Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy

Democratic Dissent

Democratic Dissent

LA 297H Democratic Dissent: From Protest to Policy

Spring 2018


Bradford Vivian, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation 

Course Description

One’s ability to express assentas well as dissentare two fundamental acts of democratic citizenship. Gestures of assent are often procedural and orderly (i.e., participating in the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem). But gestures of dissent often violate procedural norms in order to effect strategic disorder (as in cases of public sit-ins and marches or refusals to participate in pledges and oaths). Indeed, acts of dissent often imply a fundamental rejection of behavioral expectations regarding speech and civility. This course investigates historical and contemporary instances of dissent in an effort to understand dissent better as a form of political speech and action.  

The course asked the following questions: 1) How can we identify the differences between forms of dissent that contribute constructively to democracy and forms of dissent that devolve into violence, disruption, and disorder? 2) How does our ability to draw these distinctions inform democratic citizenship more generally? Potentially constructive forms of dissent might include efforts to assert minority voices or arguments typically suppressed from public discourse, attempts to peacefully expose or interrupt systemic abuses of power, and challenges to norms of civility that arbitrarily privilege elite interests. Major social movements throughout U.S. history have variously employed all of these tactics to powerful effect