Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:
- Black Lives Matter;
- Occupy Wall Street;
- Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
- Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
- Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
- Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.
Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).
The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc. As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.
Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually. But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media. Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.
My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
a. Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
b. When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
- CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
a. How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
b. Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
- PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
- RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
- LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
a. What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:
- Black Lives Matter has hugely influenced the Democratic Party. Recommended.
- Mass arrests of anti-Citizens United protestors happened just last week at the U.S. capitol building.
- Bundy stand-offs: What were they all about?
- Other recent conservative uses of civil disobedience. Recommended.
- MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
- Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
- Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:
- The public usually sides against law-breakers, per the “Bigger Asshole” axiom. Recommended
- Targeted vs. untargeted civil disobedience.
- Crowds are disinhibiting and riots lead to backlashes.
Building grass roots political movements
Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy. Jim Z. will guide us!