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Varieties of social and political opposition


To: Corinne M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Varieties of social and political opposition
Date: 1st December 2009 13:27

Dear Corinne,

Thank you for your email of 23 November, with the second draft of your first essay in your projected series of four essays entitled, 'A Philosophical Consideration of the Practices of Opposition' for the Associate Award, together with the first draft of your second essay.

The second essay, with the key example of the legal action against Jehovah's Witnesses in Quebec helps me to see a little better -- with the benefit of hindsight -- what exactly you are trying to do in analysing the concept of 'opposition' as a form of conflict or struggle between parties who are by definition 'unequal'.

However, I am still stuck on the question of basic principles: what I termed the 'real essence' of the concept of opposition, if it has one.

The 'honourable member of the Opposition' according to the Westminster model of democracy is not an example of opposition because within the House of Parliament, all members meet as equals, bound only by the rules which make debate possible (e.g. the list of banned insult words). Even though the party with the majority has almost a guarantee of victory, we can still describe what goes on as 'debate' rather than 'oppositional activity' in your sense.

Jehovah's Witnesses are annoying, but only people convinced that the 'defence of the faith' overrides considerations of liberty and free speech would consider that it was acceptable to use the weight of the law to suppress their activities. Point made. But still the question arises in exactly what sense this is 'opposition'.

Any relatively small religious group whose moral views run counter to accepted mores and customs of a given society rightfully regards its activity as oppositional, even if the activities of that group are not suppressed in any way, and the group are given full legal rights to put their view across. The inequality arises from the fact that the majority simply don't feel threatened or challenged but complacent.

On the other hand, take the case of Scientology, an organization which has become very powerful, with celebrity converts, a team of high powered lawyers to pursue litigation against anyone who publically criticizes their activities. Although the Church of Scientology seeks converts -- indeed, it's business model requires a continual influx of new recruits -- it does not promote 'opposition', on the contrary, they want to be accepted, seen as responsible citizens. An example is their 'anti-drug' program, which has grown despite concern about their motives and methods.

In this example, all the oppositional activity comes from those who want to restrict the activities of Scientologists, not from the Scientologists themselves.

It seems to me that there are different aspects which need to be clearly distinguished: one is the question of free speech and the possibility of criticizing accepted beliefs or mores, or the ruling political order. The other is difference as such, whether this involves 'abnormal' moral views or behaviours, or divergent sexual practices, or religious beliefs which go against the Judeo-Christian model, such as Wicker, Satanism etc.

We feel challenged, not only by those who set out to challenge us, but also by those who behave in a way which challenges our assumptions about what is a good way to behave.

Mill has this covered in his essay 'On Liberty'. So the question is, in what way we need to go beyond Mill in recognizing a specific phenomenon -- 'oppositional activity' -- which his Liberty Principle does not cover. That's what I am still looking for.

Another way of looking at it is this: What is 'playing fair' in this context? The authorities in Quebec were not playing fair in their battle against the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses, but they saw this as justified by a greater good, defence of the faith. Mill is all for fair play. But we know that there is a way of using the demand for fair play as a weapon against minorities, as in opposition to the setting up of faith schools where the various possibilities for belief are not presented by the teacher in an even-handed fashion as Mill would demand.

This leads to the paradox that opposition which is allowed, tolerated, or even promoted for the greater health of society is not opposition. It is just part of the political/ social process, a way in which the social/ political organism adapts in order to survive. What we are really looking for is the threat which cannot allowed to stand, which must be suppressed for the greater good.

The idea that there could be some kind of 'perfect' society which was above or beyond any intolerable threat is a mirage. Today, in the UK, the rise of the British National Party is seen by many as such a threat. The standard argument is that the BNP, if given power, would not allow the freedoms which they now exploit. There are limits to how far a tolerant society can tolerate intolerance.

I hope that these thoughts are helpful. I haven't said a lot about your two essays. There are some fruitful lines of thought here, but I don't yet see a line of argument, or anything that looks like a philosophical analysis of the notion which you are pursuing. But there is still plenty of time for that.

All the best,