About half of the people on earth live in countries holding a national election in 2024. That’s why many call it “the year of elections,” Erica Chenoweth, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment and HKS academic dean for faculty engagement, said in introducing the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Thursday on the role of dissent and disagreement in a functional democracy. Given the challenges to democracy in the United States and worldwide—including polarization, political gridlock, and attacks on elections—many are wondering if democracy will survive intact. Many also question the ability of America’s academies, including Harvard, to both educate a new generation of leaders and provide a truly free space for academic research and debate. So, Chenoweth and five HKS faculty experts—Danielle Allen, Arthur Brooks, Cornell Brooks, Archon Fung, and Eliana La Ferrara—gathered to discuss the role of disagreement and dissent, and how individuals and society can get better at it. The discussion was part of “Harvard Dialogues,” a series of events designed to enhance the University’s ability to engage in respectful and robust debate. It was also part of an initiative HKS launched more than a year ago to strengthen the ability of students, staff, and faculty to have candid and constructive conversations across difference.  

Erica Chenoweth

“Given its mission, HKS can and must lead in addressing the deep divisions that exist in our societies today, and we must also strengthen our own norms, practices, and culture around candid and constructive conversation.”

Erica Chenoweth, HKS Academic Dean for Faculty Engagement and the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment

Archon Fung“The importance of discourse in a democracy is that it is a process of persuasion and deliberation, to find ways of compromise, to find areas of agreement, maybe even to change our minds and to economize … on the extent of disagreement.” 

“It can feel like it’s pretty easy—you can flip a switch and entertain a wide range of ideas.  My view is that it’s not at all easy right now and it’s gotten a whole hell of a lot harder. [Decades ago] the range of disagreement in American politics was much, much narrower, even if you’re talking about Reagan and Carter. And by the time you get to Bush and Clinton, compared to now, it’s like talking about the difference between vanilla and French vanilla ice cream. It’s easy to have civil discourse when you’re talking about should we have vanilla or French vanilla ice cream. It is a different story when you’re talking about whether it should be Bernie Sanders or Lauren Boebert. That is a different level of disagreement, and I don’t think people should feel bad about finding that difficult. I find it incredibly difficult.” 

Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS.

Danielle Allen“In a democracy we have this incredible opportunity to tap into the perspective of all of us and the knowledge that we can bring to the table from all of the various places we sit in relationship to a problem. That opportunity brings with it a certain kind of responsibility. We’ve got to actually have to hear what it is that people bring from that incredible manifold of perspectives because if we don’t, we’re shortchanging ourselves. For me—when I’m in a classroom, when I’m in a public space—I am always looking for the person who sits very differently from me. ... And I want to know what they know. Because that expands what I have access to for my own ability to think my way through the world.” 

“I think there is a real hunger to marry that protection of free expression and mutual respect. I think we all have that hunger and a lot of is a ‘how’ question and not a ‘whether’ question.” 

Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation. 

Arthur Brooks“Any collection of people that’s trying to avoid intellectual disagreement, the first thing they’re going to do is put up gates. They’re going to put up gates about what you can talk about. They’re going to put up gates against people that have alternative points of view. You’re going to get fewer and fewer instances in which people will feel comfortable saying what they think when it’s apart from the institutional norm. And we’re not going to let people into our community who would do so in the first place . Does that sound familiar? Of course it does, because that’s the crisis that we’re having in academia today. We’re narrowing the range of acceptable opinions, and we’re canceling those people who don’t hold those opinions.”  

Arthur Brooks, Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public and Nonprofit Leadership at HKS and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School 

Eliana LaFerrera“May I make a pitch for unhappiness? I think we should be unhappy because things are going down the drain in many dimensions. Being unhappy means that we’re finding dissatisfaction with something that’s unjust and we want to fix it. The issue is not not being unhappy, it’s about, ‘Where do I go from there?’ ... I do think the challenge nowadays is to make something constructive out of the ‘right’ unhappiness that should be there.” 

Eliana La Ferrara, Professor of Public Policy 

Cornell Brooks“If you genuinely care about the community you’re in, you choose to care about your opponents. You choose to be responsible. That imposes a certain level of discipline. You cannot afford to be triggered for too long. You’re accountable to other people. You have to show up, including for yourself and your own sense of integrity.” 

“I hear people talking about ‘This generation is soft. They’re snowflakes.’ No. People care deeply. It’s a matter of how you channel your sense of caring and accompanying your sense of caring and compassion with a deep sense of discipline. You care enough to protect yourself; you care enough to engage in self-care; you care enough to extend care to others.” 

Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at HKS


Photos by Martha Stewart

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