Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Social Norms of Intellectual Dissidents

My US history teacher from last year, an incredible individual who covers his classroom with lots and lots and lots of propaganda, is a stickler for people being on time and absences being atoned for. He has never belonged to a political party (that I know of), and teaches the history of the United States (making sure never to refer to it as America, as that would disenfranchise the people of the other nations on the American continents) with a mind towards the flaws, the gray areas, and the serious moral crises of the nations history. This is not a glorifying or degrading look at the nation, but one that endeavors to include the perspectives of the disenfranchised, and the merit of the sides that lost significant national conflicts. But, he is a stickler for rules, and stays in line with the policies of the administration.

A peer of mine is a Linux user who dislikes Ubuntu because it is too limiting relative to the system he has put in place. He is a socialist in his ideology, and is uncompromisingly a socialist. His ideal political party is the British Labour Party opposition under Margret Thatcher. This peer of mine has all the makings of a radical, and philosophically at least, he is. However, he spends hours looking for a program that doesn't violate a copyright, even after passing by many almost identical programs that do. He refuses to download things illegally, even things that might, in some world, be considered public goods, available for all to use. He is a radical socialist who refuses to break the law, even in ways that reinforce his socialistic philosophy.

Add to this pair myself, the creator of an underground newspaper and certainly not a person who tends to agree with arbitrary government and unjust laws. When my principal inquired as to my being responsible for said paper, I owned up, and agreed to act within the schools constraints (which, fortunately, seemed to be few, and common-sense). A minor example, I think that school assemblies are a terrible waste of time for foolish purposes. However, since ditching assemblies is not allowed, I follow along and try and discourage my peers from ditching them as well. I support decriminalization of marijuana, but I don't and cannot allow myself to smoke it (at all, ever) as while the law is unjust, the illegality of the act is something I feel should be officially overturned, rather than quietly disregarded.

Here in lies what I think is a key piece of "The Social Norms of Intellectual Dissidents". The people I have described, while admittedly a small and self-selected sample, have a common thread in their behavior. These people (myself included) believe in change brought about by intellectual consensus, and then legal action. Change must be official, or must be brought about within approved structures. Agitating for change is possible and valid, but isn't done by deliberately and repeatedly breaking the law.

This position comes from status as generally financially well off (at the very least content) and in a position where law-breaking and law-abiding behavior are always choices, and action is rarely forced. Action is instead constrained by societal norms and by by legal limits, until the norms and limits can be challenged and changed. This position is likely to be written off as intellectually bankrupt and morally invalid, and to a degree it is, as this is a position of luxury. This is a position that asks for and seeks legitimacy, rather than forcing legitimacy upon itself. It is the process of gradual change, and moves too slowly for the moniker "radical" to really seem appropriate.

This is the stand of the moderate intelligentsia, and it's saving grace is that their ideas are easier to legitimize than what happens at the fringe. It helps to defy stereotypes and bring people around, and it slowly changes attitudes, usually only slightly (at most a generation or two) ahead of the common perception.

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