Friday, February 26, 2021

The Novice Dissident Minority

One of my recent areas of scholarship is the case of the "dissident minority", a member of a minority group who dissents from some important consensus position of the larger group (I use Jewish anti-Zionists and Black conservatives as my keynote examples). In the cases I had in mind, the dissidents are, for lack of a better word, "used" to being dissenters. It's their longstanding position within their larger group. They may be upset by that, they may have found ways to accommodate that, but it's normal for them.

Recently, though, I've been thinking about people for whom this is not true -- that is, people who are not typically in a dissident posture vis-a-vis the larger group, but unexpectedly find themselves there on a particular issue. The debate over the current draft of the California Ethnic Studies curriculum gives a decent example. The consensus of the Jewish community in California is favorable towards the current draft (which was the product of a lot of hard work to undo severely problematic elements in the first draft) -- while there always is room for improvement, and no work written by committee will be perfect, in general the sense is that the third draft is a substantial "win" for the Jewish community. But as on any issue, of course, this is not a unanimous view. There are dissenters who oppose even the current draft and are mobilizing in opposition to it.

For whatever reason, though, on this issue in particular I've seen several actors who are used to thinking of themselves as very much representative, mainstream voices within the Jewish community who have taken up this dissident stance. Such persons occupy an interesting posture. I can imagine it is quite disorienting and even alienating to find oneself "out of sync" with a community that one typically feels relatively well-aligned with. Unfortunately, sometimes that means the persons in that position just fall into one of denial, and try to obscure the obvious fact that they are in a dissident posture. Although they would deride "not all Jews" type language when it comes from groups like JVP or ZOA, once they're in the minority position they may find that formulation increasingly attractive. Perhaps, they think, it is qualitatively different that there are dissenting views not just on the fringes but among (erstwhile) "mainstream" voices. Maybe that does mark out some sort of difference. I'd have to think more on that. But my instinct is that this is primarily a cover to avoid the anxious feeling of alienation where one is lined up against one's usual allies in one's own community.

For now, though, my bottom line in this case is the same as it is in the "Dissident Minorities" case generally. The dissident minorities are entitled to take their dissident position -- this is true regardless of whether they are old dissenting hands or complete novices at the practice. What they cannot do is offer themselves out as a substitute for engagement with the larger group. Opponents of the current draft of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum are entitled to make their case as best they can, with all the vigor they can muster. But what they cannot do is suggest they represent an alternative to engaging with the bulk of the California Jewish community which has adopted a more favorable stance.

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