On Civil Disobedience

On Civil Disobedience

            Civil Disobedience has been the weapon of choice against social injustices for a fairly brief time, but its effectiveness is undeniable.  One major example would be Martin Luther King Jr. and his campaign of non-violence that helped reshape our countries civil rights laws and create the country that now exists.   “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?  Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them.”[1]Thoreau strikes at the heart of the problem with this quote.  Unjust laws are not actively oppressed, they are “tolerated” by those opposing them in hopes that someone else will take up the mantle of responsibility and that once that happens, the disagreeing masses will swoop in with their cheers of support.  Everyone wants to fight injustice, but very few are willing to throw the first stone.  While some may consider the opposition of the government as distasteful or undesirable, it is an effective way to oppose institutions in which we no longer believe.  As such, it should be seen as an acceptable course of action to enact change.  There are other ways to enact social change, and I shall address a few of them before continuing on to argue that civil disobedience should be the default philosophy when trying to oppose unjust laws.

When faced with an unjust law, there are two ways that we can react.  The first is endorsement, either by inaction or by following along with it.  This is where many men find themselves.  Thoreau states “They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.”[2]  By not actively opposing unjust laws, we are giving them our blessing.  Another course of action would be active revolution.  By use of the word revolution I mean a course of civil disobedience that would include violence in any quantity and towards any entity.  While a case may be made for the acceptability for this type of action, that is not the goal of this essay.  Suffice to say, if violence were the go to form of social reform, we would live in a much more dangerous world, one that would operate on a “shoot first, aim second and ask questions never” type of mentality.  That leaves us with a non-violent type of opposition.  This leaves us with civil disobedience.  Thoreau provides us with an early example of how one might go about this.

In 1849, Henry Thoreau was jailed for not paying his taxes.  After one night in jail, a friend paid his debts and Thoreau was released.  Earlier in his essay, he describes some of his reasoning for refusing to pay.  He states “I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster.”[3]  Thoreau’s view of civil disobedience is more a personal idea, rather than one that sets out to enact change.  He sees simply unjust and refuses to follow it.  This stands in stark contrast to what Martin Luther King Jr. presents us with.

In order to consider civil disobedience as an acceptable course of action we must establish a general understanding of what civil disobedience is.  In order to do that, we must first consider what steps must be taken before arriving at a course of civil disobedience.  Martin Luther King Jr. set forth an excellent example and process for what civil disobedience should look like.  He set out four main steps for engaging in a campaign of civil disobedience.  Step 1: Collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive; Step 2: negotiation; Step 3: self-purification; and Step 4: direct action.[4]  Step 1 is an obvious starting point.  Those wishing to fight injustice must ensure that the injustice they are fighting is present where they reside.  Injustice cannot be fought if it isn’t present in a particular area.  Step 2 focuses on a more systematic and more easily accepted way for bringing about change.  Repeated failures at this stage must be faced before the group wishing to enact change can move to the third stage, purification.  At this stage, the participants are forced to “make peace” with the consequences they may face.  They must accept the fact that they are breaking the law and they must be ready to accept any consequences that may follow.  This stage forces the participants to accept the fact that their actions will have consequences.  This stage was essential for King in that it forced those who were unsure of their actions out of the equation and only strengthened those who remained.  The fourth stage is where the rubber meets the road.  Direct action is the final stage in King’s plan, active demonstrations in which the participants remain civil but directly oppose the government.  King’s goal at this stage is to “…create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”[5]  One addition I may put forth is a “call-to-arms” through social media.  Technology has made things possible that King would not have been able to consider, mainly the ease of which we can share and spread our ideas with any number of individuals throughout the world.  I believe a rallying cry through these avenues would further intensify the situation and may make the powers that be respond more quickly.

Now that we have a framework for arriving at civil disobedience, we must contemplate what it is exactly.  Hare and Madden give an excellent summary of what civil disobedience should consist of.

The concept of civil disobedience presupposes a system of laws enforced by governmental authorities from which an individual cannot dissociate himself except by change of citizenship. The individual may ultimately accept this governmental framework or he may accept it only conditionally as a temporary fact of life or a step in the direction of the framework he ultimately accepts. Civil disobedience consists in publicly announced defiance of specific laws, policies, or commands (or absence thereof) which an individual or group believes to be unjust and/or unconstitutional. The defiance may take the form of disobeying a just law if the protesting individual is not in a position to disobey the unjust law or laws, or if it is an absence of laws, policies, or commands that is being protested. In either case, the breaking of a specific just law must not itself be morally repugnant to the protester. The defiance involved in civil disobedience may take the form of doing what is prohibited or in failing to do what is required. The defiance must be a premeditated act, understood to be illegal by the perpetrator, and understood to carry prescribed penalties. Willingness to accept such penalties is part of that sort of civil disobedience which hopes to stir the conscience of the public and the government, while eagerness to escape punishment is compatible with that sort of civil disobedience which aims to pressure the public and the government. The defiance may be either non-violent or violent. If violent, the violence must be planned, minimized, and controlled for maximum effectiveness in focusing the public and governmental conscience on specific injustices and/or in pressuring the government and public to change specific laws, policies, or commands (or absence thereof).[6]

