Having grown up during the Civil Rights movement; read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as well as Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo in college; participated in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era; and studied Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I thought I knew something about civil disobedience.
In recent years, however, I’ve witnessed a couple of protests that made me question what I understood about civil disobedience. Most recently, I was led to conduct a little research and reread some of those classic works.
It is debated whether Socrates actually committed civil disobedience, that is, deliberately broke the law. However, in the Apology he states that even if the charges against him were dropped he would continue to practice his philosophical teaching, acting as a kind of “gadfly” to the state. When offered the opportunity to reduce his sentence from death to a fine, he suggests such a paltry amount that the judges dismiss it and pronounce the death sentence. When, in the Crito, he is offered a chance to escape prison, he rejects the offer and argues on behalf of respect for the laws and the courts. Perhaps it is because he takes the position of accepting the ruling of the state, even though he believes he is innocent, that we associate him with civil disobedience.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “civil disobedience” (15th edition), “…by submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful change.”
Perhaps, by accepting his punishment Socrates hopes to set that moral example that will expose the state’s unjust use of its power. I can’t help but be reminded of A Lesson Before Dying (see July, 2014, blog post), in which Jefferson, who is unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, but who emerges as “the bravest man in the room” at his own execution. By submitting to his unjust punishment with courage and dignity, Jefferson shames his white oppressors and confronts them with their own moral weakness.
Both Henry David Thoreau (see Oct.-Nov., 2010, blog posts) and Martin Luther King, Jr., make a distinction between a just law and an unjust law, appealing to a higher moral authority, individual conscience for Thoreau and God’s law for King. They argue for the duty to disobey an unjust law. In both cases, they advocated for going to jail rather than obeying an unjust law. And in both cases they did go to jail, hoping to set a moral example for others.
When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail, the story goes, he asked, “Henry, what are you doing in here?” And Thoreau retorted, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?” The implication being that jail was the more moral place to be.
And nowhere in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” does King argue that he should not have been jailed. He argues for the use of non-violent direct action to challenge unjust laws by disobeying them. By submitting to his punishment, he held the higher moral ground in the face of those who upheld the unjust laws.
Here we must make a distinction between direct and indirect civil disobedience. In the former, as in the case of civil rights activists who deliberately broke the Jim Crow laws of segregation, disobeying those laws directly challenges their justice. In the latter, as in the case of protesters who block traffic or break trespassing laws in order to march or demonstrate, disobeying those ancillary laws provides an opportunity to protest some injustice that is much greater than their own flouting of less important laws.
King and his followers used both methods, and suffered, not only jail, but also brutal attacks from law enforcement. As shown in the contemporary film Selma, by using non-violence and submitting to the consequences of their actions, they held the higher moral ground and exposed their white oppressors’ total lack of moral credibility and standing.
King was inspired, not only by Thoreau, but also by Mahatma Ghandi, who developed the theory of “satyagraha,” literally meaning “devotion to truth,” but representing a method of political protest which invites suffering rather than inflicting it, thereby exposing the brutality and injustice of the dominant power.
As Gandhi himself stated, “I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha)
Other examples could be cited: the American suffragettes who were jailed and force fed for protesting the denial of women’s right to vote (see the film Iron Jawed Angels), Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid in South Africa (See the recent film Mandela), are just two examples. (See more examples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Examples_of_civil_disobedience)
Though I’ve participated in protests, I’ve never had the moral courage to risk arrest or police brutality. I have great admiration for those who have demonstrated such courage and passion for their cause.
But on two occasions in recent years, I’ve witnessed cases of so-called civil disobedience that have left me scratching my head. In both cases, the protesters demanded that they not be arrested or charged. In both cases, the protestors were warned that their actions were illegal and that they would be subject to arrest. In both cases they knowingly broke the law.
Both cases were examples of indirect civil disobedience, though, I have to say, I’m not entirely clear if the protesters were arguing that the laws they broke (trespassing and protesting on private property) were unjust. And, if that’s the case, I’m not clear if they would argue the laws were unjust in general or just in the case of their protest. Perhaps they were demanding that law enforcement and the court system recognize the justice of their cause and give them a pass.
This would seem to be a new strategy in the use of civil disobedience, a strategy of moral persuasion that calls for no serious sacrifice on the part of the protesters. But it would seem to ask the state to apply the law selectively, that is, if the state agrees with your cause, then you will not be prosecuted, but if it doesn’t agree with your cause, you will be prosecuted? Would those using this strategy approve if the state failed to prosecute others who were protesting on behalf of a cause they didn’t agree with? Like I said, I’m scratching my head.
In any case, traditionally civil disobedients have derived their moral credibility from their willingness to put the law to the test, risk arrest or worse, suffer the consequences, and thereby challenge the justice of the state from a high moral ground. Which leads me to ask from where the protesters who demand that they not be charged derive their moral credibility. Is it enough to assert the justice of their cause? Would they consider it enough if a group they disagreed with simply asserted the justice of their cause?
Let’s say a group of anti-abortion protesters deliberately violates the buffer zone outside an abortion clinic and invades the personal space of a client. Would it be enough for them to assert the justice of their cause in claiming they should not be arrested? If so, would those same protesters support the pro-choice protesters who make the same claim while deliberately trespassing or blocking traffic?
Perhaps the idea of suffering on behalf of your cause is out of date. Perhaps in our modern “first world,” it is too much to expect civil disobedients to accept the legal consequences of their actions. Perhaps there is a new, more modern theory of civil disobedience that now supersedes those of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. How do civil disobedients who demand that they not be charged justify their demand? How do they establish their moral standing?
I’m genuinely confused here, folks. Help me out.