Sooner or later, everyone deserves to have a John Dickinson moment. Mine came on Tuesday.
Dickinson, you will surely recall, was a member of the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania who, on July 1, 1776, spoke passionately against declaring independence from the British Empire, knowing full well that his fellow delegates were about to vote for precisely that, and that his dissent would likely “give the finishing blow to my once too great and […] now too diminished popularity.”
It was a matter of principle. Dickinson saw revolutionary war as a calamitous move for the American colonies, and would not have his convictions drowned out by the noisy majority in Philadelphia.
For their part, the rabble rousers in favor of separation did nothing to prevent Dickinson from making his views heard, recognizing him as a man of uncommon integrity who had long earned the right to his own opinion, which the nascent American republic would seek to establish as a primary national value.
However, Dickinson’s steadfast resistance to independence presented a practical problem: The colonies could not adopt Thomas Jefferson’s declaration unless all 13 voted in the affirmative, satisfying Benjamin Franklin’s cheeky equation, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The convention could not vote “aye” without Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania could not vote “aye” without Dickinson.
The compromise solution (spoiler alert!) was for Dickinson to excuse himself from the hall when the final roll was taken. That way, Congress could break from Great Britain and Dickinson could maintain his personal opposition without feeling that he had been bullied into voting for something in which he did not truly believe. It was, you might say, a win-win.
From our First Amendment, we the American people assert the right to hold one’s own opinion, no matter how unpopular it might be. Indeed, the more unpopular a given view is, the more essential it becomes to make sure it gets aired.
A definite lesson of history, the above notwithstanding, is that this is easier said than done. Most Americans have a natural desire for consensus in all matters, and so the odd man out can easily be ignored, overlooked or shouted down.
However, perhaps even more common—and more alarming—than this problem of discounting a lone dissenting view is the problem that, in so many cases, no one seems to have a dissenting view in the first place, or is hesitant to express it in public, either from fear of being ridiculed or simply from fear of being wrong.
We should do all we can to prevent this state of affairs from becoming universal, and the best means of doing so is for those who really do disagree with the majority not to hesitate in saying so. The experience of being the sole outlier—the John Dickinson in the Congress—can be far more enjoyable that one might think, and should never be passed up.
I served on a jury in the past week, on a case in which a man sued his former employer for wrongful termination. As our deliberations drew to a close, it became clear that every juror agreed on a verdict except for one, and the one happened to be me. Everyone else was prepared to rule in favor of the plaintiff; I leaned toward the defense.
Certainly, the difference between me and them was not a titanic clash of principles on the order of the one in Independence Hall in 1776. We jurors simply had reached different conclusions about the meaning of a set of facts and testimony presented at trial. My colleagues felt the plaintiff had sufficiently proved his case; I still had my doubts. It was an honest disagreement.
The beauty of our predicament was that, thanks to Massachusetts state law, it was not a predicament at all. Because we were adjudicating a civil case, rather than a criminal one, only five in six jurors were required to agree on a final verdict. With 14 of us in all (the alternates were allowed to join the deliberations), we could have up to two dissenters without hitting a legal wall.
Accordingly, I, like Dickinson, was permitted to have my cake and eat it, too. The will of the supermajority won the day without dishonoring the (perhaps wrongheaded) view of the minority. A win-win.
Admittedly, one does not always get that lucky. In a criminal trial, for instance, our friendly jury room disagreement would have taken on the urgency and tension of 12 Angry Men and continued until we achieved unanimity.
But this hardly argues against taking contrary positions seriously. As any good debater knows, there is no finer way to certify that your view is right than to have it viciously challenged at every turn. Democracy cannot operate in any other way.