Cover image for Why societies need dissent
Why societies need dissent
Sunstein, Cass R.
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2003.
Physical Description:
ix, 246 pages ; 22 cm
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JC328.3 .S93 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this timely book, Cass R. Sunstein shows that organizations and nations are far more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness. Attacking "political correctness" in all forms, Sunstein demonstrates that corporations, legislatures, even presidents are likely to blunder if they do not cultivate a culture of candor and disclosure. He shows that unjustified extremism, including violence and terrorism, often results from failure to tolerate dissenting views. The tragedy is that blunders and cruelties could be avoided if people spoke out.Sunstein casts new light on freedom of speech, showing that a free society not only forbids censorship but also provides public spaces for dissenters to expose widely held myths and pervasive injustices. He provides evidence about the effects of conformity and dissent on the federal courts. The evidence shows not only that Republican appointees vote differently from Democratic appointees but also that both Republican and Democratic judges are likely to go to extremes if unchecked by opposing views. Understanding the need for dissent illuminates countless social debates, including those over affirmative action in higher education, because diversity is indispensable to learning.Dissenters are often portrayed as selfish and disloyal, but Sunstein shows that those who reject pressures imposed by others perform valuable social functions, often at their own expense. This is true for dissenters in boardrooms, churches, unions, and academia. It is true for dissenters in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. And it is true during times of war and peace.

Author Notes

Cass R. Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard Law School and is the most cited law professor in the United States.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

University of Chicago law professor Sunstein draws on an impressive knowledge of economics, law and psychology, as well as a great deal of common sense, to make an elegant and compelling case that dissent is critical to a successful society. So convincing and lucid is his argument that this work is likely to influence the current debate on the role of dissenting from official or conventional thinking when society faces external threats. Sunstein does not elevate dissent based on abstract ideology, but rather on the most pragmatic of grounds-good choices are unlikely to be made by a society that stifles dissent. In an engaging analysis, Sunstein examines studies of three related phenomena-the human desire to conform to group norms, group decision-making processes and the tendency for groups to polarize-that lead to the suppression of dissent. This suppression in turn results in the loss of accurate information and competing arguments, which are the basis for rational and effective decision making. Making his arguments all the more powerful, and more acceptable across the political spectrum, is Sunstein's choice to avoid taking political or moral positions on the many charged social issues-such as affirmative action and conformism among judges and in other branches of government-he employs as examples of how decision making is aided when dissent is encouraged. Sunstein also offers wise suggestions on how to create systems that not only tolerate but encourage dissent. This is a noteworthy achievement and an invaluable contribution to the literature on the enduring question of dissent's role in a democratic society. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This well-timed book, expanded from the author's Oliver Wendell Holmes lectures at Harvard Law School, argues that healthy societies protect and even foster dissent. A prolific scholar, Sunstein (jurisprudence, Univ. of Chicago Law Sch.; Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech) discusses causes of conformity and conditions that allow for robust information sharing and independent assessment. He explores "social cascades," in which viewpoints gain ground based on the perceived expertise of early adopters or the desire of followers to protect their reputations. He explains how groups polarize, frequently adopting a more extreme corporate position than that of any participant. He also notes the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution, who ensured the viability of debate in America. Much of the book is fairly technical, as Sunstein probes behavioral experiments and the voting patterns of judicial panels, yet its brevity doesn't allow the depth of analysis that advanced readers may desire. Still, motivated students and lay readers will gain an understanding of the dynamics underlying conformity and dissent. Recommended for academic and large public libraries; also consider Patrick Colm Hogan's The Culture of Conformism and Christopher Hitchens's Letters to a Young Contrarian.-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Rousseau wrote in the first line of the Social Contract that man was born free yet everywhere is in chains. J.S. Mill in On Liberty, which is arguably one of the two or three best essays in political philosophy written in the English language, argues that society, not the state, is the great tyrant in that it stifles unpopular opinion and causes people to silently conform to popular belief or conventional wisdom, thus depriving all of the new idea or opinion that might change things to the benefit of all. These themes from 18th- and 19th-century political philosophers reappear in the present volume. In this well-written and wise little reprise of the great themes of Rousseau, Mill, and Tocqueville, Sunstein (Univ. of Chicago) plays sociologist, psychologist, and legal scholar to good effect. He writes of conformity, cascades, and group polarization as conceptual notions that illumine the fear, apathy, and indifference that beggar public discourse, leaving it for the advertisers, spinners, and multiple would-be Pericles of the modern age. While not a pathbreaking intellectual contribution to this old discussion, this is a worthwhile and wise summation that belongs in most libraries. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General reader and undergraduate and graduate collections. E. Lewis New College of Florida

Table of Contents

Introduction: Conformity and Dissentp. 1
1 Doing What Others Dop. 14
2 Obeying (and Disobeying) the Lawp. 39
3 Traveling in Herdsp. 54
4 What Will the Neighbors Think?p. 74
5 Free Speechp. 96
6 The Law of Group Polarizationp. 111
7 The Framers' Greatest Contributionp. 145
8 Are Judges Conformists Too?p. 166
9 Affirmative Action in Higher Educationp. 194
Conclusion: Why Dissent?p. 209
Notesp. 215
Indexp. 240