Dissent vs. Protest: Why Choosing The Right Word Matters

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It seems political conflict in the 2010s has put the words dissent and protest at the center of our vocabulary. More and more, people are speaking out against injustices, voicing opposition to things they disagree with, and organizing to effect change.

But, even though dissent and protest are both terms that people can use to describe such forms of disagreement and discontent, they don’t mean the same thing.

What is dissent?



To dissent

is “to differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority.” Recorded in English in the 15th century, the word derives from the Latin dissentire, literally “to feel or think (sentire) differently (dis-).” Dissent is also a noun form, found by the 16th century. 

But, we typically don’t use the word
dissent
for any run-of-the-mill disagreement. If your friend wants sushi for dinner but you hate it, you might be dissenting, but it’d be pretty extra to call it such. Instead,
dissent
usually refers to a more formal difference of opinion, as with a political majority or government policy.

Dissent and SCOTUS

We can find 
dissent
in action on the US Supreme Court. The court justices vote to reach a decision on the cases they hear, but every justice on the court has the right to write and publish a dissent, if they so wish, when they strongly disagree with a majority ruling.

In recent years, some of most prominent dissents have come from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose penchant and prowess for writing mic-dropping dissenting opinions have earned her the nickname the Notorious RBG, a reference to legendary rapper Notorious B.I.G.

Ginsburg has issued noteworthy dissents against a 2013 ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act and against a 2014 ruling allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control on religious grounds, to name a few.

In 2018, Ginsburg won praise when she joined Justice Sonia Sotomayor in issuing a withering dissent against Donald Trump’s 2018 travel ban on people entering the US from majority-Muslim countries. “The United States of America is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty,” they wrote. “Our Founders honored that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. The Court’s decision today fails to safeguard that fundamental principle.”

Ginsburg and Sotomayor have a powerful—and officialplatform for delivering their dissents, to be sure, but for those of us who aren’t Supreme Court justices, dissent comes in many other forms. Speaking truth to power on social media, acts of civil disobedience, and phoning congressional representatives to voice opposition to legislation are all examples of voicing dissent.

Dissent can happen outside of governmental politics too. You might dissent, for example, to a new policy enacted by an employer or a local school board. You might be the dissenting voice to an opinion held by the rest of the people in a class, group, or team you’re a part of.

Is dissent the same as protest?



Protest

is closely related to dissent but they are different. A 
protest
is “an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid.”

Attested both as a noun and verb in English in the 15th century, p
rotest
, via French, comes from the Latin protestari, literally “to testify (testari) before (pro-).” The root is testis, “a witness”and yes, the word testicle is related.

While
dissent
also means that you stand in opposition to something,
protesting 
takes even more action. For example, you may dissent to an unfair new policy at work by writing a letter to your employer about your objections, and, after they refuse to make allowances, you might decide to resign in protest.

Many of the largest protests in US history have been in the form of marches, like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic I Have A Dream speech. The 2017 Woman’s March on Washington (and around the US and whole world) after the election of Donald Trump has been considered the largest single-day protest in US history. 

Protests happen at the local level as well, such as the Los Angeles teachers strike in January 2019. In all of these instances, dissenting parties organized protests in the forms of demonstrations and rallies to reject existing policies and practices. 

What is the opposite of dissent?

It might seem like the opposite of
dissent
is 
consent
, but that’s not technically the case. It’s 

assent

, or “to agree or concur, give in, yield, or concede.” To 

consent

to something, you “permit or approve of what is happening.” Their overall sense, though, overlaps.

So do their origins. Like dissentassent and consent are rooted in the verb sentire, “to feel or think.” (This is related to many other English words, like sense and sentence.) To sentire, Latin added the prefix dis- to make dissent
con-
(“with, together”) for consent, and a form of ad- (“to, towards”) for assent.

Both assent and consent are founded on an underlying idea of agreement, and their differences are subtle but significant. Assent often implies voicing formal agreement, just like dissent voices formal disagreement. Consent, meanwhile, tends to suggest “letting something happen.”

Consent frequently comes up in the realm of sexual relations, as we’ve especially learned from the Me Too Movement taking off in October 2017. Powerful people, such as Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., have reportedly taken the absence of dissent (not saying “no”) as consent (saying “yes”) to sexual activity. However, 
consent
requires full and freely given agreement to sexual activity from all parties—and can be withdrawn at any time.

The Me Too Movement has not only taught us about consent, but also about dissent and protest, as we’ve witnessed thousands of women refuse to remain silent about sexual assault and show up to protest the industries and businesses that have enabled abusers. 

Dissenting and protesting often take years to achieve their goals. There’s no guarantee that just because a group speaks out or organizes a march a change will immediately occur.

And, while they may take time, dissenting and protesting are essential ways in our democracy for us to speak truth to—and push back against— power.

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