Demonstrations against racism and police brutality have put the words dissent and protest at the center of our vocabulary this year.
Dictionary.com has seen a surge of interest in these words, which speak to their relevance to our current times. The death of George Floyd—a Black man who was killed after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes—has inspired worldwide protests that continue to this day.
But there’s another noteworthy use of dissent in the news as well. On September 18, 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away after serving 27 years as a Supreme Court justice. Some of Ginsburg’s most memorable opinions were her dissents.
But, even though dissent and protest are both terms that people can use to describe 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.
What does dissent mean in the Supreme Court?
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 came from the late Justice Ginsburg, whose penchant and prowess for writing mic-dropping dissenting opinions earned her the nickname the Notorious RBG, a reference to legendary rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
Ginsburg 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.
The 5–4 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby prompted a now-famous dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who condemned the court’s decision to use RFRA, a law originally intended… https://t.co/V96mqg73gb
— UniteWomenOrg® (@UniteWomenOrg) February 4, 2019
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 had a powerful—and official—platform for delivering her 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.”
See how familiar you are with the difference between two of the most common forms of protest: boycotts and strikes.
Attested both as a noun and verb in English in the 15th century, protest, 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.
On January 21, 2017, we organized the largest single-day protest in US history. We came together as women, femmes, and allies to speak out, and we set the stage for the resistance movement that continues today.
YOU did this. YOU made this happen.
— Women's March (@womensmarch) November 21, 2018
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 dissent, assent 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.
WATCH: #MeToo And Other Hashtags That Inspired A Movement
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.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
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.
Make enough of an uproar with your vociferous protests and sharp dissents and you’re on your way toward a reputation as notorious as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In that case, it would be best to know the difference between notorious and infamous.