The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent

A few weeks ago I was in New York City, conducting some research on cycling infrastructures (more on that coming soon). I also took the opportunity to spend an afternoon in Brooklyn with Barry Commoner, now 95. A few months ago I had been invited down to New York for a dinner celebrating his birthday, and was sorry that I was not able to attend. Finding time to see him was a real treat (and a good part of this research trip was motivated by the opportunity to see him), and I found him in exceptionally good spirits. Our conversation ranged across a number of topics, including a broad discussion surrounding the political significance of social dissent.

During which, I was reminded of a paper I found in Commoner’s papers at the Library of Congress. In June 1967, Commoner gave a paper titled “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent” as the commencement address at the San Francisco Medical Center. The paper had a profound effect on how I approached Commoner’s work, and it takes a key place in my analysis in my book, featuring prominently as an organizing tool in the introduction.

I should say, too, that Commoner’s talk has played an important role in my own professional development, navigating the academy and drawing important—and palpable—links between the “real world” and an increasingly removed ivory tower. I’m less interested here in talking about the university system or the pros and cons of tenure, although the notion of academic freedom is a critical component of Commoner’s talk; in my mind the more important topics stem not from the institutional framework, but from the scholar’s own moral engagement and larger questions of the scholar’s social responsibility. In his introduction, Commoner asked his audience:

How shall the moral choice which governs the power generated by our knowledge be made? How shall the choice reflect our duty to society, to the ethics of our profession, to our own conscience? Can one of these duties require dissent from the claim of another?

Even in this vague and generic way of asking—stripped of Commoner’s own context—this opens a provocative avenue of inquiry. And it very explicitly paints Commoner, for the purposes of this talk, not as a prominent biologist or emerging public champion of the new ecology movement, but rather as a public intellectual (another potential talking point here involves the public intellectual’s changing place in contemporary society).

But what was Commoner’s social duty as a scholar? In his commencement address, he posited:

The scholar’s duty is toward the development of socially significant truth, which requires freedom to test the meaning of all relevant observations and views in open discussion, and openly to express a concern with the goals of our society. The scholar has an obligation—which he owes to the society that supports him—toward such open discourse. And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent. In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholar’s duty to society.

My first reaction to this is a defensive posture as some reader snorts at the prospect of historians having anything “socially significant” to offer (topic for another day). My second is a vaguely disciplinary aversion to developing truths. But I think Commoner’s point is both sound and important. And it holds up well and should be shared more explicitly through the 21st-century academy. But situate Commoner’s comments in the context of his own time. In 1967, Commoner was living with the aftermath of 1950s Cold War witch hunts and increasing secrecy in scientific endeavors. By 1967, Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems had been established, and he had become a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam.

But the scholar’s obligation to dissent is also a praxis that Commoner modeled throughout his career. Remember that Linus Pauling’s famous 1957 petition to the United Nations against nuclear weapons was drafted and printed in Commoner’s Washington University office. Pauling, who became twice a Nobel Laureate (Chemistry in 1954 & Peace in 1963), had already the unfortunate victim of the House Committee on Un-American Activities; Commoner escaped that fate, though by 1957 overt attacks were ebbing. Here were scholars engaging their colleagues, the public, and society on matters of grave moral and political importance.

Because the postwar era was marked by a prevailing consensus and conformity, the need for dissenting opinions had rarely been greater. But, historically, dissent is never easy. Because dissent upsets the delicate conformity upon which social stability is founded, conformists are frequently considered the defenders of social interest and dissenters are regarded as selfish individualists. But in Why Societies Need Dissent, Cass Sunstein suggests that the opposite is perhaps more accurate. “Much of the time,” he claims, “dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves.”

So, beyond jumping up and down and possessing a bully pulpit, what exactly do scholars have to offer? Broadly speaking, Commoner argued that scholars—experts—had been trained (by society) to serve society. Taken more seriously, Commoner told his commencement audience that public intellectuals embodied “a self-appointed moral conscience of their society.” Sandra Steingraber concurs: “From the right to know and the duty to inquire,” she writes in Living Downstream, “flows the obligation to act.” The combination of her duty to inquire and subsequent obligation to act echo Commoner’s notion of the scientist’s social responsibility. The scholar’s role, in Commoner’s reading, was to translate and distribute widely to a lay audience the technical information to which they had access or special knowledge. They should be conscientious objectors as and where their knowledge and moral indicated they should. To circle back to a feature of this line of reasoning, Sunstein acknowledges that conformity typically makes sense, but “one reason we conform is that we often lack much information of our own.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Commoner was instrumental in building a scientific information movement, a movement of activist scientists who sought to provide accessible information to a public increasingly concerned about the various post-World War II assaults on human health and the physical environment.

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