While this provides us with a good starting point, it is not the exact type of civil disobedience that I would say is worthy of respect as an avenue of change.  First I would argue that civil disobedience does not include violent types of revolution, but that violent protests exist in another form of social reform.  Second, I do not believe civil disobedience should be utilized in attempts to bring about new laws that would be just, it should only be used to bring about the end of unjust laws already in place.  I do agree that in order to engage in civil disobedience, the course of action must be premeditated and the consequences understood and accepted by those acting in accordance with civil disobedience.  Taking these things into consideration I would propose that civil disobedience is a premeditated course of action, in which all participants are aware of the consequences (both legal and otherwise) of their actions, that seeks to bring about the removal of a law that appears to be unjust.  This course of action is defined as the peaceful refusal to follow the law in question, or if that not be possible, a refusal to follow an enabling law that may be broken.

In April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and those who followed him went to Birmingham Alabama.  There, they demonstrated against racial segregation and were jailed for it.  Examples exist throughout history of peaceful demonstrators being unlawfully disbanded, jailed, or strong armed out of their demonstrations by military and police forces.  While their demonstrations were initially peaceful ones, they would be treated as hostile as they were opposing the government.  It is from this failure to respect civil disobedience as a legitimate course of action that protests often turn violent.  Demonstrations that would have otherwise remained peaceful are treated as hostile, and from this treatment are actually forced into hostility.  While King would argue that those not willing to peacefully accept the consequences of their actions have no business engaging in civil disobedience, I believe that it is from this unjust treatment that individuals can no longer be forced to accept these consequences because they are being doubly persecuted.  Once for breaking the initial law in question and again for being involved in a protest that is being perceived as hostile.  Protests are typically met with riot shields and batons before handcuffs and megaphones.  Both of these responses are incorrect.  They should be met with diplomacy and open ears.  Now I realize how absurd negotiating with every little protest may seem, but King’s approach formulates a framework that makes civil disobedience not only deliberate, but predictable.

By creating a four step process towards civil disobedience, King allows acts of civil disobedience to be slow moving, deliberate, and predictable.  By forcing multiple attempts at negotiation the government behind the law/laws in question would have been made well aware of the problems on the horizon.  If every campaign of civil disobedience followed such a framework, by refusing negotiations they would be empowering the potential protestors and enabling them to move forward.  By his cleansing stage, King allows time for those being opposed to formulate a response, and not just a militaristic or police based response, but one that would remain as civil as the protestors wish to remain.  It is through this type of response that the educated and the lay man alike could start to respect the need for civil disobedience instead of seeing it as a bunch of villagers with pitch forks or a bunch of hippies refusing to follow the rules.

Some objections arise from this endorsement of civil disobedience, mainly that governments have set in place measures that enable civil reform without drastic measures.  Thoreau directly addresses this issue by stating “As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways.  They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.”[7]  Another essay, written by David Lefkowitz, entitled On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience, also addresses this issue: “For instance, agents who commit acts of civil disobedience may rightly believe that the legal means for contesting inadequate or unjust laws or policies will take too long, say, because many citizens are unaware of, or presently unable to appreciate, certain relevant information.”[8]  From these two examples it becomes apparent that while avenues of change are in place, the types of changes that civil disobedience call for require much swifter action than the options set in place by the government can provide, they are much too slow and much too cumbersome for an unjust law that might call for civil disobedience.

While civil disobedience may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some, it is a fundamental avenue for change that should be respected.  It has served humanity well in the past, enacting change of unjust laws while providing a safer alternative to social revolutions and riots.  While most governments have laws that allow reform in place, in some instances these measures are simply too slow.  The negative stigma of civil disobedience must be shed, and it must be seen as a viable option for social and civil reform.


[1]Henry David Thoreau, 1849 “Civil Disobedience”

[2] Thoreau “Civil Disobedience”

[3] Thoreau “Civil Disobedience”

[4] Cahn, Steven M., and Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” Classics of political and moral philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 1212-1221. Print.

[5] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” 1214

[6] Madden, Edward H. and Peter H. Hare. “Civil Disobedience in Health

Services,” Encyclopedia of Bioethics, vol. . Ed. Warren T. Reich (New York: Free

Press, 978), 9–62.

[7] Thoreau “Civil Disobedience”

[8] Lefkowitz, David. 2007. “On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience.” Ethics: An International Journal Of Social, Political, And Legal Philosophy 117, no. 2: 202-233. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2012).

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