Dissenting, dishonestly

Alastair Somerville
4 min readJan 10, 2021


Good Dissent badge on backing card

I ran workshops on Dissent in 2020 and one outcome was a better understanding of what Good Dissent might be like. Lately, I have summarised some of those ideas on a badge.

The two ideas are:

  • Sceptical generalist
  • Persistent specialist

What that means is that Good Dissent comes from breaking the apparent unanimity of the group. People assume everyone agrees what has been shared and it’s easy for groups to stop thinking critically or seeking out new information.

What the two phrases try to communicate are the need to keep asking questions (not to convince others that they are wrong but to ensure they remain critical of ideas being discussed) and the need to keep speaking truthfully from your knowledge and experiences.

Good Dissent is important and it can help all kinds of project and organisation. You can buy the badges on Etsy.

However, there is a flipside and that when people dissent dishonestly.

I was reminded of this by the terrible events in the US Capitol this week and the kinds of statements and apologies that have come out in the days afterwards.

There are a couple of criticisms of Dishonest Dissent that seem worth mentioning.

Dishonest Dissent

Diagram linking Sceptical Generalist to Bad Faith and Persistent Specialist to Actual Consequences

A couple of ideas seem relevant to such dishonesty.

  • Bad Faith
  • Actual Consequences

Bad Faith

If Good Dissent means being a Sceptical Generalist and asking questions then the dishonest version is when you keep asking not to learn more but to pollute the discussion.

Bad Faith debate is an interesting of trick. Under the banner of “Just asking questions”, it is possible to stop debate (because people become tired of answering questions that have been already answered or because the question is ridiculous). It is also possible to ruin debate by using questions to introduce (and keep re-introducing) completely discredited arguments (this is particularly true of race ‘science’ and eugenics arguments). Dissent is not meant to destroy debate.

Spotting Bad Faith is sometimes hard (especially in the rather random nature of online or social media chats). If the person has a clear record of bad faith argument then it’s easier to reject their involvement now. However, offering a space to open discussion may be needed if that historic evidence is unavailable. Then it is a matter of being clear about what represents bad faith in the current discussion and how it will not be tolerated.

There is the be clear rule with bad faith debates

There is no need to argue with people who debate in bad faith

Walk away, ban them, ghost them. Whatever works for you. They are trying to waste your energy and pollute your place.

Actual Consequences

That point about walking away or banning people links to the second point of Actual Consequences.

Good Dissent is about shifting ideas using knowledge and lived experiences.

It is not an act of violence and not should be used to make people feel violated.

This is the dishonesty of using dissent to insult and belittle other people. This is the power used by White Supremacists (and its heavy bias to Maleness). To speak out loudly and publicly in the most crude and offensive terms.

What happens too often is that this horrific language is treated as tho it is equally valid as a form of public debate or dissent. There are no actual consequences for dissenting dishonestly.

However, there need to be. People who speak of violence, racism and sexism need to know that they are not shifting the civic debate. They are destroying it.

Free speech is not without consequences.

Cancel Culture is spoken of negatively but it is a perfectly valid response to people who use historic power and privilege to maintain terrible biases in modern society.

Again there is no need to offer a space for people to speak offensively and no need to listen to language and opinion that the s insulting or violent.

As with Bad Faith, there may be a need to judge if a person expects to speak without actual consequences. However, that is what taking power over dissent can mean. Allowing a place in the conversation and then removing it.

Dissent, truthfully

When arguing for Good Dissent, it is important to recognise what Dishonest Dissent looks like and to prepare for it.

Set your rules, publicise them, be open to valid change and then enforce them.

Having the power and capacity to argue is a privileged gift that you hold. Don’t let other people abuse you and the gift you offer.

We need more Good Dissent but it does not need the pollution of Dishonest Dissent

Post Script

I am aware that there are major issues of privilege and power in action in any idea of Good Dissent. It was developed for use with corporate and political structures. It has some ideas of Civility and Permission that can be dangerously abused to prevent discussion or enable debate. There are versions of Dissent that demand violence to gain access to the places where debate happen. People and communities that are excluded and disregarded. None of this post is meant to disrespect their actions.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX