I sort of browsed my way through In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (Basic Books, 2018) by Charlan Nemeth, a UC Berkeley psychology prof. The focus of the book is on dissent versus consensus (or even groupthink) in business and government, but it is easy to extend the discussion to the role of dissent in the Church. Is dissent a good thing or a bad thing? How much of it should be tolerated? How does the presence or absence of dissenting opinions in group decisionmaking affect the quality of the resulting decisions? If you’re going to be a dissenter or troublemaker, how do you be a good one as opposed to just someone who like to stir up trouble or start arguments?
The most striking examples in the book were the decision of President Kennedy and his circle of close advisors to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles in April 1961, uniformly regarded as a disastrous decision, and the contrasting conduct of President Kennedy and his close advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis just 18 months later. In the first episode, dissent was discouraged. Those who thought the plan was a bad idea were discouraged from voicing their opinion in discussions, instead being encouraged to “get behind the President on this one.” During the second episode, having learned from his mistakes, the President encouraged alternate proposals and absented himself from some meetings to encourage the sharing of dissenting views. Remember that all his senior military advisors were advocating some kind of forceful military response to take out the missile launch facilities under construction in Cuba. The President chose an alternate course of action (a quarantine, coupled with serious communication and negotiation with the Soviets) and that’s why we’re still around today to do things like write blog posts and raise our families.
Here’s a quote about the perils of group decisionmaking.
All the ways in which groups promote consensus and discourage dissent become part of the problem. Our desire to foster agreement, put pressure on dissent, and self-censor doesn’t just come automatically from cohesion or even a directed leader, nor does it come from a simple preference for agreement or from individual motivations. A large part of this comes from normal group processes that prevail in everyday life just as they do in domestic foreign policy decisions. These common processes contribute to a group’s narrow focus, premature consensus, and exaggerated positions. it is common for groups to favor the initial preference and rush confidently to judgment. More often, it parallels convergent thinking, which … is often exacerbated in groups. (p. 145-46.)
One of these group processes discussed in the book is polarization, in which even moderate preferences or opinions shared by the group get exaggerated as discussion happens and a decision gets made. So if a group of early risers meet together to discuss when the camp should be awakened for breakfast, they play off each other’s preferences and before you know it the bugle sounds at 4:45 am. If a group of missionary-minded Mormons meet to set goals for the coming year, they end up with a goal of 24 convert baptisms next year for the ward, even though the ward has only baptized 6 people in the last 4 years. You probably have your own examples. My favorite is when the stake president was at the blackboard inviting those at an adult fireside to offer items for an “evil influences to avoid” list. First X-rated, then R-rated, and eventually even PG-rated films made the list. Porn of course, then the SI swimsuit edition, then the Sears catalog (this was a few years back).
Another interesting discussion in the book was about the devil’s advocate. The term actually comes from a Catholic practice of appointing someone to bring forth and present to the Committee on Sainthood (not the actual name) the most potent criticism of a candidate for sainthood that the evidence supports. Obviously, this helps decisionmakers consider contrary evidence and avoid early consensus or groupthink. The author goes further in advocating not just an appointed advocate (who may not actually object to the proposal) but an authentic critic who truly opposes the proposal. Reading this discussion, I naturally thought of the provision in the D&C for six of the high council to speak for the accused and six to speak for the charges brought by the stake president in a stake-level church court proceeding. This is a great idea — it would be even better if the accused were given advance notice of the actual charge and the evidence, if any, supporting it. Reports I have read suggest the procedure in the D&C is not generally followed, which is unfortunate.
The bottom line for LDS group decisionmaking is: (1) Dissent and sharing of opposing opinions improves group decisionmaking; (2) dissent and opposing opinions are strongly disfavored in most LDS group scenarios, whether local or general; so (3) LDS group decisionmaking could be improved by tolerating more discussion of opposing views.
Apart from these problematic group dynamics, there is generalized dissent voiced in public discussion: conferences, editorials, books and articles, social media, blog discussions, as well as public discussion on Sunday in church. In general, broad discussion ought to be seen as a good thing, as long as you’re making reasonable points rather than just an inveterate contrarian who can’t avoid stirring up trouble whenever the opportunity arises. If we want group decisions to reflect broader opinions and considerations, we have to get broader ideas into the minds of those group members, and public discussions and publications of various sorts are really the only avenue to achieve that broadening.