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Is it safe to even write this in South Carolina?

In Praise of Dissent

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Diversity is good. We know that. Despite the screams of terrified conservatives, science tells us that diverse biological environments are healthier than biological monocultures. Genetic diversity makes a species healthier and more resistant to disease.

And wise people have long suspected that cultural and intellectual diversity make for a stronger and healthier society. Now it seems we have scientific evidence of this as well.

In a recent issue of Ode magazine, journalist Jeremy Mercer writes about research at the University of Virginia and elsewhere demonstrating the value of dissent to groups and society at large. He tells of a study of jurors trying to reach a verdict: "When there was friction and fighting among jurors, the jury engaged in a better decision-making process than when it arrived smoothly at a unanimous verdict. As a rule, the dissent resulted in more information heard at the trial being taken into consideration and a greater variety of perspectives voiced by jurors."

Mercer quoted psychologist Charlan Nemeth, the lead researcher at the University of Virginia: "Dissent makes the group as a whole smarter and leads to more divergent thinking, but the people who stand up with those sorts of opinions often get beaten up for it."

Said Carsten De Dreu, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, "Without dissent, society would come to a halt. We wouldn't change or create or innovate."

Change, creation, innovation — three things that have been sorely lacking in the South for the last 200 years. Something else that has been absent in the South — and especially in South Carolina — is dissent.

Southern society has begun to open up in the last half-century, but anyone who has lived a long life here can attest that this was a closed and mean society before the triumph of the civil rights movement and the rise of modern media. And, of course, the force that kept minds closed was racism and the fear of blacks.

In this state and throughout the Deep South, there was no discussion of the possible abolition of slavery. It was simply not tolerated. Abolitionists were driven out of the South. Abolitionist editors were murdered. And abolitionist books and pamphlets were ferreted out and burned. Silence was the only dissent tolerated on the issue of slavery. The tools of enforcement were ostracism, economic sanctions, and, ultimately, violence.

The fate of the Quakers in South Carolina provides an example of how the system worked. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were thousands of Quakers in the state, but their pacifism put them in conflict with the hardening ideology of the slave economy. Ultimately, they had to abandon their faith or abandon their homes. The vast majority left South Carolina and settled in the lower Midwest. By 1860, there was not an active Quaker congregation left in the state.

In that year, the Secession Convention met in Charleston and voted unanimously to leave the Union. No one dared speak against it, even in the face of impending disaster. Imagine how different the story might have been if a lively public debate on the future of slavery had been allowed in the South and in South Carolina. Of course, it didn't happen. In fact, it couldn't happen.

After the war, the same attitudes reigned as whites sought to control the former slaves and a changing culture. Ostracism and economic pressure were still used, but now violence was more overt as terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan used ropes, guns, and torches to enforce political and social homogeneity.

In October 1874, The New York Times editorialized against the treatment of Northern businessmen in the South: "A Northern man with Northern principles cannot settle in any town or city within the South without being subjected to a system of business persecution and social ostracism such as no spirited man can submit to ... (A)fter the close of the war, there was a strong disposition on the part of many enterprising men from the North to move to the South. If those who went had been kindly welcomed and decently treated, and if judicious means had been used to encourage others to follow, who can undertake to say how different the conditions in the South might have been today."

The Times added, "Instead of that, however, a system of inhospitality, excommunication, and ostracism was adopted, perfectly intolerable to self-respecting persons ... [W]e are forced always to the same conclusion, that the slow progress of reconstruction in the South, and the present prostration of the Southern states are owing mainly to the folly, the malignity, and the bad faith of the Southern people."

Progress is still slow in the South. And in South Carolina, white people march in lockstep with the firm and fearless determination of lemmings rushing toward the proverbial cliff. Dissent is still not fashionable here.

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