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Civil disobedience is a form of sociopolitical protest consisting of the deliberate and intentional breaking of a law that is believed to be unjust. As John Rawls defines it in A Theory of Justice ( 1991), civil disobedience is “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government” (p. 320). It is marked by several distinctive and defining features. Firstly, to qualify as civil disobedience, such lawbreaking must be undertaken only after other legal and political avenues have been exhausted (or blocked repeatedly by civil authorities). Secondly, it must be done openly and in plain view of a wider public. Thirdly, the protesters’ reasons for breaking the law must be articulated and explained to that public. (Taken together, the second and third criteria are sometimes called the publicity requirement.) Fourthly, such disobedience must be nonviolent and cause no harm or injury to anyone other than the protesters (in the event that the authorities use physical force). And fifthly, the protesters must accept whatever punishment is meted out to them by civil authorities.
The term civil disobedience was coined by the editors of Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published works. Apparently believing that Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) had a title that sounded too militant, they renamed his now classic essay “Civil Disobedience.” In that brief essay, Thoreau articulates and defends the idea that passive resistance is a right and duty of democratic citizens. To act in ways that cause “friction” in the “machinery” of injustice is not itself unjust; quite the contrary, Thoreau contends. In Thoreau’s own case, resistance took the form of refusing to pay taxes that would help support the extension of slavery into Mexican territory by means of the Mexican War. This led to his arrest and brief imprisonment.
Thoreau’s token act of resistance had little effect, but it led him to write the brief essay that has since been read, reread, and translated into dozens of different languages. “Civil Disobedience” has inspired dissidents and dissenters as varied as Leo Tolstoy in czarist Russia, Mohandas K. Gandhi in British-ruled India, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in South Africa, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States as well as Wei Jingsheng and the student protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square. In short, Thoreau’s little acorn of an essay has sprouted a forest of oaks.
Civil disobedience has both moral and practical aspects. The fundamental moral principles upon which civil disobedience rests are that it is unjust to accept or to turn a blind eye to injustice, that it is categorically wrong for one human being to harm another, that it is wrong to return harm for harm, and that it is better to suffer injustice than to act unjustly. To critics who claim that breaking the law is ipso facto unjust, defenders of civil disobedience reply that to obey an egregiously unjust law constitutes a “crime of obedience” (Kelman and Hamilton 1989). Moreover laws are made by human beings who are fallible and are capable of acting (or legislating) in unjust ways. If the law in question cannot be changed legally, it may be challenged extralegally and in nonviolent ways. As Rawls notes, in a perfectly just democracy, civil disobedience would be out of place, but that is not the sort of society in which we actually live. Therefore an almost just or imperfectly just democratic society that aspires to be just must make provision for civil disobedience (Rawls 1999, p. 319). By contrast, in an unjust and undemocratic society, more covert and clandestine forms of resistance may be undertaken and justified, as was the case with the pre–Civil War Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves to freedom or the actions of those who during the Holocaust hid and protected Jews in defiance of Nazi law. Because such covert actions violate the publicity requirement, they do not count as acts of civil disobedience but fall instead under the heading of “conscientious refusal” (Rawls 1999, pp. 323–326).
Moving from the moral to the practical side of civil disobedience, its defenders maintain that to counter violence with violence only begets more violence, producing an ever-wider spiral of attack and counterattack. To intervene nonviolently might initially provoke more violence, but over the longer haul, it helps break the spiral of violent action and reaction. On an equally practical note, bystanders who witness the suffering of civilly disobedient protesters may be moved to sympathize and side with their cause (as happened, for example, when fire hoses and fierce dogs were turned on peaceful civil rights protesters in the American South).
The theory and practice of civil disobedience holds that an individual or group should counter violence with nonviolence, hatred with love, injustice with justice. This is a most demanding doctrine and typically requires training in the tactics and techniques of nonviolence. It also requires, as King (1963) and others have pointed out, that we look for and appeal to the best in our adversaries. Civil disobedience requires not only that resisters rely on their own consciences but also that they act in ways that appeal to the consciences of those they act against as well as to the consciences of bystanders or witnesses. Because of this, acts of civil disobedience may, at least potentially, perform important and perhaps indispensable mobilizing and corrective functions for flawed and sometimes dysfunctional democratic societies (Power 1972; Ball 1972, chap. 4; Rawls 1999, p. 336).
- Ball, Terence. 1972. Civil Disobedience and Civil Deviance. Beverly Hills, CA, and London: Sage Publications.
- Bedau, Hugo Adam. 1961. On Civil Disobedience. Journal of Philosophy 58 (21): 653–661.
- Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. 1969. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice. New York: Pegasus.
- Kelman, Herbert C., and V. Lee Hamilton. 1989. Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr.  1969. Letter from Birmingham City Jail. In Civil Disobedience, ed. Hugo Adam Bedau, 72–89. New York: Pegasus.
- Power, Paul F. 1972. Civil Disobedience as Functional Opposition. Journal of Politics 34 (1): 37–55.
- Rawls, John.  1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sibley, Mulford Q. 1970. The Obligation to Disobey: Conscience and the Law. New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs.
- Singer, Peter. 1973. Democracy and Disobedience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Thoreau, Henry David.  1996. Civil Disobedience. In Thoreau: Political Writings, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, 1–21. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government.”)
- Wei Jingsheng. 1998. The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books.
- Zashin, Elliot M. 1972. Civil Disobedience and Democracy. New York: Free Press.
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