. So is Kotsko’s belief that racism is an insurmountable evil.
The pseudo-dissent that leftists engage in is merely a demand to extend official ideology and praxis. If we’re sitting somewhere around 6 on the Official Ideology Scale, the supposed dissent of the left is just a petition to crank it up to 11.
The FBI officially makes it its business to infiltrate and disrupt white supremacist organizations, and fashionable Black Lives Matter types like Ta-Nehisi Coates are also in the business of trying to dismantle white supremacy. There’s a difference, of course, of where exactly they think borders of white supremacist ideology starts and ends, but this is a question of magnitude, not a question of principles.
Black Lives Matter is a particularly pertinent example because such activists are supposedly fighting against “systemic racism” that is working around the clock to destroy them. The veil is pulled back when we actually look at the casualness of these protests. There are no long-term legal consequences for anyone hunting for the white supremacist witch, much less social penalties. If anything, you can gain social credit by bragging to your middle-class friends about being on, like, the Right Side of History.
The logic of the witch hunter is simple. It has hardly changed since Matthew Hopkins’ day. The first requirement is to invert the reality of power. Power at its most basic level is the power to harm or destroy other human beings. The obvious reality is that witch hunters gang up and destroy witches. Whereas witches are never, ever seen to gang up and destroy witch hunters. By this test alone, we can see that the conspiracy is imaginary (Brown Scare) rather than real (Red Scare).
Think about it. Obviously, if the witches had any power whatsoever, they wouldn’t waste their time gallivanting around on broomsticks, fellating Satan and cursing cows with sour milk. They’re getting burned right and left, for Christ’s sake! Priorities! No, they’d turn the tables and lay some serious voodoo on the witch-hunters. In a country where anyone who speaks out against the witches is soon found dangling by his heels from an oak at midnight with his head shrunk to the size of a baseball, we won’t see a lot of witch-hunting and we know there’s a serious witch problem. In a country where witch-hunting is a stable and lucrative career, and also an amateur pastime enjoyed by millions of hobbyists on the weekend, we know there are no real witches worth a damn.
Our state and other powerful institutions have their legitimacy buttressed by their apparent commitment to diversity and inclusion. We know this because when such a commitment is successfully attacked, powerful people like top administrators at large universities are no longer in power. Even James Watson, the man who discovered DNA, was unperson’d when he stepped out of line. Is there any doubt about who really has the power? Where are these racist, sexist witches that are a threat to our existence?
One example of a group who that doesn’t need to invert the reality of power to put an edgy “dissent” veneer on its activities would be Pegida. Pegida is actually challenging the assumptions that legitimize the state rather than appealing to them, and it’s doing this by dissenting against the pro-immigration consensus in Europe. We know it’s the real thing because there are legal consequences for their protests, and they have no friends in high places. This is the kind of disjunction that appears before actual revolutions.
Black Lives Matter’s job is to shame the state’s enemies. Pegida is the state’s enemy.
Feminism, too, is so ingrained in the official ideology that even critics of feminism like Christina Hoff Summers need to identify as feminists to have any sort of legitimacy. It speaks volumes that the only acceptable criticism of feminism in polite society is to essentially become a concern troll.
Richard Dawkins recently retweeted an image criticizing feminist orthodoxy, and the “skeptic” community, which doesn’t have the backbone to extend its skepticism to the things we’re supposed to believe in, isn’t happy about it. One of the commenters says all you need to know:
If anyone cared to bother, it would make a fun blog post to compare and contrast the wit & wisdom of Richard Dawkins and James Watson. I don’t know if they ever met, but they have so much in common
He’s a skeptic who refuses to make unprincipled exceptions for polite society, meaning that he may be going the way of James Watson if the “sick burns against the outgroup” RationalWiki community has anything to say about it.
UPDATE: There’s a site that documents instances of people being purged for having the wrong opinions (hat tip to Nick Land)